As we all sit to fill out our SAT registration forms, the usual jokes begin. “Why aren’t you putting down ‘female’, dude?” one of my classmates playfully asks another. A class of 12 boys and one girl, I had grown used to their posturing. I raise my hand to ask a more serious question: “Am I allowed to check more than one box for my race?”
William turns to me and quickly answers, “Put black, you’ll get way more money,” and Brian follows up with “Yeah, you’re so lucky. Black and a woman? That’s your meal ticket.”
I wonder if they knew how isolating and essentializing those words were.
I had been told to appreciate my place at such an elite, private academy. That I could belong, that anyone could fit in. And so I took on their predetermined identity, editing away anything that didn’t fit their narrative. I changed everything about myself: my diet, music taste, wardrobe. I spent hours every morning straightening my hair and painting on makeup two shades too light. I even took speech therapy classes requested by my mother, who believed my ebonic dialect would ruin any chance of success I had. I wanted to prove that I could belong here.
I was taught to look white, talk white, and act white, and when I did so, I was rewarded for it. Prom queen. Valedictorian of my graduating class. First-generation student with a full ride to a prestigious, private, and white university. But none of these titles could make up for the individuality I had lost.
I wake up and begin the long process of preparing for sorority recruitment: carefully arranging my hair, a full face of makeup, a predetermined outfit down to the color of my jewelry. A message appears on my screen: “Can you make sure you don’t smell like cigarettes? I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.” And yet I am uncomfortable. I am cramped, confined, restricted to their predetermined identity. I have cut away so much for others, attempting to conform, trying to prove I can belong.
Today, I will visit the forgotten corners of my psyche. I will dust off the facets of myself which have been rejected and rediscover their value. I will unpack and stay here awhile. I no longer need your affiliation for to validate my identity.