The youth-written stories in YCteen give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Don’t Define Me By My Race
Andre Eaton
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Much of my family enjoys eating soul food and listening to gospel music. My dad is a preacher in a black Pentecostal church. I love hip-hop, reggae, and soul music. I’m interested in African-American history. All that is part of me, but it’s not the center of who I am. I don’t feel like I have a culture.

I have lived the Southern lifestyle of Atlanta and the urban lifestyle of New York City, and now boarding school in Massachusetts. I am still growing as a human being from the experiences I go through, and “African-American” feels like a box that hems me in.

I live in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a mostly black and Hispanic neighborhood (though now a lot of white people are moving in). I don’t stand out visually. I do, however, feel different from some of my peers and neighbors because I don’t talk with slang, or sag my pants. I don’t smoke or drink. I am reserved, and I keep to myself a lot. In fact, I feel like “introvert” says more about me than “African-American.”

When I entered middle school, I became aware of some black people using slang and acting more wild—cursing, fighting. I didn’t like it. I’ve been in private school all my life, and I’m used to acting nice and polite. Sometimes this made people say that I “act white” or “talk white.” It made me feel out of place when I was hanging out with certain people of color.

Bushwick to Boarding School

I currently go to the Cambridge School of Weston, a boarding school in Massachusetts. It has about 300 students, and I was one of only a few kids of color entering the 9th grade. It’s a fairly small campus, and expensive; I attend on a merit scholarship. The campus has four dorms, two for boys and two for girls with a quad in the center.

There is a soccer field, basketball court, small baseball field, and field hockey field. There are running trails through a forest for people on the cross country team. Academic buildings are scattered around; it feels like a college campus.

I like that the campus is quiet and peaceful, unlike my Brooklyn neighborhood. Most people are nice and polite, and aren’t as rough or serious as some you might pass in New York City. Is it “white” to like quiet and comfort and pretty surroundings?

My first roommate, Maximo, is a Japanese-American musician. He made a racial assumption about me: He expected that I knew how to rap, or make beats, while I was actually more into theater, basketball, and writing. My experience is that interests connect me more to people than race. I have more in common with a white writer or runner than I do with a black musician.

Through Maximo, I met Win, who is from Vietnam. Win is a more reserved person, and in that respect we are alike. He is serious when he wants to be. He told me he wants to be the president of Vietnam. He is also a dancer. We both enjoy watching anime and writing.

“Yodang!”

But one time, in 9th grade, Win surprised me. Maximo and I went sledding while Win stayed inside playing video games. Maximo suggested we prank Win.

I said, “Yeah dude, that’s a great idea!”

image by YC-Art Dept

We brought snow into the dorm and stuffed it down his shirt. He got really mad. Win was usually calm, so it was strange to see him upset. Even stranger was what he yelled at me: “Ahh, yodang!!” ”Yodang” means “black” in Vietnamese.

Maximo said, “Yo, Win, it was just a prank. Calm down.”

Win, however, stayed angry, kept yelling and threw us out of the room and locked the door. I felt offended and sad about “yodang.” Of all the words he could have used to express his anger, why did he refer to my being black? Though I thought of the three of us as a friend trio, this made me wonder if Maximo and Win had a stronger bond because of their Asian heritage. He called my ethnicity out and didn’t mention Maximo’s. After that, I felt that my relationship with Win was strained and I feared that I could never be a true close friend of his.

I didn’t tell Win how I was feeling about his outburst. But as I dwelled on it, I got angry thinking about how often he brought race into our discussions. He would mention how he paid more money to attend CSW, and that I was on scholarship. He sometimes said I “talked white.”

I ignored it at the time, but looking back, I wish I’d expressed my feelings and tried to find some mutual understanding with Win. I wish I’d said, “Hey man, you didn’t have to bring race into this, it was just a joke.”

But I don’t believe that would have changed anything. Win probably would have ignored me and gone back to his video game. Part of why I’m not outspoken about race is I don’t think it does any good. I’ve never seen anything a diversity committee or anyone else does change a white—or Asian—person’s mind about black people.

Where Do I Fit?

Only around other African-Americans am I sure I won’t experience racism. Yet I have friends of all races at boarding school, and people from all kinds of countries and ethnicities attend there. I’m not afraid of being assaulted or anything, but I know there’s a possibility someone might bring up race when they’re angry, the way Win did.

There are other African-American students at the school too, and they are going through some of the same situations as me. For example, Chad and Evan are black and are in a grade below mine. Evan is from New York City, and Chad lives in New Jersey. We were all in a club called United Students of Color or USC. We would talk about our lives at CSW, and if we felt connected to the rest of the school community.

We would express what CSW could do better for all students of color in class settings. During the meetings, we talked about not having enough of a voice in classes because of our race.

I can’t say exactly why, but being one of the only black students in a class did make me speak up less. We also talked about how minorities have to work harder compared to those who come from more privileged backgrounds.

USC also holds demonstrations or performances during Black History Month and Latino Heritage Month. Minority students sing, dance, and perform poetry, theater, and spoken word. In one USC event, students take a flag of their country or culture to the assembly stage. These activities open our minds and help us understand each other.

When I’m in a group with people who are all my race, it can feel more comfortable to me. Other students in USC said they felt the same way. USC was a safe haven for me to talk about how I felt being in the school environment. I don’t want to speak for my race, but it can be more comfortable to speak with them alone. I don’t know what African-Americans can do to make others less racist.

In my junior year, I thought I could be a mentor to Chad and Evan, but realized I was still young in my own mind. I see younger guys who seem more outspoken and more ready to be black leaders of CSW, and I wonder how they can be so sure of what’s right at such a young age. I’m still figuring out what I want and where I fit in.

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(NYC-2015-11-04)

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