Dr. Martin Luther King inspired the generations that came before him, fought with him, and lived after him. His words and his actions resonate with anyone who has dealt with oppression through the roots of society and government, and provide a voice for the ongoing fight with racism that not only lives in America, but in the world. Known as a promoter of non-violent protest, a right given to Americans by our First Amendment, I think the greatest form of non-violent protest is to combat racism and ignorance is simply being an African-American in a predominantly white town.
At a population of just 1,300, Pinconning is a small town that has a small view of racism, and even smaller actions to combat it. Racially, the demographics turn out to be 95% White and 3% African-American or Black. Growing up, I was steadfast in my belief that I was not any different than any of my peers next to me. I was uncomfortable with questions about my race, questions about my culture because I didn't have answers to those questions, and they made me feel as though I had a microscopic glass on me for all the wrong reasons. My adoptive family was entirely white, and I was not only the sole person of color in my family, but in my life until the third grade. When I was in the third grade, I met the only other Black student – and we had immediate animosity. I was bullied by her, for being "Blacker than her", and I was not only confused by the meaning of that, but it cemented in my head that the "Blacker" someone appears to be, the worse off. In fourth grade, I had accidentally used the n-word slur, without ever knowing about its existence or the derogatory meaning behind it. Which I thought was fairly normal, given nobody in fourth grade should have to deal with the pressure of racial slurs. When I heard all the gasps, and the laughing from every single one of my classmates I was so very confused. I thought it was a joke. So naturally, I reached out to my teacher with questions. He was so uncomfortable with the subject, could not even begin to explain anything, only telling me many time not to repeat it and to go home and ask my parents. To this day, I still wonder how every white student in the class could have known what that meant, to call someone of my race by that name, but me.
These events were such huge indicators of the inherent racism that stems from growing up in a town where your race is not celebrated, or shown. And that was only in elementary school. From then on, I had tried to do everything in my power to separate myself from my race. I straightened my hair every day, wore the clothes I thought were acceptable, watched and listened to the same media everyone else did. And still, I would get asked why my hair was not worn natural, why I didn't "dress like Black people", why I didn't talk ghetto. I worked hard for my grades only to be compared to their expectations of how smart they thought Black people were, and not a day went by that one of my peers didn't ask me if they could use the n-word slur. These actions angered and upset me, but for the wrong reasons. I didn't want to be associated with being Black, or being ghetto, and nothing I did ever helped. I remember being racist against myself, because it made people laugh. Instead of just being on the end of racist jokes, I would also make them. If I ever got upset over someone calling me the n-word, I was labelled as sensitive and touchy, so it was easier to allow it. As I aged, I stopped this behavior. I became indifferent to it, because I now knew it was what I should expect in my small town. By then, there was one other Black student in my grade, throughout freshman year of high school we had the same classes. He had adopted the same coping behavior I had, of laughing along and making the jokes instead of saying anything. But for him, this behavior lasts into senior year. And it could last for years after that, the self-deprecation towards his own race growing inside of him. Still, though I outgrew the self-racism, I was not necessarily proud of my race. I did not understand why it had to be a factor in everything. Why my race had to be a factor in what I watch, what I eat, how I talk, how I dress, move, what political party I am affiliated with. Nobody can understand the lack of self-confidence that comes with hiding parts of yourself for so long, but it is one of the hardest things to overcome.
It's a unique way of life that extremely few people live. Nobody in my school, in my town, in the small world and environment that I reside in as a high school senior, can tell me what it is like to get good grades and have your middle school crush call you smart, for a Black person at least. Or explain to me the feeling that you get when every guy you had feelings for growing up, said that he would never date a Black woman. Not because he was racist, they said, only because it was weird. Few people are going to realize the impact of learning about the Civil War, and getting stared at in the back of classrooms. Or sitting there as someone says "Maybe we should bring back slavery." and having everyone agree, and laugh at you. Having knowledge that I had just learned about the Confederacy, only for me to leave class the same day and see Confederate flags on my peers lockers and clothing. Aging further, and seeing it on their trucks and their lawns. It was hard to come to terms with the fact that I had thought they liked me, yet how could they like me when they support an image that I was just taught symbolized the inferiority of my race, that fought against having me sit besides them in a school and even exist in their presence? I can't stress enough, that these moments are something I think about every single day. And every single achievement I have, opportunity I am given, these thoughts echo in my head – and might for the rest of my life. All because of the ignorance that being uneducated and intolerant brings.
Looking back, I am not sure what changed in my junior and senior year. Maybe it was the fact that I became so politically involved, that I thought I could make it a career, that I really began to look up to Black leaders and activists. But what I do know, is that my perspective changed on my race. And while I used to view the questions people would ask me as inherently racist, I now can see that racism as stemming from a place of wholehearted ignorance. And while I could choose to blame them, their parents, the school, and society for it, the only real way I could personally combat ignorance was to let it be changed through learning and knowing the experiences of someone who does not share the same privileges. Speaking out, without being ashamed of the fact that my life was, and always will be, different from all of my friends, and my peers. Learning about MLK, witnessing the racism throughout the years I grew up in media and in my life, and now living through the Black Lives Matter movement today, has shaped me to finally understand the pivotal role that I play in making Martin Luther King Jr's , and any other Black activist campaigning for equality, dreams come true. I now know that I want activism to play a major part of my life, and without Martin Luther King Jr's impact on my story, I may have never realized that I could genuinely make a career and an influence on generations.
The most important thing I have learned, is that educating someone's ignorance does not always have to be making speeches, marching in the streets, and getting upset or passionate – although I wish to do all those things. Sometimes, it is simply existing as a Black woman in a town where that is a rarity. It's telling someone in class that assumes I am on food stamps or government assistance, that what they said is a racist assumption based on stereotypes that do not apply to every Black American. It's telling someone who asks if I ever wash my hair, because she heard that Black girls don't wash their hair, that I do. And proceeding to inform her that she probably was thinking about some of the protective styles Blacks wear, and that asking that blunt question in front of others is not only humiliating, but could create a stigma that I don't have the chance to correct. It's telling your own friends, your best friends, that they can't call me the n-word, and dealing with them being genuinely upset because they thought that by being my friend, they could say that. It's teaching them the roots of that word, and the implications you are causing when you refer to anyone by that name. It's telling someone who repeatedly makes racist jokes that I don't find them funny, and asking them to imagine how they would feel if all I did was talk about their race.
In my experience, the only way to make a dream work is to persevere throughout the times that it does not seem doable. I hear, to this day, that racism can never be solved and will always be a problem. But that statement goes against not only what I believe, but what Martin Luther King Jr. fought his whole life to achieve. One of my favorite Dr. King quotes, "If you can't fly, then run. If you can't run, then walk. If you can't walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward." has kept me steady in my trust. I keep the mindset, that every fight, comment, struggle, fear, and opportunity is a step in the direction of equality.