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Navigating Life in a White School
I’m here to learn, not teach others about racism
Christina Oxley

From kindergarten to 5th grade, I went to P.S. 272, a large public elementary school in Canarsie, Brooklyn. I was way ahead of most of my class academically. While the other students completed worksheets, I braided my teacher’s hair, made copies and ran errands. At recess, they stuck us in an empty lot and we entertained ourselves with schoolyard fights. PE meant sitting in the gymnasium for 45 minutes because the teacher didn’t feel like teaching. Science class was cramming too many students into a small room to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Almost the entire student body was made up of black and Latinx kids, which seemed normal to me. I didn’t know what it meant to be a minority yet.

In 6th grade, my mother decided I needed a better school, and sent me to the private Cathedral School of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side. My class had only 14 students instead of 30. It was the first time I took school seriously, and the first time I ever heard the term “extracurriculars.” But what struck me the most was something I noticed as soon as I walked through the doors on the first day: Almost all of the kids were white.

As I tried to orient myself to my new, white world, I gravitated toward the two other black girls in my grade. At Cathedral I was challenged academically for the first time, but I was always being reminded I was different.

My Mission to Assimilate

By 7th grade I had subconsciously mastered the art of codeswitching—changing the way I speak and act based on whether I am around white people or not. I started caring more about grammatically correct sentence structures, even in casual conversations, and using different slang: “Y’all” became “you guys.”

I also had to learn what not to speak about: where I live, the ways I was punished as a kid, hair care, or even getting tan in the summer. These topics set me apart. I kept this filter on constantly as I went about my life at Cathedral, and my white peers got more comfortable around me. I noticed that I was more accepted when I erased aspects of myself that made me different.

I’ve since learned that white people like you a lot more when you don’t talk about race. I was the token black friend who made my white friends feel better about their white guilt.

Soon, my mission to assimilate became almost obsessive. I didn’t just want to fit in. I wanted what my peers had: the huge bedrooms, the nice clothes and the family vacations that got them out of school for an extra few days. I started to resent everything about my life. After seeing how good life could be, I hated that mine wasn’t. No matter how hard I tried, I would never be like them.

Finding Affinity

My school had three affinity groups: the Asian Affinity Group, the Gay-Straight Alliance and the Black/Latino Affinity Group. (There were not enough black and Latinx students to make separate groups, so we had to share.) I was reluctant to join the Black/Latino Affinity group at first because I was scared to call attention to my blackness.

But in 7th grade, some peers and teachers convinced me to join. In hindsight, I wish I’d done it sooner. For the first time since switching schools, I was sitting in a room with people who looked like me and understood me. The black and Latinx teachers who led the group listened to us and taught us how to recognize microaggressions and other acts of subtle (or not-so-subtle) racism that we face both in school and in the world. They introduced us to art as a means of self-expression and activism.

In the group, we talked about the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown. For the first time, I felt angry, sad, and confused about race. Paying more attention to the violent abuses of power that led to the deaths of innocent black people made me angrier at the world than I’d ever been. I realized that we live our lives in danger because of the color of our skin. I’ll never feel as strongly about police brutality as I did at that moment in my life because I had not yet been desensitized to it. My innocent perspective of the world was gone.

I no longer felt comfortable sitting in silent complacency. When black bodies were being treated like they didn’t matter out in the world, how could I stand by and allow my white peers to carry on that mentality in my school?

Something changed in me, and my white friends noticed. I started to call them out for making racist “jokes.” They’d tell me to calm down, which just made me even more angry.

image by YC-Art Dept

Unapologetically Black

In the 9th grade, I started to attend Grace Church, another predominantly white private school. The transition was easier because my brother was a senior there and his group of friends immediately welcomed me. There were around 10 of them, and they were all black.

My new friends taught me how to advocate for myself. They taught me how to be unapologetically black, and more importantly, unapologetically me. I had black teens to look up to and go to for advice. Between them and the black girls in my own grade, I had a support system that looked like me.

Feeling empowered by my black senior friends, I spoke up even more than I had in middle school. I had started growing out my natural hair and I was almost aggressively pro-black. Freshman year was the first time I said to a white person, “Don’t touch my hair,” a phrase I would end up repeating countless times.

On one school trip, a white kid was constantly making jokes about his black friend’s physical features, saying things like, “Look how black he is in this picture,” and “How is your nose so big?!” Another kid said that he thought gay people were disgusting. None of the teachers called them out for their comments, so I did. I got upset often, and white students feared me because I was demanding respect.

Part of my experience at Grace was learning that my existence made others uncomfortable. My black friend group always sat together at the back of the cafeteria. It was the one place in the school we felt was our space. We weren’t exclusive—we had a few white friends who sat with us—but others didn’t see it that way.

The loud laughs coming from the back table made the rest of the lunchroom uneasy. Teachers would come tell us to quiet down, no matter how loud everyone else was. White students were scared because we existed how we wanted to. We didn’t tailor our speech for their comfort. I noticed all the stares, the whispers, and the people asking, “Why do all the black kids sit together at lunch?” No matter how much fun I had at the back table, I was always aware of how others viewed us.

The Angry Black Woman

By sophomore year, my nickname might as well have been the Angry Black Woman. By then I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates and Malcolm X, and watching hours of videos of slam poetry by black poets like Kai Davis and Crystal Valentine. I followed pro-black accounts on Instagram and Twitter and found the representation I needed. Influenced by all of this, I finally found words to express my feelings about my black experience.

I was evolving into a young woman who was proud of who I was. I was learning about how the world works and has always worked to oppress people like me. I knew I had a right to be mad that I wasn’t being respected in my school or in America. But at school, others just saw me as angry. I started to get into a lot of arguments with my peers about race. I didn’t back down and I didn’t let others speak over me. I needed to be heard.

