Words by Lauren Elizabeth
Perhaps Scandal fans will recall the episode in which Olivia Pope’s father reminds her of his mantra, “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.”
I couldn’t believe I’d heard it on television.
I’m sure I am not the only Black person who was told that very same thing as a child. My upbringing was interesting. Both of my parents had spent a fair share of their own childhoods ‘in the hood,’ and neither of them were college graduates while I was growing up. All of our clothes were hand-me downs, just about all the appliances in our home were broken, and there were times when I had to wait to get to school to brush my teeth, because our water had been turned off. One Christmas, my father sat us down to explain to us that we might even lose our home to foreclosure. At the same time, we always lived in the suburbs and were encouraged by our parents to speak with correct grammar, read for information, be self-educated, and we were taught the value of good posture and a firm hand-shake. My sisters and I carried ourselves like the daughters of dignitaries despite the fact that, when compared to our peers, we were living in relative poverty.
My earliest memories of feeling inferior in a predominantly Caucasian society began in elementary school. I watched with envy as my fair-skinned classmates ran their hands through their smooth, silky hair. I marveled at the diverse coloring of their eyes – the hazels, the blues, and the greens. I groaned inwardly when partnered with White girls for group activities, and always seemed to be left out of the group. They always seemed prettier and happier, and I lamented that I would never be able to emulate their effortless and carefree beauty. As I grew older and was allowed to visit friends’ homes, I realized that I not only would never look like them, I would never live like them. Their homes were bigger. Their cars were shinier. Their parents were scientists, lawyers, or doctors, and at eleven years of age my peers had aspirations for careers in fields like marine biology. I had only thought so far as to wonder whether my parents would even be able to afford for me to attend college. In high school, the Black kids I hung around told me that I was too “White” (as if Whites are the only ones with the ability to speak standard English and not have criminal inclinations). Conversely, the White kids I hung around always seemed to add an exorbitant amount of slang to their vocabulary whenever they spoke to me. I was greeted by my white friends with a hearty “Yo! Yo! Yo!” instead of just, you know, “Hi.” Or some well meaning White person would say something extremely insulting like, “You know, you’re not like other Black people. You’re so smart!” In my world history class, we spent nearly the entire year talking about Europe. We spent three weeks talking about Asia. And one full week was dedicated to African history. Not really all of African history, though, just the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. And yet if I had spoken out about any of these things, I can almost guarantee that I would have been labeled as “bitter,” or “stuck in the past.”
Until my first year in college, I had subconsciously held onto the belief that Blacks were dumb, poor, and ugly, and that our contribution to the world began and ended with slavery. I attended an HBCU (Historically Black College and/or University), and I credit the HBCU community for instilling in me a sense of pride and cultural worth. Many of the core requirement courses emphasized the intellectual achievements of Africans and people of African descent. We read African and African-American literature. We discussed the richness of African history and culture – before slavery. We talked about African mathematicians, African astronomers, African scientists, and African doctors – we were gently lead out of the mindset that being African-American meant having no significant past, and no significant future. It was in college that I experienced my first encounters with communities of Black businessmen, Black politicians, and Black scientists in large volumes.
I remember one Saturday morning when I had gotten up early to go to the laundry room in my dorm. Someone had recently stolen my clothes from the dryer, so I had become accustomed to sitting there with my clothes until they were finished. I sat up on top of the washing machine, next to the window, and began reading a copy of “David Walker’s Appeal.” While reading, it suddenly hit me that the negative things I had somehow come to believe about my race were simply not true. I vowed to myself right there on top of that washing machine that I would not neglect my education. I vowed that I would have a significant future; that I would contribute meaningfully to society. I’d heard it said a million times, but for the first time I realized that I stood on the shoulders of ancestors who’d fought and died to give me the opportunities I now enjoy.
As fate would have it, I ended up marrying a Paraguayan man with a very interesting back-story. My marriage to him has, in part, earned for me the trust of Hispanic-Americans who confide in me their struggles as a minority group in this country. It is so interesting to parallel the injustices that Hispanics are now facing, with what African-Americans have faced during our time in this nation.
Growing up in a minority -in any minority group, I’m sure – is not easy. I can’t speak for all Black people, but for the better part of my life I have felt as though I am always battling stereotypes and defending myself against relentless attacks; Attacks from the media – when the only important Black character in a movie is loud and ignorant. Attacks from strangers come when I am stopped by police and publicly patted down and searched in a mall because the store associate who’d been following me around accused me of shoplifting. Attacks from friends or acquaintances – who automatically assume that I speak a certain way, listen to rap, and know how to ‘twerk.’ I have become very passionate about the African-American community, and about finding ways for us to better ourselves. We have been free in this country for only 150 years, and there is still a lot of emotional healing that needs to take place.
We are a young community, like adolescent children of abusive foster parents, disconnected from our roots and still trying to find our sense of purpose and self-worth in this world. Even still, I believe that things are continuously getting better. And I hope to one day be on the front line, fighting for these positive changes.
For more of Lauren’s writing, check out her blog The Blind Mouse.