Monday, March 23, 2015

To Be Young, Gifted, and Black

I am not  ashamed to say that for much of my compulsory education, I was a token. I was usually the only black student in my extracurricular activities, my summer programs, my friend groups, and several of my AP classes. I was the proverbial "fly in the buttermilk," the lone dark face in yearbook group pictures, and the unofficial spokesperson of Toni Morrison's complete bibliography, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the entire continent of Africa (it seems that people tend to take the social classification of "African American" quite literally). I was always the only one.

And I loved it.

I loved the thrill of being recognized by my white classmates, teachers, and friends as somehow "different" or more "special" than other people in my ethnic group, as if the accomplishments of my other black classmates who refused to tokenize themselves were less valuable or significant. I loved being the lone representative of the black community in my literature and history classes, spouting off my carefully race-neutral analyses of Beloved and the transatlantic slave trade as everyone else in the room heaved a sigh of relief that I wasn't one of those black people. I loved being the only black person in my academic extracurriculars because I believed myself to be an exemplary representative of "my people." I truly believed that all of our problems with race would be fixed if we as a people just spoke a little better, dressed a little preppier, joined the right clubs, and laughed along jovially when our white friends called everything that was broken "ghetto" (Martese Johnson would say otherwise)

I was wrong, and I was a fool for thinking that I was ever right. 

I've heard from older black people that every young black person (particularly naive tokens like myself) would experience something called a "nigger moment." It would be the moment when the veil of the post-racial utopia would be abruptly lifted, and one would have to come face-to-face with his or her blackness and how that positioned him or her in relation to society. Of course, no one's nigger moment is meant to be gentle or kind or welcoming. It's certainly a rite of passage, but it isn't one that welcomes you into a culture, but rather shows you which one you will never be a part of. A black person's nigger moment happens when it is made abundantly clear to a black person by one or several white people that their blackness is a crime and a burden, and that they are inherently inferior because of it. A nigger moment can be passive or direct in its execution, and either long or short in duration.

Mine lasted a year.

It all started with Yale. My father, realizing that my token status had allowed me to accumulate a decent collection of accolades, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and high grades, urged me to apply to Yale early to "test my chances." I was accepted in December, and from that point, everything began very rapidly to change.

At my high school, it was tradition for high school seniors to tape their acceptance letters to their lockers as a symbol of pride and four years of hard work. The morning after I was accepted, I happily taped my letter to my locker, and a few of my white friends congratulated me. Some surreptitiously eyed my letter with disdain as they walked by, still waiting on a response from the in-state schools that they applied to. Others ignored me outright, anxiously waiting to leave with their friend groups as one or two paused to congratulate me. Odd.

As the school year progressed, I applied and was accepted to more schools, most of which my other white classmates had also applied to and had been rejected from. Their animosity toward me and my other POC classmates who had been accepted to similar schools or received prestigious scholarships became almost palpable.

In February, I received a "likely letter" from Dartmouth (this just means that they are leaning toward accepting you). I mentioned the letter to one of my teachers, and he congratulated me. Then I heard a voice from the back of the classroom.

"Likely letters are probably just something they send to minorities anyway."

They weren't, and I knew that. But this was long before I had established my own self-awareness and lack of interest in the white gaze. I was crushed. I didn't consider the fact that this student had failed to receive a likely letter himself/herself-- all I could think of was the possibility that my success, my acceptances were totally contingent upon my ethnicity. Were my hard work, consistent focus, meticulously planned application essays, and good grades all meaningless because of the "advantage" of my ethnicity? 

No, of course not. I was a good student then and a good student now, and nothing could have changed that. But my peers were insistent upon convincing me and my other POC classmates otherwise.

Two weeks later, I was inexplicably discussing college prospects with a group of my white classmates. I knew they were resentful of my slowly growing list of letters on my locker, but the faithful token in me still sought their companionship and approval.

"You know you only got into Yale because you're black." There it was again.
"No, I didn't," I said, unsure of myself. "I worked hard. If I wasn't smart enough to get in, they wouldn't have accepted me."

We bickered like this back and forth until our teacher approached us. I felt relief-- finally someone who would stand up for me. 

"Mr./Ms.___________, why did I get into Yale?" I asked, hoping to feel vindicated.
He/she looked me in my eyes and frowned after exchanging a conspiratorial glance with two of my white classmates. "You know why." He/she walked away, and I was left again to fend for myself.

In April, after the final verdicts on all application statuses had been doled out, things only got worse. Only three students in our class had been accepted to Ivies, and two of them were students of color. It was all coming to a head.

"Black people are overrepresented in history books," said one of my white classmates to me during class. I and another black student had been accepted to Northwestern the previous day, and I had heard bitter rumblings about which white students had been denied admission throughout the school day.

"How can you say that? In our AP US History book, there's only one section on slavery and one section on Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. W.E.B. Du Bois isn't even mentioned!"

He/she continued. "So? I think the amount of representation in our history books that blacks get should be proportionate to the amount that blacks have contributed to this country. They haven't contributed much, so they shouldn't get that much representation."

Our voices became gradually louder during our exchange, and the class turned to face us. I was becoming bolder in the face of my white classmates' animosity, and I was no longer afraid to say what I truly felt. But, of course, my words had unexpected consequences.

"Are you kidding me? Think of all the contributions and inventions that black people have made in American history-- you're blatantly disregarding everything that they've done."

My classmates were silent. The teacher was silent, save a few pacifying remarks on race and the value of equality. Class ended, and the student with whom I had had the exchange turned to face me before sauntering out the door. 

"This is why you people will never amount to anything. You're always blaming other people for your own failures."

I nearly cried.

These were people I had known since I was nine years old and participated in activities, volunteer work, parties, classes, and friendships with. We had grown up together, all the while being raised by our progressive teachers to believe that "color didn't matter." We'd read Ralph Ellison and Frederick Douglass and actually celebrated Black History Month every year. Why were they suddenly behaving this way? They owed Obama campaign t-shirts, shopped at Whole Foods, and listened to NPR religiously. How could they possibly be racist?

I thought I was going mad. Was it all in my head? Was the cruelty of their remarks about "the blacks" simply being exaggerated by my "sensitivity to racism" that they often accused me of expressing? Did I even deserve to attend any of these schools, or would it truly have been more fair and just to allow my white classmates to take their "rightful" place in the Ivy League?

It wasn't all in my head I realized, especially after I began speaking to other students of color who experienced the same-- if not worse-- treatment from childhood friends who were intoxicated with jealousy and privilege. My happiness-- and, more importantly, my sanity-- did not lie with the principles of tokenism that I had followed for half my life. 

I had to wake up. I had to accept the fact that racism was not dead, and that any attempt to upset the existing social paradigm through either intentional or unintentional acts would be greeted with suspicion and outright resistance. I was not special or better because I was a token-- all I succeeded in doing was ignoring and disrespecting the extremely valid experiences of other non-token people of color. I needed to find some form of solidarity with both white and non-white individuals who were interested in combating racism and racial microaggressions, and I knew that I would not be content until I did.