Yet, no matter how empowered I was as a black woman, predominantly white spaces still managed to make me feel powerless at times.

Why Am I the Racism Police?

I started to realize that the rest of the school looked to the black students to raise concerns about racism at Grace. When someone said something problematic in class, even the teachers would wait for us to address it rather than dealing with it themselves. But when we did speak up, it took much more effort for us to get an issue acknowledged than it would have for white kids.

One day, seeing two black students walk into his class, a white
student named Jamie said to his friends, “You know what I hate? N-gger girls with afros.” Instead of reporting this act of blatant racism to a teacher or addressing the issue himself, one of Jamie’s friends came to me about it. He didn’t even tell me exactly what Jamie said at first. He was scared I would get his friend in trouble. He came to me because he knew that what Jamie said was wrong, but he didn’t think that his friend deserved any consequences for his action. I did not agree.

I told my black friends, including the ones Jamie’s comment was directed towards, and we all went directly to teachers in our school. It took about four meetings over the course of a week before the dean talked to Jamie. Jamie was suspended for two days and forced to apologize to the two black girls. He cried, avoided eye contact, and didn’t address them by their names. The parents of one of the girls repeatedly asked the school to meet with Jamie and his parents, but the school never got back to them.

image by YC-Art Dept

Fortunately, the majority of the student body felt that what Jamie said was inappropriate. But his comments made the black students and the two black teachers at Grace feel unwelcome and unsafe on our own campus. The incident permanently shifted the way I viewed my school.

Microaggressions were a daily reality for me, but this was not. The use of the racial slur alone is demeaning enough. But Jamie saw two black students and felt the need to verbally dehumanize them and everyone in the school who looks like them. He got two extra days off of school, along with some other requirements from his dean. I’m not sure he ever learned why what he said was wrong. The deans and head of school never fully disclosed to the two targeted students what the administration was doing to make sure they felt safe.

Tired of Being an Activist

On top of an intense workload, studying for the SAT, and choreographing pieces for the Dance Ensemble, I was trying to dismantle the systems that subtly oppress marginalized groups in my school. But it wasn’t working. By junior year I’d lost count of all the frustrating conversations I’d had with my peers and the times I’d been called angry or scary. (Not to mention the times I had to correct teachers who called me Stephanie instead of Christina because they couldn’t tell the difference between the black students.)

“Why are they always talking about race? We get it already,” my classmates would say, groaning and rolling their eyes. But they obviously didn’t get it.

After three years of spoon-feeding people explanations of why certain remarks and behaviors are racist, my white peers still touched my hair and my teachers still called me by the wrong name. Spending my energy trying to educate people who will never see me as their equal started to affect me in a way I hadn’t expected. For the first time ever, I was tired of being an activist.

I walked around feeling defeated. I wanted to be able to go to school without having to think about race. I wanted to be able to change my hairstyle without worrying about being gawked at. I wanted to create a world where bigotry didn’t exist, and I wanted to be able to live in it. But I realized that no matter how much effort I put in, or how patient and calm I force myself to be, I can’t transform my school into that kind of utopia.

After talking to a few trusted teachers, I realized I was not taking care of myself. Fighting racism 24/7 exhausted me. To preserve my sanity, I had to learn that not every fight is worth my energy, and to let some things go so I’m not angry all the time. I am still trying to figure out how to balance speaking out with putting my mental health first.

I also had to recognize that educating my peers is not my job. Although being black is a large part of my identity and has greatly influenced my educational experience, I come to school to learn. Being the racism police should not be my first priority. But I also feel that if I don’t take the time to work on making my school a more inclusive environment, nobody will.

Earlier this year, I got a text from my friend Isabel, apologizing for touching my hair in 9th grade. She wrote, “I know it’s really, really late, but I’ve learned so much since, particularly that me being white allows me to get away with crap like that, and I want you to know that I’m really sorry.”

Isabel’s message reminded me that what I’m doing is necessary and I shouldn’t give up. I told her that it’s important to acknowledge things like this because that’s what progress looks like. It surprised me how much this text meant to me. It’s a reminder that change is slow, but not impossible. If racism was easy to eradicate, people would have done it already, so I feel that my goal is to keep moving forward.

Effective Change

Now I’m working on figuring out effective strategies for change. I think everyone should be working on creating inclusive spaces, not just the marginalized people. To me, an inclusive space is one where peers listen to each other and are willing to learn about other cultures and experiences. People can be who they are without fear of judgment, and everyone is working to keep it that way.

Isabel’s text made me realize that change is personal. Racism has been deeply woven into the fabric of America for centuries. Oppressive systems run so deep that it can be difficult to recognize or explain why microaggressions like touching a black person’s hair are racially motivated. When everyone is able to turn inward and think of ways to help with any form of bigotry, then we can make the world a bit better.

White allies should use their privilege to make others aware of racism. For example, if someone makes a joke in your presence at the expense of a black person’s sense of safety, it’s up to you to start a conversation with the person who said it. (My white friends had gotten used to coming to me when their friends did something racist. I started to respond with, “OK, and what did you say?”)

At the same time, if your black peer wants to speak on an issue, it’s not your job to speak over them or for them. Everyone needs to listen a little more, even to perspectives you cannot fully understand. Being stuck in one point of view prevents you from seeing the ways your actions can negatively impact another person.

A few years of being the racism police at my school won’t stop racism, but I still feel that my voice is necessary. But others need to step up too. When they do, black people won’t have to feel like it’s only up to us to fight racism.