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

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Coloring Outside the Lines
I won't let anyone tell me how to be black
Desiree Bailey

I didn’t think much about race until 7th grade, when I joined the gifted class at my school. For the first time, I was the only black person in my class, and I suddenly felt a lot of pressure. I thought that if I didn’t do well, my classmates would think it was because I was black. Race suddenly mattered to me, and I felt completely out of place.

It was the first time I’d realized I was a minority. All my life I’d been around a diverse mix of people. On the island of Trinidad, where I was born, the population is mostly of African and Indian descent with a sprinkling of Chinese, Hispanics mainly from Venezuela, Native people (Caribs, Amerindians, and Arawaks), and whites. It seemed to me that almost everyone there lived side by side.

In Rosedale, Queens—the New York City neighborhood that I immigrated to when I was 8—almost everyone was black. My elementary school was mostly black, but there were also Indians from the Caribbean. Since my neighbors and classmates in New York were similar to the people I lived around in Trinidad, I still didn’t think about race.

At home, race had never been a big issue for my mother. She’d acknowledge racial prejudice, but she never dwelled on it. My father, on the other hand, came to America in the 1970s, when black people were struggling for equality and respect. He read a lot about the plight of blacks around the world, and kept us in endless conversations about it. In our kitchen, we even had a beautiful poster depicting all the great kings and queens of Africa’s past.

But the discussions were all theoretical to me. My real-life encounters with racism were rare. My 6th grade class at a middle school in Bayside, Queens had a mix of black, white, Asian, and Hispanic kids. There were only a few black kids, unlike my elementary school, which was probably 99.9% black. But I still felt at ease because there was such a diverse mix.

So when I started 7th grade, being the only black kid in my class caught me by surprise. I couldn’t blend in anymore. I was easily recognized as “the black kid,” and I was afraid of the attention that I might get.

I felt like I wasn’t just representing myself, but all black people. For many of my classmates, I imagined I was the first black person they’d ever had a chance to get to know. I worried for the first time that many people didn’t see blacks as individuals, but as a stereotype, a group of people who all acted the same: loud, uneducated, and obnoxious.

I assumed that my classmates had those prejudices, and I couldn’t make a fool of myself in front of them. I imagined that one little mistake wouldn’t just be mine; it would be the mistake of my race.

The pressure I placed on myself made me hesitant to speak. What if I said the wrong thing? What if words flew tangled and contorted out of my nervous mouth? I became quiet. I became even quieter when the topic of black people came up. When we talked about slavery in social studies class, I wanted to disappear. Although I didn’t spot any outward signs of racism, I still felt singled out.

My classmates were so cautious around me. When they described black people, they’d pause to search for the best word to use without being offensive. If they described someone white or Asian, I’d never hear that hesitation. Maybe it’s because blacks have always had a sensitive position in America. My classmates’ self-censorship made me even more uncomfortable and aware of my differences.

Perhaps my insecurities about my people and myself were fueled by negative images of blacks in the media. In the movies I saw, young black men were almost always criminals, blazing a path of destruction wherever they went.

In popular music videos, I saw women of all shades of brown exploited by their own black men. I felt like my race was a big show, a huge entertainment session aimed to amuse, excite, and instill fear in others.

In my neighborhood, some people reinforced these ideas. It began to bug me that many of the black teenagers I saw on the bus were rude and obnoxious. They’d jump on the bus seats, shout at the top of their lungs and pick fights with each other, bothering innocent people who were minding their own business.

Some women would walk around with barely any clothes on while men hooted at them. Many black people I saw seemed to be on edge and angry, or just looking for fun laced with trouble.

I wasn’t like that. Instead of wreaking havoc on the bus, I’d quietly read my book. I wasn’t rude or a troublemaker, and I didn’t want my people to be seen that way.

It’s true there were many other black kids like me. Instead of hanging around the block, they read books like I did. They were smart kids with bright futures. But I didn’t meet those kids until high school. In 7th grade, I just wanted to fit in with the white and Asian kids in my class.

So I decided that it was up to me to show my classmates that not all black people were loud and obnoxious. I’d teach them that black people could be successful and not like the negative characters that they saw on TV. I’d show them that we could enjoy different types of music and be as open-minded and cultured as anyone else.

In my quest to separate myself from the black stereotypes I thought my classmates expected to see in me, I began to reject things I identified as black. I didn’t dare pick up a book by Maya Angelou. I avoided listening to hip-hop and r&b.

