Black Girl in a White World
I currently work as a full-time Social Emotional Counselor for an “elite” boarding school in Atlanta, Georgia. Moving from NYC to ATL was a major step for me on so many levels. I went from being surrounded by all of my family and my closest friends, to basically being by myself; from riding mass transit every day, to purchasing my first car; from being part of the same church congregation since age 4, to having to search for a brand new place of worship.
Amidst all of these changes, perhaps the biggest adjustment came when I started my new job. For the first time in my life, I TRULY felt like a minority in the workplace. You see, most of my life was spent surrounded by other brown faces; school, work, church, social gatherings. You name it, I was always with people who looked like me. It wasn’t until I moved here that I realized the level of comfort and safety I felt in that.
The first time I ever remember feeling like a minority was when I attended grad school at Columbia University, which, at the time, ranked around #2 in the top social work programs in the entire country. At the time I was accepted into the program, I didn’t have time to think about how the school’s ivy league status would impact me. I remember walking into my HBSE (Human Behavior in the Social Environment) class for the first time and feeling the blackest I have ever been. Out of sixty students in the lecture hall, there were maybe four brown faces total (including mine).
Because I grew up in the South Bronx, I always went to school with black & Hispanic kids. Seeing a white face, for me, was always relegated to times when I rode the train downtown. In high school, my friends and I would walk from our school on 66th Street to the train station at 72nd Street, because we knew that all the white people would be exiting the train around 96th Street. We knew that if we made our way to where the white folks were sitting, we were guaranteed to have a seat for our ride back up to the Bronx (once they got off.) I digress.
During my time in numerous lecture halls, while participating in conversations and discussions, I recall the feeling of needing to censor myself because I never wanted to come across as the “angry black woman”. Surely the people sitting in this room with me couldn’t possibly identify with some of the things I had experienced as a young black girl, growing up in the inner city and going to public schools. I mean, everything about me, (the color of my skin, the way I dressed, the way I spoke,) was a stark contrast to every single person around me.
Fast Forward to the Present
Here I am, again, at a predominantly white institution. While this time around was not as shocking or uncomfortable as the first, there have definitely been plenty of WTF moments; moments that make me wish I was surrounded by people who either looked like me or at least better understood my struggles. Working here has also forced me to confront and come to terms with some of my own biases. For example, there is an unspoken notion in communities of color that when you “infiltrate” the white system (climb ladders, work with more white people, or enter into certain circles) that you have magically “arrived”.
Um, where exactly have I arrived?
Where exactly do I go, now that I’m here?
Why is it that my arrival is measured by the amount of white people around me?
Though, I have fallen victim to this way of thinking, I have since taken measures to correct this negative point of view (as well as challenged others to do the same).
The Hair Chronicles
Let me tell you how UNCOMFORTABLE it is for me at work sometimes. Something as simple as the way I choose to wear my hair can sometimes cause me so much stress. Though I’m a natural girl, occasionally I will rock some some tracks or straighten my hair because I’m versatile like that and damnit it’s MY hair!
From the stares, to the comments, it can all be overwhelming. “OMG Shakira you change your hair so often. How do you do that?” Usually I will reply with a smile or occasionally I’ll hit them with “black girl magic”. But nothing compares to the time one of my students nearly TRIED my life. It took everything in me, not to let my inner South Bronx black girl come shining all the way through. I had just gotten my hair pressed out the night before, (and yes I had some tracks put in…because I’m cute.) As I’m walking up to the school building, some of my students greeted me and a few pointed out that my hair was different and/or complimented my new look. One student, however, ran out the building and yelled with all of the enthusiasm of a thousand cheerleaders combined “OMG, Ms. Jones...I love your weave!!!!” At this moment, I was seeing red. WHATTTTT? Time stood still as I saw the eyes of some of the other students exponentially widen. Now being the professional that I am, I smiled and kept it moving, but trust and believe that there was a small inferno raging inside me.
Now let me explain to you, just as I did her, why her comment was inappropriate.
“It is RUDE for you to assume that I have a weave in my hair just because you have never seen my hair straightened. Contrary to popular belief, us colored folk can have long hair too. I have PLENTY of hair on my head (and it’s a nice length too), but weaves are easier and keep my natural tresses protected.”
To put things further in perspective, I then asked my student, “If I saw a white woman with unusually large breasts or a round donk, do you think it would it be ok for me to walk up and compliment her implants?”
At this point, the student’s eyes widened and she she said “OMG Ms. Jones, NO!”
And then of course, there are the times when white people feel the need to reach out and touch your hair, as if you’re a damn animal at the petting zoo. I’ve had to check a few people for that too!
The Fabric of Our Lives
In addition to the never-ending hair chronicles, I’ve experienced a plethora of other uncomfortable situations at work, like:
- Keeping cool when folks at work look to my white female supervisor to validate exactly what I just said moments prior.
- Dealing with white students who think it’s ok to use the word nigger (oh excuse me, niggAH), "because it’s 2017".
- Having colleagues blatantly ignore me when I’m walking by myself, but are all smiles and giggles when I’m walking with my white supervisor.
- Oh and let me not forget to mention the fact that one of my neighbors has this decorative piece on their front door, that is an actual cotton plant, like with REAL cotton on the branches.
Listen, being a black girl in a white world is rough, and honestly it gets pretty lonely sometimes. Because of the way most black women are portrayed in today’s society, finding a healthy balance is both difficult and exhausting. When all is said and done, I just want to live my life. Like “Auntie” Maxine Waters said “Be who you are, do what you do…” That’s all I’m trying to do, that’s all I’m trying to do.
Like this Article? Thank Shakira.
Shakira Nicole is a 30-something woman originally from NYC, currently living in ATL. She has a strong passion for working with youth from undeserved areas, and with young women in particular. As a licensed social worker she strongly believes that her "life is dedicated to making bad days good..."