Before I begin, I would like to issue a disclaimer. Whenever I think about my life in Oak Park and the things I’ve been through, I always remember some things and forget the others, but the next day I remember the things I forgot and forget the things I remembered. My opinions change every single day. If I wrote this last week it might be completely different (although it would most likely have the same undertone). I’m still trying to figure out who I am, especially as a black woman, and my perspective on my personal history constantly adapts.
That being said, here is my story from the perspective I have today. My life as a Black woman at Oak Park and River Forest High School did not begin freshman year, or even eighth grade. My experience at the high school was founded in my experience at the middle school and my experience in elementary school. And that experience felt like the white experience. At my elementary school there were only a few Black people and for some reason I tended to befriend white people. The reason why, I couldn’t say. Maybe I just ended up sitting next to a white person and then became friends with all of their friends and so on.
The segregation that is prominent in middle school and high school was not very prominent in elementary, at least from what I can remember. The majority of my closest friends were white, and many of them were financially secure. Secure in the way where they could afford to go on vacations multiple times a year and buy clothes from Hollister and Abercrombie and go to expensive summer camps and get their house remodeled.
My family is financially stable but compared to my white friends, I often felt poor. So feeling different was my everyday experience, which I tried hard to hide. I tried to mask anything that made me feel any different from my friends, which led me to subconsciously, yet also purposefully, completely whitewash myself. I used to fight with my mom to get her to buy me clothes from Abercrombie. I begged my parents to buy me uggs. I began to straighten my hair more often. I always talked as “properly” as I could. I always made sure I got good grades, and I honestly became a bit mean in elementary school so no one felt like they could talk about me and bully me for our differences.
I basically molded myself into a Black person that no white person would feel intimidated by. I did this as an elementary-schooler. There were still a number of micro-aggressions thrown my way, but they were often said in the way I was “better” than other Black people and, horrifically, I welcomed those comments at the time. I didn’t want to be Black, so if I was told “I don’t see you as Black” (which I am) it made me happy, and of course I didn’t know or understand the term “micro-aggression” when I was 11 years old.
There is much I don’t remember. Not sure if it’s because I blocked things out or just have a terrible memory, but with all this my time in elementary school was still wonderful, and I’m one of a select few who enjoyed middle school. But middle school is when things started clearly changing. I noticed how Black people were treated by teachers and administration, which was bad and obviously targeted. I also noticed how white people saw Black people. If they were funny and class clowns, they were acceptable as entertainment. Otherwise they were avoided; they were seen as hooligans or the “bad kids.” So being a black girl, I knew that what I (felt) I had to do was continue to try to blend myself into white people — which is so stupid to think about, considering I was obviously Black and that is often the first thing people would notice about me. One of the most defining moments when I noticed my race was incredibly apparent is when my friend who rode the bus home invited me over. You weren’t allowed to ride the bus without a bus pass. But my friend assured me that she had friends over all the time (and this I knew, white kids were allowed on the bus without a bus pass all the time). But I am Black. I even told my friend that my Blackness would be noticed and I wouldn’t be allowed to get on, but she reassured me I had nothing to worry about. So the friend who invited me got on, our other friend who was coming (and didn’t have a bus pass) got on without issue, and then as soon as I stepped up to get on, the bus driver stopped me and asked if I had a bus pass.
I instantly started freaking out because it was quite obvious the reason I was stopped and I hated the fact that I was Black to be pointed out by others. I was only fine with talking about my race in controlled situations when I felt enough courage to speak against my friends’ unconscious ignorance. But my friends advocated for me (as they should have) and I was allowed to stay on the bus after a long persuasive conversation with the bus driver.
Being friends with white people for so long made me incredibly tolerant to ignorance. But as the years went on, I began to realize just how harmful their statements were. And the thing is, most of them don’t even remember the things said that were incredibly impactful to me. The summer before high school, all of my friends became closer with another group of white girls, and this happened when I was out of town. The opportunity for me to attempt to assimilate myself into the group had passed. I found myself without a strong group of friends, although all of them would swear they were still my best friends (no shame to them though, I still have much love for them and I can’t blame them too much for what happens naturally).
