I’ll never forget the incident that inspired the first real conversation about race between me and my mom. I was five. She’d just picked me up from ballet class where one of the other five-year-old ballerinas pointed and laughed at me because my skin is “the color of poop.”
To be honest I don’t remember what my mom said. I do remember she was very upset, and I was very confused. A child, I was bothered mostly that the girl hadn’t realized my skin is also the color of chocolate — I figured that was a brown thing she did like.
From that day on I knew my dark skin made me different, and for years I wasn’t sure whether that difference was good or bad.
Two decades later, the Black Lives Matter movement is inspiring people like me — Black people who grew up in predominately white areas — to share their own stories of discrimination. Unfortunately, we all have them. Most of these stories are going on “Black At…” or “Dear…” Instagram accounts, primarily focused on predominately white high schools and colleges. There are at least seven accounts like these for schools in the Charlotte area.
Marvin Ridge High School, my alma mater, has one of these accounts, too (@blackatmarvin). I spoke with the two students who started the account. We’re not using their names to protect their privacy.
Both said they started the Instagram page because they wanted current and former students from Marvin Ridge to heal from damaging experiences of racism. Here’s one of those experiences shared on the Black at Marvin page:
“In the 7th grade an 8th grade student got on the bus and screamed, ‘hey n*****, your grandad picked the cotton in my shirt.'”
The stories on the Black at Marvin account aren’t much different from other local accounts. Incidents of white students using racial slurs, monkey noises, and confederate flags, are unfortunately consistent throughout.
“I think the thing that surprised us the most was it seemed to have gotten worse,” one of the account’s founders told me. “The school has allowed a certain amount of racism in the past that (the 2016 election) has just allowed it to just grow.”
It seems that racism isn’t just growing at Marvin Ridge.
Here’s an account from Black at Charlotte Christian (@blackatcharlottechristian): “Our sophomore history teacher teaching us that slavery was ‘about money’ or ‘state’s rights’ and had nothing to do with race.”
And another from Black at Weddington (@blackatweddington): “…The next week that same kid and another teammate called me a n***** and tried to see if we would get in a fight. I told the counselor and they said they were just joking around.”
Black students at mostly white schools usually have parents who, like all parents, are trying to give their kids the very best. That’s especially true of the parents who send their Black children to private schools, or who move to certain areas because of the positive public school reviews.
“I think Black parents are going to really have to contemplate the exchange of offering seemingly better educational opportunity for the cost of what is an inherently hostile racial environment,” said North Carolina Board of Education member James Ford said. “And they have to really evaluate: do those things really cancel each other out?”
These “Black At” accounts have been met with shock and horror. I’ve seen a lot of I had no idea-ing from white folks.
Those surprised reactions, in turn, always surprise me. In a country built off the backs of enslaved people, that benefits from the disenfranchisement of their descendants, and actively builds systems that keep them from reaching widespread economic success, what do we expect?
Racism is taught. And parents who teach it produce children who make already challenging adolescent years even more so for their Black and brown peers.
As a Black girl at Marvin Ridge, which was 85 percent white when I started 9th grade, I certainly heard my share of backhanded compliments, including but not limited to “you’re so articulate” and “you’re pretty for a Black girl.”
Some of these comments were made in front of teachers and faculty members; sometimes they came from teachers and faculty members. My experience with Marvin Ridge staff members was largely positive, though. I was a “good kid” and never really got in trouble or had reason to cross paths with administrators.
But I do wonder, how many times did a faculty member fail to check one of my classmates for a racist comment? How many times did a faculty member fail to check one of their own peers?
“They need to hold each other accountable,” said one of the Black at Marvin founders. “Students can be afraid to stand up to grown-ups but grown-ups should not be afraid to stand up to grown-ups.”
Growing up in a mostly white suburb, I was seen as a token. Many of my white teachers (almost all of them were white), my white peers, and their white parents saw me as one of a few good seeds in a sea of bad apples.
