It’s pretty hard to forget your first time. Your first time doing what, you may ask? Anything really – riding a bike, trying a new food, attending a life changing event. I remember those situations pretty vividly. I also remember what I felt going into those life-defining moments.
I have so many thoughts, opinions and preconceived notions that I’ve adopted. To be honest, they weren’t necessarily my own, but they made a lot of sense because they were formulated from the people that I cared most about. Whether it be family or friends, these were the people that I held to a higher standard. I trusted these people to steer me right when everything seemed to be going wrong.
I’ll give you an example. I was raised by my grandparents. They lived in the heart of the Jim Crow era and during times that we now read about in textbooks. I often used their personal life experiences and shared stories to help me decide what to do and what not to do. I mean, there was no need for me to make my own mistakes if I could learn from theirs, right? Growing up, race relations were something that I didn’t want to experience firsthand. The past seemed pretty scary, and a large majority of black people are convinced that even all of these years later not much has changed. The mindset and values of generations past is one of the most potent things passed down through the years.
The very first time you think outside the box is an experience. It will alter the way that you think and navigate. Why? Well, because the truth is, in a world where everyone wants to act like the next person just to fit in, being able to truly think and feel different than those around you is revolutionary. At this point I had to ask myself: What has me so nervous? Is it what I am about to do? Or is it that what I am about to do is going to change my life?
I am a dark-skinned woman. However, there was a time when I was a dark-skinned girl. I walked into rooms I was instructed to walk into, I smiled when I was asked to and only spoke when spoken to. I realized really early on that I was the only person who looked like me in 99 percent of the rooms that I walked into, but suddenly that made the room 100 times better than it was before. I learned that lesson quickly in the years to follow. I was helping the university's goal for diversity simply by being present. I was the walking representation of diversity.
I was the exception to the rule. I didn’t make sense. I felt like white students and faculty alike expected me to be opinionated but respectful. I was supposed to be different but alike enough to speak for the majority of my race. In their eyes I was spicy but bland enough to blend in. Sort of that new seasoning that your mother used in your all-time favorite dish. Only good things were supposed to come from being bold enough to make a change.
I mean, who honestly wants to be responsible for changing a way of thought, a way of being, a habit? Not me. I wasn’t one to shake things up, until I realized that not only was I shaking things up: I was like the secret weapon. I was contained in a way that had been practiced and perfected for decades. I was one of the main reasons that diversity efforts were deemed sufficient based on physical appearance alone, and if I’m being transparent, I’m not okay with that. Is it really my responsibility to change years of habitual behavior? Is it my responsibility to be a catalyst for real change in the future?
Whether you do or don’t support Title IX or affirmative action, it is common to believe that when you see diversity in a room, it has less to do with the actual desire for it to be present and more to do with meeting quotas. These quotas, however, don’t measure anything but the race with which you identify. I submit that it can be harmful. It can be harmful to push for a group to just be seen. What about being heard? Diverse groups should be encouraged to cultivate an environment of curiosity and tolerance.
The creation of this tolerant environment should be a grassroots movement. What does that mean? Typically major movements or efforts are led by people with a substantial amount of influence. However, movements that are felt in the heart of a community are called a ‘grassroots movement.’ In a college campus, the students need to take responsibility for some diversity efforts. This effort should be pushed forward by students who feel passionately about this situation. It should not just be administration attempting to meet quotas and keep up appearances for the sake of the institution's appeal to the public. It should be students attempting to make this university a reflection of the kind of world that we all desire to live in.
The first time can be scary. To actually challenge your mind and beliefs, which is essentially your subconscious that has been trained up since you were a child, takes a lot of bravery, but we are the United States of America: the home of the brave.