In high school, I once joked that I didn’t find out I was Black until my first day of sixth grade.
That is, of course, an exaggeration; my parents and my parents’ parents are Black, and I have never dissociated myself from my identity. The kernel of truth at the core of my joke was that my Blackness, once a default state of being, became newly salient to me upon attending Prospect Sierra Middle School, a predominantly white private institution in a suburb of the San Francisco Bay Area. By the eighth grade, I was still battling social anxiety and poor self-image that resulted from being a racial minority for the first time in my life. While my personal struggles did not subside by the time I began high school at Marin Academy, another predominantly white private school in the Bay Area, feeling relatively more anchored in my circumstances enabled me to channel my grievances into social justice efforts on campus. During my sophomore year, I became the co-president of the Black Student Union, a role in which I facilitated a number of meetings and teach-ins about key concerns amongst Black students and Black communities more broadly, including but not limited to the n-word, colorism and police brutality. My reputation as an advocate for racial justice was so well-established, in fact, that the vice president of the student body introduced me as a “social justice warrior” ahead of my Senior Speech. My high school persona might have been helped by the fact that I was the only Black girl in my graduating class, accompanied by only one other young Black man.
The momentum I gained in high school as a leader in identity-based advocacy circles did not follow me to Brown. During my first year, I gradually familiarized myself with Black student organizations. It wasn’t that I suddenly stopped caring about the issues or that I wanted to redefine myself outside of my race. Indeed, it would be irresponsible and immoral of me to look away from the myriad forms of oppression that Black people contend with, namely anti-Black violence at the hands of police and average citizens alike. Rather, the biggest difference was that I didn’t feel sufficiently self-assured to pursue an active role in Brown’s BSU, a change which my high school self would’ve observed in shock and confusion. Even as an upperclassman, there have been moments when I reflected on freshman fall with regret, wondering what collective efforts I might have been able to contribute to had I found my footing in the organization sooner.
My high school persona might have been helped by the fact that I was the only Black girl in my graduating class, accompanied by only one other young Black man.
Since that first year, I have participated in a number of events hosted by Black students at Brown, such as the annual Black Appreciation Dinner, the African Students Association (Afrisa) culture show and various BSU meetings, amongst other occasions. I remember sitting at one of many decorated round tables in Sayles Hall with a handful of my elegantly dressed friends during our first Black Appreciation Dinner, looking on in admiration and joy as members of the class of 2018 embraced each other on stage. I remember standing at the back of Alumnae Hall before the culture show in 2018, taking photos of myself in the red dress I wore and sending them to my family group chat. Outside of formal events, I remember the times I watched enviously as my Black female friends styled their own hair into box braids, twists and faux locs while I, lacking their talent, would have to pay over $100 to a stylist for the same service. More generally, I fondly remember the camaraderie I have shared with Black students regardless of whether or not I personally knew them.
My main takeaway from these experiences as a Black student at Brown can be summarized in the subject of a book titled The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture authored by Kevin Quashie, a Professor of English here at Brown. Quashie laments the neglect of Black humanity which can be perpetuated by an unequivocal focus on challenging racism — “as if black people have no inner life, as if their being only conjures up a social narrative of racism and the resistance of racism, violence and the triumph over violence.” This sentiment prompted me to reflect on my particular journey at Brown from a new perspective. In hindsight, my uncomfortable and sometimes outright painful middle and high school experiences created the need for me to turn inward and dedicate my college years to nurturing and healing myself as a person. I could not be an effective advocate for social justice if my sense of self was still injured by negative beliefs that I had internalized about my personality, my talents, my physical appearance and my overall potential. Thus, over the last four years I owed it to myself to simply exist as a Black person, not in constant opposition or in response to racism. The aforementioned opportunities I've had to be in community with Black students allowed me to do just that.
Over the last four years I owed it to myself to simply exist as a Black person, not in constant opposition or in response to racism. The aforementioned opportunities I've had to be in community with Black students allowed me to do just that.
Beyond the work that Black organizations undertake to enact change within the Brown community, perhaps the most significant impression that the Black student population has left on me is the capacity and permission to actively enjoy my Blackness for my own sake, not as a political act. My hope is that Black graduates and current students will embrace what I have learned from Professor Quashie, Black students at Brown and other role models: that you deserve to prioritize your peace, joy and well-being above the powers that be which insist you spend your life doing nothing but resisting.