Statistically speaking, I was never supposed to make it to college, let alone an Ivy League institution. I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a city that was named the most segregated city in the entire United States and the worst place to raise Black children in recent years. The zip code 53206 is the most incarcerated zip code in the nation; I used to live in 53222. I was raised by a single mother with the help of my grandma and always did my best to set a good example for my two little brothers, but it was hard. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to get into a high-ranked but predominantly white high school outside of my neighborhood through a program that allowed a certain number of “inner-city kids” (code word for minorities) to attend. My youngest brother also got accepted into the elementary school nearby so I drove him to school each morning and picked him up when I was done with class most days, where the parents of the other children would glare at me thinking I was a Black teenage mom infiltrating their inner circle. If a parent did decide to strike up a conversation with me, they would constantly get me confused with my mom even though I’m five inches taller than her and have a completely different figure.
In high school, I experienced teachers assuming I wasn’t smart when they first met me and being surprised when I tested into advanced classes, peers wanting me to teach them all of the popular dances, touching my hair constantly, and making snide comments about the way that I spoke, as if having proper grammar meant that I was “talking white.” In reality, I just have a mom who was an English teacher and encouraged me to read. Even though I proved myself by having above a 4.0 GPA, being a member of student council, captain of two sports teams, a member of the national honor society and having various other accolades, being one of only three people from my school to get into an Ivy League caused me even more issues. People told me that I was “lucky” to have my background as if I didn’t put in hours of work to get to where I was, as if my work ethic alone wasn’t enough. I was frustrated, and my dad even told me he was concerned about me going to an Ivy League because he knew I would experience hardships related to my race and socioeconomic status, but I told him that I wasn’t going to sacrifice a great education because of ignorant people. News flash: they’re everywhere.
My time at Cornell has been great, but as I expected, I’ve faced adversity here as well. I went to a party with my team and was enjoying myself, when a song came on that had the N-word in its lyrics multiple times. As soon as I heard the song come on, I knew I needed to brace myself and I became uneasy as I looked around the room and all of the white people there were practically shouting the lyrics from every direction. I tried looking around to make eye-contact with another Black person for solidarity, but I realized I was the only one there at the time. I got so overwhelmed and was extremely disappointed, so I immediately left the party and cried on my way home. I am usually one to speak up for myself and call people out for things that I feel are offensive, but I was extremely outnumbered, and the music was blasting so there was nothing I could do. Nobody even realized how much of an impact it had on me, I felt so powerless. Ever since then, when my team has a party they want to go to I try to figure out if I’m going to be the only Black person there or not, and what kind of company I’m going to be surrounded by, something my white teammates will never have to worry about.
Minorities have to constantly think about things that others take for granted, especially when they’re the only minority in the group. For example, I try to make sure that I smile at everyone if I’m the only Black person in a room, making sure no one has an excuse to peg me as the “Angry Black Woman.” I try not to draw attention to myself so that no one can use me as an example for why they don’t like being around Black people. I feel like I always have to set a good example because when you’re the only minority in an area you automatically become the spokesperson for your entire race. I always make notice of how many exits there are when I walk into an unfamiliar place, just in case something dangerous were to happen since I stand out pretty easily. I find myself stuck in this limbo where I want to go to majority Black parties so I won’t have to be on alert, but being without my team, or staying with my teammates and going to parties where I know a lot of people but being one of the only minorities there. I wish I didn’t have to choose. Luckily, my team has become more diverse throughout the years and I feel much more comfortable going out with them now.
Although this is definitely something I wish I didn’t have to think about, I’ve learned from experiences like these and they have made me stronger. I am more observant and understanding of other people and their backgrounds. Wherever I go, I do my best to make others feel welcome, because I know how awkward it can be to feel like you don’t belong in a place that you have every right to be in. What I’ve realized is that although it is never a minority’s duty to educate others about cultural differences and how to avoid being offensive, when I allowed myself to be fully transparent about my “Blackness” in white spaces it made a difference in my comfort level. I used to feel like I could never truly be myself, but in reality, it’s helped others understand me on a deeper level and allowed me to feel comfortable enough to have important conversations with people if they ever arise. I know for certain I wouldn’t feel comfortable trying to delve into a whole historical monologue about why something was offensive to say if it was to someone I avoided being myself with. However, if I’ve already had meaningful interactions with someone in the past, hopefully no conversation would even need to be had because they learned about me and my background naturally. If a discussion was needed, it would be a more genuine and less-heated conversation. Obviously, there is no way to become acquainted with every person you meet but being yourself brings awareness effortlessly, so to me there is no harm in trying.
I plan on going to law school in the future, so once I get my seat at the table I am going to make sure that I open the doors for other minorities who have had similar experiences, to make sure that they can feel comfortable in any space that they are in. As I head into my senior year here at Cornell, I hope to continue to beat the odds and set an example for people who have the odds stacked against them as well. I came from a city that is known for incarceration and segregation and ended up at an Ivy League school getting a great education and playing a sport that I love. The negative incidents that happen here don’t deter me from appreciating this opportunity; I earned my spot here and I’m not looking back. I am not a statistic; I am a success.
Cornell University ‘20