Imagine this: You’re sitting with your friends in the cafeteria. Everyone is laughing, complaining about the school lunch, and working on homework. Then you show your friends how you changed your Instagram profile picture to a parody of the Starbucks logo. They all chuckle. You quirk your head. Hannah from across the table says, “Oh my God, you’re so white!” Everyone nods. Hannah goes on: “Think about it – your fashion sense, Starbucks logo, straight A’s – you’re the whitest girl at this table.” You squirm a bit in your seat. Nothing she said was untrue, except for one small detail: you’re black.
That happened to me in eighth grade. Looking back, I know my friends didn’t mean any harm, but I find the implications of their words troubling. Saying that dressing well and caring about grades makes me “white” implies that black people don’t do those things. I am sure they didn’t mean it that way, but that’s the problem. People, often those who don’t mean to offend, think and talk about racial behavior in binary ways: you’re said to act “black” if you only care about sports and rap music, and people claim you act “white” if you care about school and have a strong work ethic. That stereotyping is ignorant and racist.
I am not a member of the upper class. I am not a legacy child who will coast through life on my family’s name alone. Both of my parents emigrated from Cameroon to America seeking a better education. And in spite of how high I aim or how hard I work, I doubt that I will be a millionaire.
Despite all this, for a black person in America, I know I’m privileged. I live in a nice two-story house in a safe neighborhood, learn in one of the wealthiest school districts in the country, and have been able to vacation outside the country multiple times. I don’t say any of this to brag; it pains me to know that many things in my life are considered luxuries and not a given. I provide this background to show that not every black youth is a disadvantaged kid in an inner city, which is something President Trump fails to acknowledge. I don’t have much stake in which party is in power compared to those less fortunate than me. Most importantly, I want to demonstrate a nuance that is often missing in our discussion of race. That conversation I had with my friends reminds me of “The Danger of a Single Story,” a TED Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
In her commentary, she describes how when she came to America to attend college, her roommate was surprised that she spoke English clearly, listened to American music, and could use a stove. Adichie’s roommate already “felt sorry for her” prior to meeting her, because of her skewed perception of Africa. Adichie explains how she was affected by a “single story” as a young girl, when her family had a poor boy as a servant. Due to only seeing the servant and his family as poor, Adichie did not think that his family was capable of anything and was shocked to discover that the servant’s brother was a talented craftsman. She said, “Poverty was my single story of them.” The message of her speech was that ignorance affects all us, even the most tolerant among us, and the way to combat is by engaging with others to understand the things that make us different and similar, rather than making assumptions based solely on what we see and hear in our environment. And I could not agree more with her point.
For so long, I felt trapped by the stereotypes that come with being black. I do not fit the media’s perception of the African American teen. In a lot ways, I am thankful for not experiencing the same struggles that impede members of my race, like low-quality education, the school-to-prison pipeline, and poor infrastructure. My experience is no Charlottesville, but I think that ignorance can be just as harmful to our society. It creates misunderstanding and allows even well-meaning people to believe in stereotypes and act accordingly. This misunderstanding leads to tragedies such as police brutality toward African Americans, where those who are supposed to serve the community react in the heat of the moment based on fears and assumptions. Why did Tulsa police officers, thousands of feet away in a helicopter, determine that Terence Crutcher “looks like a bad dude” who “might be on something” even though he was obedient? Why did Harry Houck announce that African Americans are more prone to criminality on CNN? Those biased assumptions lead to dire consequences in our relationships with each other.
There is more to racism than the KKK. We need to question our innate thoughts and feelings about each other to create a truly tolerant society.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.