I think it’s because many predominately white schools are in affluent neighborhoods, or they’re private and require expensive tuition. The thinking seems to be: Because our Black families “made it” and we lived in the nice zip codes, issues of race didn’t impede our success. In fact, some folks seem to think the issues of race don’t have anything to do with us. And further, if we can make it, there’s no excuse for Black families who live in government housing or use food stamps — they’re just lazy.
I remember explaining UNC’s minority mentorship program to one of my white high school friends. It paired freshmen with upperclassmen students of color with the intention of helping them navigate the intimidating and mostly white campus. Her response was, “You don’t need a program like that.” But I did.
I’ll never forget the anxiety I had when I announced my acceptance to UNC-Chapel Hill. I feared the conversations about how I just got in to fill a quota — never mind my 4.5 G.P.A., above average SAT score, and four years as a varsity athlete. Those conversations still happened, though, and to be honest they hurt my feelings, and had a lasting effect on my confidence.
My alma mater, like other Southern universities, was literally built by enslaved people. My sophomore year I looked through old yearbooks for a project and found the KKK once had an organized club recognized by the university, not to mention the Old South parties that glorified the terrorist group as recently as 1979.
Walking past a huge statue of a confederate soldier every day on the way to class made me feel small. Both literally and figuratively. Silent Sam, a life-sized bronze statue that sat on an even larger stone block, represented a world in which I was not welcome. Its presence disrespected me and every one of my Black peers. The school administration’s refusal to remove it was even more disrespectful — protesters tore it down when the university’s inaction became too much to bear.
Silent Sam wasn’t the only thing I didn’t like walking past during my college days. I was never comfortable walking past the mostly-white fraternity court; I often took longer routes just to avoid it. It’s a strange thing being stared down like an alien in a town that’s also supposed to be yours. It bothers me still, four years after I graduated, that police allow wild white fraternity parties almost every night while much smaller parties with mostly Black kids are quickly shut down. Those same white frats have Black cooks and janitorial staff, they’ll book Black talent for parties but Black students are not welcome.
In those frat houses and in the ‘burbs, Blackness is treated as something to acquire, like a cool personality trait.
For example, a white boy in high school once quizzed me on old-school rap and decided he was “Blacker” than me because I didn’t know the name of 2Pac’s first album. (It’s 2Pacalypse Now, by the way.)
There’s also a difference in challenges faced by Black women and men in predominately white schools. For example, the Black male star athlete: everyone likes the guy who scores the winning touchdown Friday night. He has no problem finding a prom date or getting invites to parties.
Black female athletes certainly don’t receive the same praise in mostly white schools, or anywhere. There’s sexism and racism at play here. I remember when the all-white crowd at Weddington High, my high school’s biggest rival, chanted “steroids” at me after I got in a nice hit during a volleyball game.
“Black boys are fetishized. Even the Black boys looks down on the Black girls at school,” one of the Black at Marvin founders told me.
Black women, as Malcolm X said, are the most disrespected people in America. Black boys overlook us in favor of white girls, who are obsessed with our hair, and white boys don’t see us at all, so we stick together.
My middle and high school friends are still my friends today. Most of them are Black. We navigated being young Black women in a place where being rich and white was the way to get cool points.
How many times did we bite our tongues to avoid being profiled as mad Black women? Too many.
To be clear, though, some of my friends in school were white. Some of them have been unfriended on Facebook because I couldn’t handle their ignorant posts. Others are still very good friends today. Many of the white kids I grew up with were and still are great people. This is not an “all white folks are bad” essay. I’m not sure why but I feel a lot of pressure to write that.
But just like issues of policing, it’s inappropriate to highlight the good when the bad is so incredibly damaging and rampant.
We are all products of our environments. But we all have the responsibility to learn and grow as we age. We can’t stay clueless little ballerinas forever.
“That’s the best thing that individual people can do to make the culture change is really look inside themselves and say, ‘Am I contributing?'” asked one of the Black at Marvin founders. “How can I change? What can I do to be better?”