Naomi Blair, a student of Janet DePasquale at Kirkwood High School in Kirkwood, Missouri, read and responded to the online YES! Magazine article “I Can’t Breathe Until Everyone Can Breathe,” by Gerald Mitchell. In this story, author and entrepreneur Gerald Mitchell wrestles with the enormity of the situation in Ferguson and the unjust deaths of so many unarmed Black Americans by police. He takes an honest look at himself to see how he’s part of the problem, and commits to joining others in building a better world of justice for all.
Writing Prompt: Like Gerald Mitchell, dig deep to identify and explain how you personally can treat people more justly. Describe what treating people fairly and humanely looks like to you. How might your actions make a difference where you live (school and community)? In greater society?
Black Girl, White Space
I am black. I know it, and people around me know it. I know they do because when I walked into my AP Psychology class for the very first time, everyone looked at me as if I was a cat in the midst of a field full of lions. The girl in the pink, oversized sweatshirt was talking to her friend, but she stole a glance my way and ruffled her nose. The guy two seats behind her squinted his eyes at me, but only for a second. Another boy a row away from him gave me a quick look-over and then started talking to the guy next to me. I could practically hear their words, “What is she doing in this class?” Their eyes told me that I didn’t belong in an advanced placement course. Of course not. I am black. I was the triangle block trying to fit in a square space.
Unfortunately, stereotyping isn’t an isolated incident. This isn’t the only time I have been stereotyped. And, I am not the only one who has fallen victim to this behavior. Most, if not all, of my black friends complain of the racism we experience in our school. One day, as we talked about our groups of friends, Abi, a black friend of mine, told me in a fit of rage that she wasn’t “black enough for her black friends, and not white enough for her white friends.” I agreed and decided to do something about it.
To quote Gerald Mitchell, author of “I Can’t Breathe Until Everyone Can Breathe,” “[we can realize] that there is always an actual human being on the other side of our actions.” I wondered how I could get the people at my school and in my community to be aware of the consequences of racism, whether their actions be conscious or unconscious. In November of this year, I announced to fellow staffers of my school newspaper, The Kirkwood Call, that I wanted to do a social experiment. This experiment, I hoped, would shed light on the conscious and unconscious racism happening, not only in my school, but in my community as a whole. I planned to videotape scenarios of students socializing in classrooms, similar to the ones I go through, to show my community the discrimination that takes place every day in plain sight.
Many people at my school, though they are reluctant to admit it, stereotype, especially towards black people. I see Mrs. Fredrickson, a white teacher, who when told of a student mishap assumes that a black student caused it. I see Marissa, a white student in the lunchroom, talking about black people as if they were invisible, even though they are sitting at the table next to her. One of my white friends once told me I was white because of my academic standing. Another, who was black, agreed and told me that I was an Oreo: black on the outside, white on the inside. They thought that because I am smart, I couldn’t possibly be black. They even tried to rationalize it. My friend, Miranda said, “You’re not really black.” I narrowed my eyes, rammed my arm in front of their faces, and said, “Of course not. If you rub hard enough on my forearm, you can see my real white skin underneath.”
What I want to do is get people to stop stereotyping, whether they are aware of their racism or not. I am already starting to bring about this consciousness with my social experiment. I invited a group of black and white students to participate in this experiment and talk about their experiences with racism. They pointed out injustices, such as an administrator asking a study group of black students to leave the library while a study group of white students were allowed to stay. The white group of students that came to my experiment said they wanted to change the way black people are treated by white students and teachers. When I asked them how they would transform this perception, no one had an answer. After a few uncomfortably quiet pauses, I asked them what they thought injustice looks like. They timidly listed generic answers: not treating someone fairly, and discriminating based on skin color, sexuality, and gender. I then asked them what injustice specifically looked like in our school. One girl’s face turned beet red and her lips were pursed as she frantically described a situation in which she saw a white teacher ignore a black student while having her full attention on a white student. I expressed my utter disbelief with an “Are you kidding me?” and asked even more students if they encountered instances like these. They all said yes.
Treating people fairly and humanely by trying to not dwell on stereotypes and teaching others to do the same is an important step to eliminate racism. Fairness looks like treating every person the same, not just in relation to race, but also to gender and sexuality. When I walk into the AP Psychology class, people should look at me because my outfit is just that cute, or because I have a milk moustache from that morning’s breakfast, not because of the color of my skin. Justice looks like not assuming that because I am black, I am supposed to be loud, prone to fights, uneducated, vulgar, and live in poverty. A white girl once told me, “You’re not like how I imagined. You’re not ghetto at all.”
Stereotyping is racism. I plan to get my peers and teachers to stop judging people by their skin color. I plan to talk to and teach my peers why discrimination is unacceptable, and will inspire my friends to do the same. Through my social experiment, I hope to spotlight the discrimination that is happening right under their noses, in plain sight. The video, which will be showcased on The Kirkwood Call’s website, will undeniably show my classmates what discrimination looks like Kirkwood style. I anticipate they will join me to change our school—and our society—for the better. Though we will be a small group at first, we will be mighty.
One day, a student like me will be able to walk into an advanced course and feel that she belongs simply because she is smart and wants to learn.