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  • Bethel Girma

Public to Private School: A Racial Transition

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

If I was told to describe my overall experience in school and the journey it has given me as a young woman of color, I would solely provide you with the words “confusion” and “assimilation.” From kindergarten to the third grade, I attended a public school in northern Virginia. I was just like any other kid. I rode the bus. I ate my breakfast at school. I was dropped off in a neighborhood of condos, and I had a decent amount of friends.

In retrospect, there were not many moments that I felt out of place or “unordinary.” To be completely honest, elementary school was likely the peak of my self-esteem. Interestingly enough, I never truly questioned this until I knew what it felt like to be one of the only black kids in a majority white, conservative, private Catholic school.

Earlier on in public school, while being in an environment where I recognized myself within my peers, my concerns were very limited. Not only did growing up seeing kids who looked like me dodge any physical ostracizing, but I remember having the sense of relating with my peers on a societal, and even cultural level. I only recognized and became grateful for this once I did not have it anymore.

It would be reasonable to think that this comfortable atmosphere was only shattered immediately after my transition to a private school, but unfortunately, racism and prejudice still find their presence within every societal outlet.

So to be clear, while I had the comfort of having mostly black peers and teachers, the experience I had in public school was definitely not left untouched by the early on-set of racially motivated subjugation. Particularly, I remember one of my first encounters with racial discrimination in school, and at the time I was only given the tools to identify it as “bullying,” which I came to realize years later was a much deeper interaction than what I had initially understood.

It was my kindergarten year and just like every other kid, I was rushing to the playground to make the most of the sacred, yet limited time known as recess. Keep in mind, this was when I was still making friends and adapting to groups of people, as it was my first year at the school. The friends that I had made so far, seemed to belong to a particular friend group of Hispanic girls at the time. I remember hearing them plan a game that I was so eager to join in on, but when I expressed my interest in playing, a shift within the group was clearly present.

To be fair, the friends of mine were welcoming me, but it only took one girl to look me in my face and say, “We don’t play with black girls, only white people.” While the irony here is that she herself was not a white person, nevertheless, the impact it had on the rest of the girls’ decision to include me was surprising.

Although this was just the beginning of many microaggressions and both direct and indirect discrimination, I will never forget the black lady sitting on the bench next to us who spoke up for me. I never met this woman before; I had never seen her in school either, yet she was able to advocate for me and voice what I was feeling inside, even when I could not do it for myself. So, while I went home that day grasping what it felt like to be discriminated against due to the hue of my skin instead of the content of my character, I understood the importance of black allies, whether it was a parent, teacher, or even a woman I just met.

To no one’s surprise, the true awakening to the challenges that come with black girl magic were introduced to me by my previous conservative, Catholic school. I was one of the two black girls in my class, with the exception of two other mixed girls, one of them being white-passing. A frustration that I still hold today is the fact that I was not able to clearly identify in words what I had felt in terms of racially insensitive circumstances.

At the time, I didn’t even know where to begin labeling actions as microaggressions, cultural appropriations, or simply even calling out racist remarks without sounding like a dramatic black girl. I started attending the school in the fourth grade, and it took me four years to understand the gravity of some of my experiences and the shared encounters I had with other black girls. For each grade I attended at this school, I will clearly give an example of when I had been put in a racially insensitive situation.

Fourth Grade: The class movie choice was Percy Jackson. Afterward, I was repeatedly called Medusa by my peers because the braids in my hair apparently resembled the snakes she had attached to her head. While to them, this was a joke that they probably did not remember, I went on to straighten and damage my hair in the following year.

Fifth Grade: We reached the chapter on Africa in our history textbooks. The kid next to me laughed when I had a question about the lesson and proceeded to ask me, “Shouldn’t you already know everything about Africa?”

Sixth Grade: A small joke some of my friends liked to make was comparing skin tones to the level of how “baked” a cookie was. While my white friends were labeled as undercooked and my mixed friends were perfectly baked, I was burnt. Was this only a joke? Yes. Were my feeling still hurt? Yes. Did I fail to call it out because I feared that I would be ruining the fun? (hint: also yes)

Seventh Grade: Since this was such a small school with all-white teachers, racial slurs easily slipped by among students. Yup, the N-word that people just cannot seem to resist. But no worries! Some days they graciously decided to tone it down by using alternatives like “nibba” or “wibba."

Eighth Grade: Somehow, the boys in the class got a hold of the inner-city black culture of durags. The sock material covers used for our textbooks fell victim to the silky straight hair of white boys. I specifically remember this happening while I heard “wave-check” being tossed around, and I remember trying my best to explain my discomfort. I was told by multiple people that it was not that serious and that it was just a joke. If I knew then what I knew now, I would have explained the cultural appropriation behind the use of durags and its history with slave women using them as head wraps to keep their hair up and out of the way during labor. But I let it go.

Throughout all of this, every instance was like a tiny poke at my heart that I chose to ignore. Especially earlier on in elementary school, I knew in my heart what I felt, but I was so hesitant to bring it to words, knowing that if I was not able to express myself clearly, then I would be moving in an unproductive direction.

However, I do want to acknowledge my shift in self-awareness in the seventh grade, when I applied to be a part of a program for students of color who strove to get the best education. This is where I remember feeling reconnected to people, even though I had not met these people before. These were people who shared and understood many of my experiences.

It was like the gap that formed in the past four years had been replenished with the bonds of other black girls and boys. After the eighth grade, I had a summer retreat with the same organization, and that experience was almost like the ribbon that tied it all together. It was a combination of everything I have previously seen and heard being addressed!

For the first time in my life, someone sat me down and gave me the tools: the tools that I was lacking in order to rebuild myself, that allowed me to progress with intelligence instead of anger. I now knew how to address these uncomfortable remarks and out-of-line situations that I, and so many others, were forced to learn how to deal with. Today, I attend a rich, white, private high school in Northern Virginia. But I am nowhere near the girl that I was five to ten years ago.

When I look back at my elementary days under public education, I see a much brighter and free-spirited girl. Except that same girl was naïve and unaware of the significance of her experiences as a black girl.

When I look back at my schooling under a private Catholic education, I see a reserved and reluctant girl. That girl had become aware of her struggles, but she had yet to understand the potential that the power of her words could have. Today, I am proud to say that I have been able to bring myself out from under the lens of the world, and I have managed to grow to love the challenges that come with being who I am.

With that being said, our world today is beginning to wake up, and with that comes the various opportunities to grow in who we are, especially when it comes to advocating for our people. As this article highlights, my growth took fifteen years to form just to advocate for myself, and I still have yet to learn.

However, we should not need a decade to begin learning, educating ourselves, and reaching out for the tools we need to survive the hatred of this world. The tools we require in our words and actions not only help the individual person, but have the power to help an entire race of people, particularly for the over-due justice of all of our black and brown people.

If there is anything the past couple of years have taught me, it is that I have the strength within me to be the necessary voice in a society that racially subjugates its people. And if there is anything the past couple of months have taught me, it is that everyone has the strength within themselves to be an amplifying voice for others.

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