I would only hang out with people when they remembered me and hardly when they were in large groups. So I did not enter high school with the most comfortable situation. I remember sitting at the lunch table with my old friends freshman year and their ignorant guy friends (who constantly said the most disgusting things) and deciding to leave. I joined another table and a new friend group was formed that was actually diverse and very cool. I learned that diverse friend groups, though rare, were possible.
So a message to all the people in a friend group made of people just like them: It’s possible to have a diverse friend group and those are the best ones.
One blessing that came with my complete lack of black identity was learning how white people do school and communicate. I learned how to talk to teachers, how to advocate for myself, how to email teachers and administration. I learned how important grades and extracurriculars were for college, and I learned how important group chats were in honors and AP classes.
I learned how to be taken seriously by white people, which was basically just to act white, but as a Black person to act and sound overly easygoing and unaggressive and kind. I learned how to make white people feel comfortable around me. And I went through high school charming people. The majority of my teachers adored me because it was probably so “amazing” to them that a Black student actually participated in class and was a good student. Many more white kids liked me, enough to want to be partners with me in class and tell me their business, but never so far as to ask me to hang out with them (although some did, I’m speaking generally here).
Once I learned how to be “an acceptable Black,” high school was pretty easy (race-wise). I hardly received racial profiling because I was always with white kids, teachers always took me seriously because I was always with white kids, and I succeeded in school thanks to all of the groupchats with white kids.
But I don’t see all these white people in my life as just general “white people.” Some of these people are my closest friends. They are some of the folks I love the most. But it was because I was so whitewashed that we so easily became friends. I know this because those white people I love so much are still mostly just friends with white people. Even now, the majority of my friends and acquaintances are white. That could be because I more easily gravitate toward white people because of how I have been molded, or because I’ve only ever taken honors and AP classes (due to taking the same classes as my white friends and the support of my parents) and there being disproportionately white students in those honors and AP classes (which is the fault of the schools and systemic oppression, not the Black students).
As I lived the “white” OPRF experience, I only witnessed the “Black” experience from afar. I watched my Black peers being constantly hounded by security. I heard stories of teachers and counselors who had no hope or expectation for their students, which was absorbed into those Black students’ minds. I watched as Black students’ safe places were taken away when teachers who advocated for them were suspended. I took part in joining them to advocate for our rights when those Black students had enough of the unjust treatment during a number of hate crimes and also some racist actions by teachers our junior year. But at that point, no white people joined those protests or sit-ins, and when they did many just didn’t know what they were protesting for and just joined a bandwagon.
Recently that has changed, and I hope it is permanent. If racism could just be solved by Black people, it would have been solved in the 1600s. We need white allies in order to succeed.
Through the years, I have a made number of Black friends (just naturally and through clubs like Black Leaders Union and Spoken Word) and I have grown to love my Blackness and I’ve come to realize there is no one way to be Black, and my Blackness is just as valid as anyone else’s.
It is still taking me time to forgive myself for neglecting my Black identity, but I am getting there. I encourage students now to look at their friend groups. If their friend group is 90 percent white, change that. It often takes intention to diversify a friend group.
It makes sense that we self-segregate. You more easily befriend people you can easily relate to, and those are normally the people who share the same race. But if we’re going to progress as humans, we need to be intentional with diversity and advocate for equity.
And if any parents are reading this, I encourage you to speak to your children about other cultures and races. Make sure your white students understand that they are not the standard for “normal.” They are just one kind of a large array of different kinds of people.
It is never too early to talk about race and the inequities and systemic oppression that comes with it, because identities, preconceived notions, and views on others begin to develop as soon as one develops the skill to observe.
Micah Daniels is a member of the OPRF class of 2020.