I, like most people, reminisce of my K-through-12 experience both with a sentimentality that can’t be replaced and with an embarrassment that I never want to think about again. But that’s everybody, isn’t it? We cringe at the thought of who we were in high school, or worse, in middle school, but it did end up shaping us into who we are, so it’s fine, right?
Not really. Speaking for all of us people of color who came out of American high schools and school districts surrounded by white people, that character shaping doesn’t occur in the same way it does for everybody else. I lived in a self-proclaimed “liberal” area, and yet all I ever experienced was stereotyping, microaggressions, and sometimes just blatant outright racism. We never had the ability to connect with people similar to us, surrounded by white students and white teachers and people who will never understand what it’s like to be raised in a society you don’t fit into at all. On top of that, if your parents are immigrants, there’s the conflict of them not understanding the American school system since they weren’t raised in it. Overall, being a POC in a predominantly white area leads to problems while trying to develop your personality and fit in, which hurts us deeply in the long run.
Right now though, I want to talk about being a woman of color specifically. As a child, it didn’t take me very many years to both realize I was different and wish I was white. I spent so long wishing my brown skin away, yearning to replace my dark brown eyes for blue ones, and wanting to erase the culture I was born into and become someone else entirely.
When you’re young, younger than even ten years old, you internalize those desires that you know you’ll never have. It starts to impact how you view yourself and how you view others—suddenly, you hate every single part of you that sets you apart from everyone else. This isn’t a sob story or a cry for attention, it’s a very real result of growing up in a system where you are excluded simply for existing.
Even when you get a little older, you keep those tendencies and desires. You reach middle school as an awkward pre-teen, and you learn about makeup, and relationships and liking people. Maybe you like someone, maybe you don’t. But you definitely wonder “Would anyone even want to date me if I’m not white?” You hope the answer is yes. Internally, your mind screams, “No. Why would they?”
Even after that, through middle school, you’re trying to find yourself as a person while trying to conform to the standards that white society has created for you. What do you even like? Is it boy bands, books or TV shows? Is it something else? Do you only like that one thing because your white friend does, or does it actually bring you joy? Do you only like that other thing because white society says you should? Why are you so frustrated with who you are as a person? Girls like you usually like this and that, so why don’t you? It becomes an achingly difficult task to try and figure out your own identity when you’re caught up in trying to be like everyone else. When you want to be your own person, but your race is the first thing everyone notices about you, you learn to compensate and do everything to avoid being labelled as a stereotype. And even then, you can’t avoid being “the smart asian girl,” “the angry black girl,” or “the middle-eastern terrorist” because people see you and think of you like that even if you express yourself in a way adjacent to whiteness.
You finally get to high school. Things are different. Maybe better, maybe worse in terms of how people treat you because of your race. Maybe they’re secretive about it, maybe they call you slurs to your face then laugh and run away. You, throughout it all, come to terms with the fact that you’ll never be white, and you don’t think you really want to be anymore. But still, the white beauty standards, the judgement of the people surrounding you, and the appeal of fitting in remain. So you grow, change, accept your differences and start to appreciate who you really are without the wall of whiteness you’d created for yourself. It feels good. You feel good for the first time.
But society doesn’t grow with you. Even after four years, all the women in movies and on TV are still white, and the image of beauty remains a skinny, blonde-haired, blue-eyed white woman. You know you’re none of those things and it’s fine—you’ve started to understand that beauty isn’t just as the media portrays it to be. But it does not draw away from all of the things you internalized in your childhood, and even though you might be an adult now, you still will never see yourself elevated to the same level of beauty as the generic, picturesque white woman on the covers of magazines. And that is just something you understand you have to deal with for the rest of your life.
Things need to change. This is something that stems from our surroundings as we’ve grown up, but more representation is something the media continues to lack as time goes on. Young people of color need to see more than just the white standard everywhere they look to be able to have the opportunity to grow up in the same way as the people surrounding them. All we do is grow more and more disappointed in American society for pushing stereotypes, white beauty standards and microaggressions upon us and expecting us to conform and come out unscatched. It doesn’t work like that. Racism is still prevalent. We do not live in a utopian paradise, no matter how much some white people might think we do.
Maybe, just maybe, if things were to change, women of color could think back to our school years with the same happy nostalgia white people do—rather than deal with how it still continues to affect us.