In a sense, I’m sure every African-American can relate or has related to this feeling at one time or another. You enter a new situation and instantly look for another black person because at the end of the day you assume they’ll relate to you on some level that other races can’t. Feeling like you have to talk or act a certain way in social situations so you won’t appear uneducated and “ghetto.” I’d be lying if I said that at some of those corporate meetings I didn’t feel like I was playing catch-up in a game where most of the white people already knew and made up the rules. I can even confess that there was a time when I constantly had to reassure myself that I was just as skilled and professional as any other person sitting around that boardroom. And the truth is, there was nothing that any white person ever did to make me feel that way. In fact even many of the colleagues I worked with were polite and even friendly and seemed more invested in the work we were accomplishing than they were worried about any race relations and diversity issues. Honestly, any discomfort I experienced was probably self-imposed.
So what can we do to make sure that our youth don’t feel instantly inferior or uncomfortable when they enter new situations where white people are the majority? I think it’s important to show them that not only is there diversity through different races, but within individual races as well. In my childhood I saw plenty of black athletes and unfortunately, even criminals, but I also saw black business owners, bankers, nurses and more. Unfortunately, these examples are limited in the media, so that means you might have to get on a bus or in the car and do some traveling for some in-the-flesh examples. It’s also important to educate our children. There’s nothing stronger than a person with good balance of street smarts and book knowledge because the saying is true: No one can take your education from you. Encourage your children to read books from people of all backgrounds and teach them how to carry themselves in any situation so that they can defy the assumptions that they suspect people may make about them. Lastly, reassure them that they do belong. They have just as much of a right to be in the art museum, an Ivy League university or even shaking the hands of senators in Washington D.C. as anyone else. It’s important that we challenge some assumptions that we historically hold as well. I just had a cousin who was accepted into a university that was located a few hours from home, and it took everything in me to not flip out on family members who tried to convince her not to go because they assumed it was a racist place (because of the lack of diversity). We can’t allow our fears (real or imagined) to hold us or our children back from bettering ourselves.
While we embrace our history this month and every month and those who have struggled to make a way for our communities, we should also not allow ourselves to be prisoners of the past and prisoners of our own communities. Dare to be different and explore opportunities that you may have avoided because you were worried that you would be that “awkward black person” left out. Even if it means shopping at a mall that’s in a different neighborhood, or going to a school where your race is the minority, the best gifts that we can give our children is the courage to make a change, the confidence to know that they belong and the strength to stand out.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable being the “minority” in a situation?
Toya Sharee is a community health educator and parenting education coordinator who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee.
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