There is nothing new to me about being the other, the outsider, or the one different from all the rest. As I have previously blogged about, my early childhood experiences at a predominately white public school jolted me into an early understanding of my race and class. Regularly, I was the only black student in my honors classes, and I prided myself in being able to count the number of black students in my grade on my two hands. Three years later after leaving the hallowed gates of this elementary school, I began high school, and my otherness began anew. Though my urban high school was diverse on the surface with a mix of White, African-American, Hispanic, and South East Asian students, I remained as the only or one of two black students in my Honors and Advanced Placement classes. Whereas my outsider status had once isolated me as a young child, in high school it empowered me to excel in my classes and extracurricular activities. If I would be the only black student, then I would be the smartest, the most brilliant, and the most talented black student my school had ever seen.
Fast forward two years to when I began college at my alma mater, a small private White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) institution in my hometown. Again, I was one of few students of color of a student body of peers who graduated from the South’s best private and public schools. While my collegiate environment appeared to reflect that of my high school, I realized that college would be no idealistic part two sequel to high school. My former elementary classmates whom I had known from third grade to our senior year quickly shed our childhood allegiances for those of money, power, and family connections. They were the “in” girls and boys; I was the nobody. On the surface, we were equals. We graduated from the same high school, passed the same Advanced Placement exams, and were accepted into the same college. Yet, college is where our paths would divert. My high school classmates were second, third, and even fourth generation graduates of our alma mater; their grandparents, parents, and siblings were proud alumni of our institution. I was a first generation college student. They spent their summers at camps mingling with our new classmates from around the South. I spent my summers working and saving money for college. Their families already had existing social and business relationships with each other. Mine did not. A decade later, I still remained the other in my southern hometown.
Ironically, I thrived in this stifling, super-white environment and identified more with my blackness than I ever had before. I joined an organization for students of color and constantly reminded school administration that our institution needed to be more inclusive for students from all economic, social, and religious backgrounds. I cut off my chemically straightened hair and let my natural, kinky hair grow out for the first time in my adult life. I traveled abroad to countries with Afro-descendant populations to learn about the histories and struggles of “black” people across the globe. Campus social life was suffocating and reinforced my outsider status. However in my town, I found welcoming places like my beauty shop, my church, and social gatherings at a neighboring collegiate institution that validated my worth as a human being and as a black woman. On campus, I would never understand or acquire an affinity for seersucker pants or 80’s rock-n-roll music. In church, however, my lips could easily sing along to three part harmony of the latest gospel song, or at the Greek step show my hips could effortlessly fall into the familiar rhythm. Being the outsider was manageable because I could leave campus and refill on my blackness in familiar, empowering environments.
If you read the title of this post, “Being the black ‘other’ in Brazil”, I am sure you are confused why I am discussing in depth my experiences in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I painstakingly recount a childhood and adulthood in the South to demonstrate my intimate cognizance of being and thriving as an outsider. Nevertheless, none of these experiences could prepare me to counter these same feelings in Brazil.
Stay turned for part two..