Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
The look in my teacher’s eyes after depriving me of what I wanted most was a trademark look for most of my teachers: blank, yet cold. All I wanted was clarity and understanding, but all he wanted was the expected response of the honor student I was. Too bad neither of us got what we wanted that day.
After getting an 89 on my chemistry test, I felt guilty, like I had gotten away with something. Using all of my knowledge of chemistry (which wasn’t much), I knew for sure that I was going to fail. Yet somehow, I managed to pass. Some would consider it luck, but for me, it wasn’t much to brag about–there’s nothing great about feeling like you are not learning in class.
After school I told my teacher I felt underprepared for that exam and wanted extra help. He said, “You don’t need help. You passed your test and did better than others.” I was at a loss for words.
Being denied help was more frustrating than not understanding the subject. I wanted to continuously challenge myself and become academically better, not to hear how I outscored my classmates. But Mr. Blomquist only saw an Honor Roll student who should be satisfied with her grade.
For years, I bought into the notion that my worth is measured by a grade. Most of my life, I was at the top of my class, and noticed for my intellectual ability. Although this earned me the attention I craved, I didn’t want this to be the only way people saw me. I learned people view you with blinders, never seeing the full you, but little did they know I had more to offer.
If people weren’t creating this one-sided story about my grades and me, they assumed things about my racial identity. In my college Composition class last year, my research led me to an article, “Black Masculinity” by Charles Gause, who faced racial discrimination in a way reminiscent of my own experience. Gause describes how his masculinity was questioned when he taught a graduate class to White and Black students who were very disruptive. As he left the lecture, he heard students say, “he’s just an angry Black man.” “Angry Black man” is a dismissal, suggesting that if a Black person acts strongly, it is out of anger rather than passion.
Gause’s struggle to be himself while tuning out stereotypes is a struggle I know all too well. It began with the nickname “Oreo,” given to me in seventh grade. It had less to do with America’s favorite cookie and more with me having a Black exterior, yet inside, the personality of a “white girl.” I always laughed it off, but in reality it hurt. That nickname made me ashamed of who I was because I felt I was a disgrace to my race. My disgrace became desperation as I tried to prove my blackness to my friends, and be part of the in-crowd. So I did things like listen to hip-hop and style my hair with braids and curls, and that is when it hit me. I was stereotyping my own race; the same way people thought of me as less Black because I didn’t conform to stereotypes, I was using the same stereotypes to become Blacker.
Both Mr. Blomquist and my peers wanted to shape me into their expectations of me, the expectations of an honor student or “staying true” to Black culture, but all it really did was make me feel less than myself. In those moments, I felt less of a student and more of a number, and felt less Black and more like I did not belong. But looking back, my assumptions and stereotypes helped me get a better understanding of who I am–and refusing to become who I was told to be, taught me my own worth.Published in