I am usually outspoken when I see or hear something racist, but I had just started at a high school that was private and predominantly White. I didn’t want to be that Black girl, the type that makes everything about race. So when my White friend Jonah said a group of Black boys on the lunch line were “scary,” I didn’t call him out, even though I wanted to.
I thought, They only scare you because they are boys of color. Just like Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, LaQuan McDonald and all the other unarmed young Black boys and men killed by police, who were described as “scary” and “intimidating.”
If Jonah believed these boys of color were harmful and threatening, what would he think of my two older brothers?
My mind went back to what my mom said when she found out I had been accepted to this mostly White private school. “You’re not going to be able to be the old Asa anymore, ’cause those White people will kick you out with the quickness.”
I’d laughed it off at the time. But now, after only a few weeks at the school, I understood what she meant: no talking about race, no being loud or acting a fool in the hallways like the White students could. No being a regular teenager who can make mistakes and simply dust themselves off and keep it pushing. At this school, I feel like I’m constantly under a microscope. So in that moment, being the well-behaved Black girl was more important than defending my race.
What’s a Minstrel Character?
In my school, microaggressions occur all the time. For example, some of my teachers still call me by the names of the four other Black girls in my grade, although we look nothing alike. White people say the n-word and other racist slurs within earshot of me and my friends. A kid in my advisory touched my friend’s hair right after we had a conversation about microaggressions.
Still, nothing compared to Jonah’s brand of racism.
Just a month after school started, I was drawing random faces in biology class when Jonah looked over my shoulder and said, “Let me draw you!”
After a couple of minutes, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to see something that looked nothing like me. Yet somehow as I stared at Jonah’s drawing, I could feel my nose spread wider across my face and my lips get bigger.
“This is racist. This looks like a minstrel character,” I tried to say it as gently as I could.
“You have to admit that it looks like you, and how is it racist? What is a minstrel character?”
“It’s when White people would put on blackface and make fun of Black people. This is a caricature, like the ones they draw in comics,” I said.
“No, I just draw people’s lips like that. The nose is on point though.”
I couldn’t believe he didn’t apologize. My White friends looked at the picture and laughed, agreeing that it sort of looked like me. I was the only Black student in the class. I got big laughs when I jokingly exclaimed, “This looks like Aunt Jemima!”
To fit in, and prove that I wasn’t the “angry Black girl,” I took a photo of it and made it my Instagram profile picture. I was the one you didn’t have to worry about “microaggressing” against. But in truth, the distorted image made me feel embarrassed and ugly.
Racist Slap in the Face
A few weeks later, I was standing outside the lunchroom with a group of my friends when Jonah walked over.
“Ow, oh my god, Andre!” Jonah yelled as he stumbled closer to me.
“What happened?” I asked, inching away from him.
“Andre pushed me,” he said angrily.
I laughed. “Ow, oh my god, Andre!” I mimicked, trying to make a joke. Then Jonah slapped me so hard that my whole head jolted to the right. I held my cheek and closed my eyes, trying to contain the boiling anger inside of me.
“What the f-ck is wrong with you?” I said.
“Stop mimicking White people!” he yelled back.
I could see the hate seething in his eyes. I angrily stormed off to class.
Jonah does not view racism as a problem that still affects people today. Rather, he sees it as, “Bad things happened a while ago to people of color. White people caused them, so now everybody hates White people, which means everybody hates me.” “OK, I get it! Everybody hates White people!” he frequently said in an upset tone.
Other Black Students Support Me
About a month after the slap, Jonah and I had yet another conversation where I felt he was insensitive. “I’m not racist, my babysitter is Colombian,” he said, as if that made it clear. So my friends and I decided to talk to the school’s advisor. Maybe she could help us mediate this racial tension.
On the day of my meeting with the advisor, I saw Jonah was already in her office, red in the face and crying. I could feel an anxiety attack coming. I figured Jonah was telling her all about how we hate him because he’s White.
