Living in the Bounds of Racial Parentheses
Last year, I graduated from Jenks High School in Jenks, Oklahoma, a predominantly Caucasian community where any deviation from the norm is notable. My graduating class included 600 suburban teens, who began to compartmentalize shortly after entering high school. We were divided by our community’s definitions of success: High-achieving students rose to the top, celebrated as distinct and separate from the rest of the school.
I became a member of this elite group whose marked moments of success continually graced the school announcements. Within this social group I found some of my greatest friends and mentors. I was a student, a leader and a volunteer in my community, and I felt a camaraderie and understanding with other students like me. Despite all of these efforts to unite us, I was constantly reminded that I was different: I am not white.
I spent years of my public school education feeling alone in the classroom, because I was typically the only African American female, and often I was the only African American at all. My teachers and peers were supportive, but I continued to put significant pressure on myself to perform.
My social group was comprised largely of leaders and high-achieving students, and we were the pride and joy of the school, the marketed example of success. Although this group was largely Caucasian, several of us were not, and we acknowledged our shared status as trophies of minority expectations. I became an example of what can happen when a persistent African American exceeds the expectations of her surroundings.
On the surface, this seems ideal; I held an advantage over my peers because as the only black face in the classroom, my successes were easily remembered and documented. But one of the negative consequences was a severe case of “trophy” syndrome, which caused me to become obsessed with fitting into a mold.
I replaced one stereotype — the unmotivated, underperforming African American — with a new role: the African American wunderkind. I was on par with my fellow classmates, and yet I could never remove myself from the matter of race. Early on in high school, I prided myself on transcending the perceived stereotypes of my race, but I realized that success didn’t shield me from traditional prejudices.
As time passed, I realized that I was becoming known as much for my ethnic diversity as my academic and extracurricular accomplishments. I found myself stuck on a pedestal that I welded, casted and inscribed. Yes, I pushed myself to achieve, but my community pushed me to become an example of minority success.
My obsession with exceeding expectations based on race was quickly replaced with exhaustion. I wanted to be an example to my community, but I also wanted to be known for more than the color of my skin. I loathed that my triumphs were placed into racial parentheses; I wanted to be known as a student who accomplished something without mention of my skin color.
I had proven to myself that my race was an asset and not a detriment toward achieving my goals, and through this discovery, I grew to consider myself to be much more than an African American. My character, passions and culture are as much a part of me as the shell that holds them. I would like to think the honors I’ve amassed, the doors I’ve opened and the friends I’ve maintained are well-earned. I am not naïve enough to believe that my race had no influence in the opportunities I’ve received, but I hope that I won’t forever exist to fill a quota.
Race isn’t an obstacle to be conquered — it’s a perspective to be embraced. The pigment of your skin doesn’t dictate your value within a community. People of color should not be expected to represent the desires of a whole minority community, and wanting to be looked at beyond your race isn’t a trivial request. Using your position as a minority to challenge stereotypes and create new paths for others will only advance the cause for human equality. We cannot get lost in our pursuits to be one-of-a-kind and forget that our bodies do not define the content of our character or the worth of our minds.
Crystal Kayiza is a freshman documentary studies major who doesn’t want to spend her life on the mantle. Email her ckayiza1[at]ithaca.edu.