Race is something we are taught to overlook. On a planet with varying pallets of vibrant color, it is taboo to discuss shades. It’s true, race is socially constructed, yet it has managed to define the experiences of entire generations. We consistently invalidate this experience by muting the discussion: “I am a colorblind person, I value humanity above all else” is guised as an innocent inclusive remark, but is possibly one of the most ferociously ignorant statements ever made. For so much of my life I was just as “colorblind.”
See, I grew up in an affluent area and, though I didn’t realize it then, the privileges I experienced in my environment warped my entire perception of race, without my consent. I went to one of the best high schools in the nation, so I was always immersed in a diverse environment where my classmates ranged from White Jewish conservative kids, to Korean break-dance loving dudes and me, a black, smart, and extremely-involved female.
I did just about everything in high school, from cheerleading, to student government—and my race never placed any limitations on what I could and couldn’t be. I lived a fantasy for most people that share my racial identity. In a way, I suppose I kind of ignored it. I definitely did not have as many black friends in high school but I always justified it as a result of a lack of shared interests and classes. As an Honors/ AP/IB hybrid student I never interacted with my peers that were in on-level courses (generally where other students of color would be found). Despite my high school resume, during the college acceptance period one of my classmates attributed my admission to competitive schools to my racial identity, in other words my blackness. It bothered me, but I shrugged it off.
Freshman year I moved into a campus dorm at my state college. My building had many scholarship kids from the underprivileged areas of the state. I remember finding it infuriating that a girl I met from an indisputably privileged background had been able to reap the benefits of a system in place to help the impoverished simply due to residing in an “underprivileged” part of the state. At the same time, I didn’t really understand why the kids in the scholarship program got scholarships over some of the rest of us in other parts of the state. Coming from a nicer part of town did not mean I had no use for additional financial aid; college is expensive regardless of where you may be from. Everyone could use a little bit more money to help them out.
I took a communications class early in my college career. Convinced I was remedying a social injustice, I delivered a speech in the class on why I thought affirmative action was discrediting the hard work of students of color as well as disenfranchising impoverished whites. Looking back, it was not my proudest moment. While I did believe socio-economic ails should be addressed in education accessibility, it wasn’t until my junior year, when I took a class on the rhetoric of black America, that I would begin to realize the other reality of blackness that I had successfully ignored for my entire life thus far. I signed up for the class to get a credit; I walked out with a harsh reality check.
That semester we read a lot of literature on the realities of racial identity, but the most resonant piece was probably a book that was co-written by Emmett Till’s mother on the realities behind her sons passing. She discussed everything from the court cases, to the murder, to the funeral. This narrative invalidated everything I had learned in the history books. The blatant and unapologetic imbalance, the injustice, of life as a black man in America was raw and heart-breaking—more so in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. In fact, the Trayvon Martin case was my wake-up call. I could now see that the over 50 years since the Emmett Till case we had brought limited social change. While I understand that change is something progressive, I also believe it is something we have to actively pursue. However, how vigorous is our pursuit of the truth if Emmett Tills story remains hidden in our educational discussions, if Mike Brown is dead, and if I, as a black female with a solid educational background, only became conscious of this reality at 20? The “top schools” I went to afforded me rich discussions of American history and the civil war while glossing over the pertinent discussions of slavery, and Jim Crow—that were the causes.
To better your future, you must know your past, each stepping stone that has been cast. Though painful, we have to remember the good, as well as the bad, and awake to the truth of the modern day.
I am now conscious but I fear for a nation that still sleeps.
Nazia Kaendera wrote this piece for Flux, a forum for those of us encountering adulthood. She is a twenty-something year old student who has a passion for the elevation of authentic feminism and black rights. Nazia’s favorite pastimes are dishing out the harsh realities of the world, ripping ignorant/privileged assholes a good one and recklessly educating her peers on social issues at the expense of their Disney-esque perceptions of the world.