I notice when I am the only black person in the room. This realization is a blessing in that I am constantly cognizant of the world’s racial disparities, but it’s also a curse in that it triggers a dual consciousness that can be mentally paralyzing. This was the case in Ms. Rogers’ seventh grade advanced math class. I had been placed in this class primarily because my years in Germany resulted in me being skilled in algebra by sixth grade. In Ms. Rogers’ math class, my consciousness of my race was heightened by my token status.
There is something about middle school where you suddenly become more aware of race. It’s a phenomenon I can’t explain, even as an adult. One feels internal, and at times external, pressure to choose sides and abandon elementary alliances that did not conform to the racial hierarchy of middle school. It is truly bizarre that I had spent my elementary years as the token black girl in various settings, yet now that I was in middle school, I not only noticed my token status but was also uncomfortable with it. So uncomfortable that I begged Ms. Rogers to place me in the basic math class that consisted of my black peers.
I vividly recall pleading with her to place me in the basic math class, despite having excelled academically in her advanced math class. I did not like my environment. I don’t know why; it’s not like I didn’t like white people. But why did so many white people make me uncomfortable? A question I still try to answer today.
Or was it that I was so uncomfortable with myself, with my blackness? Did being around white people reminded me that I was the other? These feeling persisted in middle school despite always being welcomed by my white peers in the class and having known some of them for years. There was something about the seventh grade that altered my views about race and how I felt about my own race.
Thankfully, Ms. Rogers was a champion for me. She wasn’t a teacher who had low expectations of me. Instead, she consistently saw my potential and pushed me to always do better in class. She insisted that I stay in her class and even called my parents. To this day I am grateful for her actions because I learned in her class how to be the racial minority in honors classes and still thrive.
Though an ideal and equitable world would include more faces of color in that class, over time being the token black girl taught me how to acknowledge being the only black person in the room and not feel anxious about it but to instead acknowledge the inequities and strive to ensure that there are more faces of color with me.
Being the only black person in any setting has become an opportunity for me to be an advocate for racial diversity, highlighting my token status as the absence of racial diversity.
While I still struggle to understand my seventh-grade feelings about race, I no longer struggle to excel as the only black person in the room. I no longer equate the lack of representation of my race with a lack of significance.
Being the token black girl is not a reflection of me or my race’s inability to get a seat at the table, but a consequence of society’s inability to acknowledge the importance of our representation.
Michelle Mbekeani, 27, is a lifetime resident of Oak Park. She is an attorney at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. She is the mother of an energetic and loving 2-year-old boy. Michelle enjoys singing and volunteering thoughout the community, supporting Oak Park public schools, and the Oak Park Festival Theatre.