Black History Month: 29 days of indifference, or of education?
February 12, 2020
When family and friends ask me how I like being a student at Milton, my answer isn’t like that of many of my peers. Often, I hesitate, filling the silence with an awkward Um… until I finally land on: “It’s okay.”
It’s not that the education is poor or the facilities are subpar. It’s this unwavering fact: It’s more difficult to have a beneficial high school experience when you are surrounded by people who look very little to nothing like you.
In my classes here, it’s not unusual for me to be the only black person on the roster, and even less unusual for me to be the only black girl. This wouldn’t be an issue, of course, if it didn’t come with its own set of inescapable assumptions.
Before I even open my mouth, I am written off as an apathetic, lackadaisical student. At least, after years of skeptical responses when I turn in a well-written essay or study hours for a test, I can’t think of any other reason for those quietly raised eyebrows.
In the same way, if I’m not being overlooked, I’m being given too much of the wrong attention.
It’s happened more than once: I make a mistake, maybe forget an assignment or use too much paper in the Media Center printer, for example. I’m barely able to get out an apology before the teacher or faculty member in charge greets me with harsh admonishments, their disappointed frowns resolving to pleasantly surprised half-smiles when I acknowledge my wrongdoing rather than talk back.
Even as one black student, I apparently represent them all, and all of them represent me. In the eyes of anyone who cares too little to check their prejudice, Black/African American is not just a box checked on a form but is at once a lump sum representation of all those who check that box. Nevermind our own individualities, our own dispositions and passions and personalities. We are loud, combative, “ghetto”—everything a suburban white student so thankfully is not.
I love to write and read, so I can’t be black. My music taste extends beyond trap and mumble rap, so I can’t be black. I don’t talk or dress or walk like a “black person,” so I can’t be black. Shouldn’t I be flattered when people tell me I’m so smart, so articulate, for a black girl? Should I be flattered then, when the color of my skin is equated to a strict set of inaccurate stereotypes?
Though I can only speak for myself, I know it isn’t just me. Students of color are more often punished and ridiculed than their white peers, and this is a common trend across high schools nationwide. One such story is all over the headlines now: Deandre Arnold, a Texas high school student repeatedly called to the front office for his “distracting” dreadlocks–his own education compromised for the alleged interruption of his white classmates’.
If black culture is so “distracting,” why do those who call it so try so badly to emulate it? Black people wear cornrows for centuries, a hairstyle steeped in cultural history and significance, worn originally by slaves to store dry grains and avoid starvation. Suddenly, however, when Kylie Jenner decides to wear them, they’re reinvented as boxer braids: fashionable in a white person’s hair, “ghetto” in a black person’s. It’s an old, tiresome narrative, and we need to stop adding to it.
I don’t say all of this to call anyone out. What I mean to do is to issue a challenge. Don’t let this month pass as just another 29 days of indifference. Don’t just half-listen to the Black History Month activity in class; don’t just like that post on Instagram because you think it will make you look “woke.” Open your eyes. Pay attention. Check your privilege, because even if it’s hard for you to see, it’s there.
The fact of the matter is that Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream is still quite a ways away. The stubbornness of the Little Rock Nine may have paved the way for school integration, but there remain faults in American high school culture–especially, I might add, in suburban high schools that are predominantly white. We preach inclusivity and equal opportunity, but are we living it, too?
I’ll leave you with this: If reading this article made you uncomfortable, good.
Do something about it.
By: Jessi Rich