As I lowered myself into my seat, my gaze zeroed in on the image at the front of the room. The video, a CNN special on racial equality in America, was paused, but the little girl on the screen intrigued me nonetheless. Her expression was one of sudden realization, and she didn’t look happy. The culprits, I assumed, were the objects in front of her: two dolls that looked exactly alike except for the color of their skin. The lights dimmed. I waited for my teacher to press play.
The portion of the program that featured the girl and the dolls didn’t appear until the end, and as it turned out, she was one of several children of various ethnicities selected for a study that posed the question “Which doll is bad, the white or the black one?”
I thought knew how they would answer; each child would point to the white doll, because history demanded it. My mind brimmed with examples that I would use to defend my point when my teacher inevitably switched to classroom discussion: the Crusades, the enslavement of the Africans, the land stolen from the Native Americans.
But I was wrong. Each child wordlessly pointed to the black doll, causing something painful and foreign to well up in my stomach. I live in 21st century America, decades after Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and countless other men and women who fought for change, yet being black is still synonymous with inferiority?
I was different. This knowledge plagued me. After that video, I took the role of an actor, fitting into the character I thought society wanted me to play. I worked quietly like my predecessors, hoping no one would pay close attention to me. Yet frustration tugged at me whenever a peer begged for help with homework behind closed doors but ignored me in public, whenever someone disregarded me after one fleeting look. By the end of junior high, I was tired of being used and discarded like trash.
Things were going to be different in high school, I decided. I was surrounded by so many different people with so many different backgrounds and interests. There were Hispanics building robots for Tech Club; African Americans with Calculus textbooks in their arms and weary, contented smiles on their faces; Asians in sparkly dresses, flipping their hair and talking in teen jargon; white kids, some with SUVs, some with babies. It made me realize what I wanted, and that wasn’t to succumb to racial stereotypes. Anyway, acting was stupid. Why did I have to play the role of “black kid who won’t amount to anything” when that wasn’t who I was? Why couldn’t I be “the future president” or “the girl who’s going to cure cancer” or – even better – “your next boss”?
My resolve grew. Finally, I let myself shine. Soon people sought me out for help. Soon I was marching with the band on the nation’s grandest stages. Soon I was winning academic awards for my school. I wasn’t afraid to let myself be heard. I was surpassing even my own expectations.
If I had a time machine, I would go back to the day I saw that video. I would tell my younger self, “Look, life is tough. People may make judgments based on your appearance. It’s your job to prove them wrong. You have so much to offer this world, and if you keep that in mind, your future will be bright. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”
And as I traveled back home, experiencing how things had changed, how much I had achieved, I would smile – because I came, I saw, I conquered, and I refused to be something small.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.