The sounds from my headphones were from bands like Linkin Park, Adema, Staind, and System of a Down. Whatever was rock, I listened to it. At first, I didn’t even enjoy the heavier rock. But I wanted to like it, so I listened to it again and again until it became my love. I thought it would help me be more like my classmates. The confusion and swirls of the drums and guitars eventually came to reflect how I felt.

But no matter how hard I blasted my rock music, it didn’t help me fit in. My physical differences were clearly pointed out by my classmates. One day, a boy with pale skin and brownish-blond hair asked me about my hair.

image by Odessa Straub

“Why is it like that?” he said. He looked at my neatly braided cornrows with a look more of disgust than curiosity. “It’s so stiff and it looks like a bunch of train tracks are stuck to your head.” I was extremely hurt by his comments. No one had ever been so rude about my race to my face. How could anyone be so obnoxious and unkind?

When I went to the house of another classmate, I felt even more stigmatized. Her mom was Puerto Rican and her dad was Chinese, and I didn’t expect ignorant attitudes from a family with such diversity. But I heard her younger brothers whispering to each other about me.

“Why is she so black?” one said. Another said, “Maybe if she scrubs her skin really hard, it’ll come off.” They walked into another room laughing while I stood there feeling insulted and uncomfortable. My friend acted as if nothing happened. So did I. I didn’t want to make a scene.

Situations like that made me feel even more separated from my peers. I sank deeper and deeper into my rock music. But instead of helping me fit in with the white kids, my music separated me from the few black people I knew in other classes.

One day, I was on the bus going home with two friends, one black and the other Hispanic. One asked what I was listening to, so I gave him my headphones. When he heard the ear-splitting drums of System of a Down and the monstrous growl of the lead singer, he looked at me like I was a joke.

“What the hell is that?” he asked. “Why are you listening to rock? That’s white people music.” I felt my face grow hot but I didn’t know how to respond, so I just laughed his comments off.

All these conflicts upset me. I felt too black for the kids in my class and too white for my friends in other classes. I’d talk and laugh with people, but inside, I just wanted to get away from everyone. Every chance I got, I isolated myself and delved deeper into my books, my writing, and my music. They were my favorite places to escape.

It was hard to for me to realize who I was becoming until I became friends with Jessica in the 8th grade. She was obsessed with insulting her own dark brown skin. She was devastated because she thought she was hideous and wouldn’t be loved by anyone.

“I hate myself,” she’d say. “I’m so black and ugly.” I didn’t pay attention to her at first because I thought she was just fishing for compliments. But it didn’t take me long to realize that she meant what she said.

She’d look at my friend, Ashley, who was black but light-skinned, and say, “Why can’t I be your color?”

Ashley and I worried about her. We told Jessica that skin color and beauty weren’t connected, but it was hard to convince her when the media ambushed us with those ideas every day. We couldn’t convince her she was wrong about herself, and she eventually withdrew from us.

Seeing how Jessica’s negative thoughts destroyed her self-esteem, I began to wonder if I was doing the same thing to myself. When I reexamined my beliefs, I was shocked to realize that all the stereotypes I thought others believed about black people were things I believed.

When I saw black people lazing on street corners, or behaving inappropriately in music videos, I shook my head with disgust. I thought back to all the past struggles and achievements of black people and wondered if my generation would flush it all down the drain.

Instead of looking into situations more deeply, I simply pointed my finger and criticized my people. I realized I was stereotyping my own people as rude and ignorant when I was the one who was rude and ignorant. I had poisoned myself against my race just to fit in with my classmates. I began to think that I was a racist—a racist against my own people.

I decided I couldn’t let my fears decide my behavior or tastes anymore. I began to work hard to see people as individuals with interesting lives, instead of simplistic stereotypes.

It’s taken several years to change my thinking. At times I still feel extremely different from other people, but now I see it as a good thing. My differences showed me the way to writing, playing the flute and guitar, and my interest in anthropology.

I still have to deal with ignorance about black people from my white and Asian classmates, and ignorance from black people about my interests. Despite this, I’m committed to being myself instead of trying to represent an entire race. And I’m not going to judge my own race, or any other race, based on stereotypes.

Now I’m in 11th grade and I’m on great terms with myself as a black teenager. It doesn’t bother me anymore if I’m seen as “too white” by some and “too black” by others. I know it’s impossible to expect everyone to see the world exactly as I do.

My music collection has Alicia Keys and Kanye West next to Coldplay and Jimi Hendrix. Books by Maya Angelou, J.K. Rowling, and Pablo Neruda spill off my shelves.

My music, my literature, and my perspective don’t belong to a particular race. They don’t have a specific color. They’re just what I love.

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