The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the past year has nurtured important conversations centered around systemic racism, about how widespread and deeply ingrained it is in our society. The extremely tragic and completely unwarranted murder of George Floyd has prompted very important conversations, not only about police brutality but also about systemic racism and the ways in which it affects us all. Although I haven’t always been able to put it into words, I’ve known this to be true. It’s extremely validating to have people start to see what has always been true to me — that the system is rigged against me and my people, and if we’re going to get anywhere we're going to have to fight twice as hard. However, I did not realize how early I was impacted by this until recently.
It all started with a post I saw on my friend’s Instagram story about the effects of systemic racism on Black kids at private schools. Since I was a student at a private, Christian school from kindergarten through my senior year of high school, I was immediately interested. At first, I was surprised by how many of the examples of discrimination it laid out that I could relate to. But as I continued to read, I was disappointed by how many of my experiences I had normalized and considered isolated events that only happened to me. In reality, they were symptoms of the much larger, systemic problem. I began to re-evaluate many of the incidents I got in trouble for in elementary school, looking at them with new eyes. Almost immediately, I was struck with a memory from a bright, sunny afternoon in fourth grade.
It was during recess, and I was sitting in the grass with my best friend at the time, who was white. It didn’t take long for the conversation to arrive at the age-old question: “Who do you like?” He told me who he had a crush on and we both giggled and plotted how we would get them together. When I decided to confess my crush to this friend of mine, who was another white boy in our class, he immediately crinkled his nose. His response?
“You can’t like him because Black people and white people can’t get married.”
Even then, I knew there was something unfair about what he said. Not only did he fail to support me after I supported him, but he decided not to support me because of our respective skin colors. I tried to explain to him that what he said was wrong, but he wouldn’t listen.
My fourth grade teacher was really big on conflict resolution. She told us from the very first day of school that if we were fighting with another classmate, we were supposed to bring the conflict to her so she could mediate a “constructive” conversation. Because she was the adult in the situation, I had faith that she would defend me. I couldn’t articulate my words as well as I wanted — because, I was nine — but I knew I was right. So, like many of the other children in my class, I went to her for help.
There we were, standing in front of our teacher in the middle of recess to have this conversation. My friend went first. She sat there, listened to what he had to say, nodded at the right moments, and let him fully explain himself. I stayed quiet and waited my turn as she had instructed all of us to do. After he spoke, I trusted that would get my fair time to explain as well. That was the way things went.
But that isn’t what happened. As I started to tell my side of the story, I used my hands to emphasize my words. I barely got a sentence out before our teacher snapped her fingers at me and said, “Stop. That’s aggressive behavior. Start over, and act like you want to come to a constructive conclusion.”
I was confused. I wasn’t trying to be aggressive, I was just trying to express my anger. I was the one who called this meeting, wasn’t I? I was the one who wanted this conflict to be resolved in the first place. I started over, and tried to make my point again.
I don’t think I got a full sentence out. Every time I tried to explain myself my teacher stopped me for being “too aggressive” or “too confrontational.” I remember clasping my hands behind my back to keep from making “aggressive gestures,” and stumbling over my words because I was so worried about speaking properly. I was never allowed to get my point across. When our “problem-solving” was over, it felt like I was the kid in trouble and he got off the hook.
At nine years old, I was unknowingly dealing with the consequences of living in an inherently racist society. At nine years old, I was the victim of the “angry Black woman” stereotype. Although I was the one who was wronged in this situation, I was expected to act like an adult before I knew how the world worked. I got in trouble for acting like any other child would when they feel they have been wronged, and because I was so young, I believed my teacher. For years I was convinced I had been too aggressive in that situation, even though I wasn’t trying to be. It wasn’t until I thought about the situation again — at twenty years old — that I saw things differently. I had done the right thing, looking for help from this authority figure who was supposed to establish justice. The system failed me. And it wasn’t nearly the last time — at that school or in this country.
Stories like mine are far from rare. Not only can I think of several other situations in my own life like this, I have heard similar stories from friends of mine: friends who were punished more harshly than their white classmates, friends who were ruled as “trouble makers” even though they were acting just like the other students in the class, friends who experienced racism at an early age from their peers and the parents and families of their peers. These are things that we bond over and even joke about because of how common they are. It’s always been understood that things will be harder for us because of our Blackness, and we have learned to adapt and push through it. We rule it as another part of life.
But as more and more people inside and out of the Black community are starting to realize how ingrained racism is in this society, I’m noticing something different for the first time. I am seeing actual change.
Although I’m inspired by all the people fighting and demanding change, I can’t help but worry about what will happen if there’s burn out. I’ve already seen a major decline in the amount of people talking about systemic racism, and it worries me. I’m not sure I can go back to living in a world where these instances are commonplace, a world where we’re lulled into acceptance instead of calling racism out. The work we’ve done so far is fantastic, but we have to keep pushing forward; there is so much left to do. I don’t want the generations after us to have to deal with the things that too many of us have. I don’t want any more little Black children to have their actions misunderstood and their feelings discredited and disregarded. Enough is enough.