Suddenly, I heard a voice behind me. “Do you need us to come talk to the advisor with you?” I turned around and saw a group of six girls of color. They were older and I didn’t know them that well. One girl, Mica, grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “We got you,” she said. It was the first time since school had started that I felt supported and understood.
We squeezed into the advisor’s small office and I told her my version of what happened. When I finished, all she said was that Jonah hadn’t told her all the hurtful things he did. She added that he would be punished. I wished she had at least asked me if I was OK and what she could do to help. I felt like she didn’t actually care and was trying to rush all of us out.
Embarrassed, Not Validated
The following Monday the school called an emergency assembly.
The principal briefly described the drawing, the slap, and other racist things Jonah had said and done. We also learned he had been asked to leave the school and his family had agreed.
He added, “In circumstances like these, we need to be notified first before we can do anything.” He said the students who had been targeted were irresponsible because we did not make adults aware that any of this was going on.
He’s making this my fault, I thought. It’s hard to explain racism to people who have not experienced it, particularly White adults. But that’s what the principal expected me to do.
Next, my dean got up to the microphone and said, “Stand up if you’ve ever experienced racism before.”
All of my friends stood up, so I did too. I looked around the auditorium and saw only women and queer people of color standing. My embarrassment deepened as I looked up at the ceiling, trying not to cry.
As soon as the assembly ended, I rushed out into the hallway, sat on a bench and sobbed.
Confronting My Principal
A Black friend dragged me back into the auditorium to face the principal. In practically one breath I said through my tears, “I didn’t mean for this to get so out of hand. One minute it was just little microaggressions, and the next minute Jonah had slapped me. I didn’t feel like what had happened was valid enough for me to go into a room full of mostly White adults and tell on him. I don’t think you understand how difficult that can be. You put the entire blame on us and I don’t think we deserved that.”
I walked away, my friend’s hand on my shoulder.
I was surprised to see about 10 Black students and teachers waiting for me outside the auditorium. We stood in a circle laughing, crying, and talking about racism and inequality for what felt like hours. For the second time that week, I felt supported and validated.
After this assembly, I was so mentally drained, I stayed home sick for two weeks. A few of my Black teachers reached out to make sure I was OK, but none offered potential solutions, and that was disappointing. Other students told me the school held meetings about “diversity” and “tolerance” but those conversations just felt like protocol. After I went back to school, I noticed White teachers and higher-ups in my school acting cold toward me.
We Are in School to Learn
It hurts me to know that students and teachers had witnessed Jonah’s behavior toward me, but they either didn’t care or didn’t know what to do. Why didn’t they say anything when he drew that caricature, or when he slapped me? Why was it just up to me to call out racism?
I am tired of feeling defensive when I walk into a place where I’m supposed to be learning. I’m sick of having to explain hundreds of years of institutional racism to get some teacher to stop calling me by the wrong name, or get a student to understand why saying, “You laugh like a monkey” to a Black person is not OK.
Ideally, the school would have expelled Jonah rather than just asking him to leave voluntarily. An expulsion on his record would have made it clear his racism toward me was unacceptable, and I would have felt validated. I also wish the principal had acknowledged that a lot of the adults in charge are White and therefore it’s not always easy for a student of color to speak up about racism, rather than putting all the blame on me.
The White adults in my school haven’t made me feel more comfortable telling them when I experience or witness racism. Lately I am unmotivated to go to school and am thinking about transferring. I’m tired of having to be on edge about what stupid racist thing some White kid is going to say or do next.
But first, I am going to try to call people out. When something unacceptable happens, I will remind myself that the last time I didn’t say anything, I got slapped in my face. I hope holding people accountable will be easier this year now that I have more friends of color to support me. But I also know it’s not our obligation to police other students into showing us basic respect.
To any other student of color—especially those who are a minority in their school—know that you are allowed to take up space, and you don’t need the validation or permission of any White person to do so. We are in these schools to learn and we deserve to be there. We don’t have to carry the burden of anybody else’s racism.
Read about what teachers can do to combat and call out racism by YCteen Editors.