She held her white, sun kissed arm next to mine. “Look, I’m almost as dark as Kiara.” A pained grin crept across my face. “Sure you are. One day. Ha ha.”
Growing up in a predominately white community in Northwest Arkansas, I attended a high school of almost 4,000 students. Approximately 30 of us were black. As if I wasn’t already painfully aware that I was the only person of color in most situations, it was often brought to my attention.
There were the questions about my hair (is it real? is it yours?), the clueless comments about my ability to tan (yes, I do get darker in the summer), and the careless assumption that the khaki colored tights would be a good skin tone choice for everyone on the dance team (seriously?).
But I think what was most difficult to navigate were the shifty, uncomfortable looks when race came up, especially in the classroom. The other students would be antsy in their seats, casting awkward glances in my direction to see what my reaction to the conversation – the lesson – would be. Then there were the blanket assumptions that I, a black girl who grew up in the same community as my white peers, was the voice for all black people in America. On more than one occasion a teacher even turned to me and said, “I don’t know how that would make black people feel. Kiara, what do you think?” In that moment I thought a lot of things, but none of them appropriate to share with a teacher.
In my community I didn’t have the advantage of brushing race aside as a non-issue. Every time I walked into a room, race was the first thing I saw. Remember, this was the South, so while many people I knew claimed to “not see race,” there were plenty of people who did, and they did not like mine.
Then there was the other side of the coin. I never quite fit in with the other black kids. I grew up in this homogenous community, while many of the black students had relocated from more diverse urban areas. They looked at the way I walked and talked and dressed and quickly deemed me “not black enough.” This wasn’t how all the black students treated me, but there was a distinct group who had their minds made up about what it meant to be black, and I did not fit the mold.
To be clear, my hometown and the people in it have had an incredibly positive impact on me. But as a teenager trying to learn how to love and accept herself, the awareness that I didn’t fully fit in also had an enduring effect. I was stuck in a weird gray area, feeling like I wasn’t enough.
I wish I could say that emotion never creeps to the surface anymore, that I never encounter a fish out of water experience that leaves me feeling uncomfortable or inadequate. I wish I could tell you that now that I live in a multicultural city like Chicago any issues of race are a thing of the past. But we all know that’s far from the truth.
But, over time my perspective has changed. I’ve come to accept – no, to be truly proud of – the fact that I am different. Whether I’m around white people or black people, my background and my culture may cause me to stand out. But I refuse to let it negatively influence my identity or self-worth. I may not fit in with the crowd or live up to a certain set of qualifications, but I wasn’t meant to. I am enough. My experience is enough. And I have a unique story to tell. It’s mine, it’s different and it’s beautiful.