It is not ok to be ignored.
I struggled with writing my own at first, feeling that what I truly would want to say to my 13-year-old self would be more than I wanted to share with the entire world. However, the bravery and candor of the previous two posts inspired me. So here it is, slightly filtered, but still extremely raw.
Everyone has a different path. Growing up, I was blessed. I came from a strong, loving family. We weren’t rich, but we had more than enough. I had plenty of opportunities as a kid. Dear Me, you should have counted your blessings (lol).
My life at home was amazing. It was the outside world that was the problem. I grew up in a limousine liberal (and closet racist) community in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. No, not everyone was racist, but keep in mind a few things: a) that was the prevailing mindset, particularly from those in power; b) there is a whole spectrum of racism (yes, it is possible to be just a little racist); and c) if you weren’t racist, then there was a good chance you were on the receiving end of it.
I’m half-joking on point C. In all seriousness, I had friends of all races. Some even stood up against injustice. But this was rare. Extremely rare. Most people were just fine with letting micro- and macro-aggressions fly rampant. As they say, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
Many of my peers may say that there was no problem with racial discrimination when we were growing up. For them, that may have been true. My area was very segregated de facto, with most people interacting with those of their same background. As long as you “knew your place” (#sarcasm) and stayed there, you were fine.
Well, I was a black kid, in a predominantly white neighborhood, in predominantly white advanced classes, doing quite well. A lot of people didn’t appreciate that. It wasn’t my “place,” the neat little box where my skin color would define my academic track.
To add salt to the wound, I wasn’t just black…I was also Haitian. *gasp* This, in itself, could merit a blog post of its own…actually, probably even an encyclopedia. But to provide a surface overview, many Americans were (and still are) extremely prejudiced towards Haitians. In the mid-90s, as a Haitian kid, I was hit with nonstop with stereotypes of “boat people and AIDS” from my classmates. Nevermind that my parents came over in the 60s.
You should have never lost sight of who you are. Then again, I really can’t blame you.
You were only three when it all began. You didn’t know the word back then, but that’s when you first learned about assimilation. You started to notice the differences between you and your friends: your different colors, the languages you spoke at home, your spirituality, even your sizes. They started to notice, too.
Peer pressure can make quite an impact, even for toddlers. I remember the first time I faced rejection over differences. One girl in the neighborhood chose to stop talking to me because my family didn’t go to church, and convinced other “friends” to follow suit. Yes, this was 30 years ago. At that point, we were barely out of Pampers, but still, the message that we were different came across loud and clear. And apparently, different was bad.
A few days ago, I had a conversation on Voxer with one of my close friends, where we were discussing our shared experience of feeling the pressure to assimilate when we were the only person like us in a given situation. She used the term, “being a chameleon,” and I knew right away what she meant. My entire childhood, I tried my hardest to be a chameleon, despite the strong messages I was receiving at home (the ultimate symbol being my mother’s Afro, that she has proudly worn since the 60s).
It wasn’t that I was internalizing the b.s. dumped on me from the outside world. I knew exactly who I was, but I was terrified to show it. There was the normal fear of being judged and rejected by peers. That was HUGE at age 13.
There was also the fear of harm. It didn’t happen often, but the isolated incidents throughout the years set the tone that more could soon follow.
For example, there was always the impending fear of gang violence. Sure, nobody wants to talk about it, but some of the biggest thugs around are those with a trust fund. The Saved-By-the-Bell-wannabe gangstas in my neighborhood had no problem using such tactics as throwing rocks, setting their dogs loose on you, hurling racial slurs, chasing you with sticks, smashing your pumpkins on Halloween, toilet papering/egging your house, or threatening to run you over with their bikes. They made it very clear that I was in their territory, and that I was wearing the wrong [skin] color. Sometimes, their parents were even in on the action. Of course, where else would they get it from?
Yes, looking back, I could have and should have told my parents more about what was going on. Whenever I did, they had my back. However, when you’re growing up, being a snitch is like the big kid version of having a very contagious outbreak of the cooties, so often I did not.
I figured that I couldn’t afford to lose any more respect from my peers, so I learned to mask my feelings, and tried to be as invisible as I possibly could. I also became the ultimate chameleon, changing the music I listened to, the shows I watched, the way I spoke…not performing at my highest academic potential, probably subconsciously, so that I wouldn’t step on Richie Rich’s toes.
Still, it wasn’t good enough. By eighth grade, I had fully internalized the negativity from my teachers, peers, and the community at large, and really hated myself. I won’t go into great detail at this point, but my teenage years left many deep emotional scars, that are just now beginning to heal. I felt that I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t thin enough. I just wasn’t enough. Many times I wondered, why am I even here?
The only reason that I’m laying it all out there is because I realize now that I am not alone. Especially as a woman of color, our society makes us feel that there is something wrong with us if we deal with these issues. But it’s important to talk, because it really helps to know that other people feel this way, and we are never alone. Yes, some women of color also battle things like suicide and body issues, although they are not as openly discussed. My hope is that we pursue these dialogues, and help people of all colors realize that they are loved and supported. We are all much more than enough.
This is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about getting others connected to the rest of the world. Not only has it helped me become a better teacher for my students, but making friends around the world with whom I have so much in common has, quite honestly, changed the way I view myself and other people.
Anyway, the story has a happy ending, one that is still being written. As soon as I possibly could, I fled my hometown for nearby D.C. and a different experience at Howard University. Leaving my toxic environment was the first step to embracing Sarah. As the years have gone by, I have matured into a woman, reclaimed my voice, and started to heal.
However, it is a slow journey, and now I’m finding it a welcome change (albeit nerve-wracking) that people actually listen now. Yesterday, for example, as I spoke on a panel regarding diversity at SXSW, I kept having flashbacks to being that girl who everyone once wanted to silence…and the one who accepted it just to get by.
As a result, my filter is now extremely strong (one of my friends recently made that spot-on observation), and although I generally speak my mind, I choose my words carefully. I express myself much more easily through writing, when I can go back and revise multiple times before publishing. I’m working on my speaking, and it’s becoming a little easier every time I step outside of my comfort zone.
If I could go back in time, I would tell Mini-Me to be strong, be yourself, and not to accept being invisible/ignored. That’s definitely easier said than done, so I applaud all of the young ladies (and gentlemen) who speak their minds and claim their respect, no matter what.