Not angry, She simply has Something to Say

nicole walker

nicole walker

 

Here is our second feminine voice of color as we usher in this season of Woman. Here’s a news flash, the season is really 365 days a year. Just consider where all of us would be without Her. This strong-not angry voice is sharing her independent school story, a story familiar to many, but often not heard. Hold on as you read this deep reflection of race & gender from independent school alum and admissions director, Nicole Walker.

When I was 15, I had fanciful daydreams of blowing up my school and turning it into a parking lot.  I would sit in geometry, sometimes chemistry, and concoct different scenarios that featured me pulling the detonator, or lighting the fuse, while standing in the lavishly decorated living room.  I can smile and admit that now, safely within the confines of my computer and this blog, but back then the feeling was so real, that I had to force myself to laugh when vocalizing the thought, just to mask its intensity.  My intention was never to harm anyone, but I wanted to somehow eradicate my school’s existence and start fresh, creating an institution that could somehow touch every part of me, allowing me to shine, to breathe, to just be me.  Instead, I attended a prestigious, predominantly White, all-girls boarding school.  I received a top notch education, complete with AP courses guaranteed to grant me entrance into the nation’s best colleges and universities.  I played (or least attempted to play) field hockey and soccer, sang in the a cappella choral group, and participated in various clubs.  I became a critical thinker, challenging my teachers with insightful questions.  I was a walking, talking manifestation of the mission statement, but at times still felt as though I existed on the fringes of my campus.

My friends, who now that we are adults I affectionately refer to as my brown girls, were a group within a group, our experiences uniquely ours.  We ate together, laughed together, roomed together, fought together. We were Black together.  Somehow, we understood that the melting pot rhetoric we heard constantly, both inside and outside of school didn’t apply to us. Our collective culture influenced how we navigated a space that became more than just school, for many of us it was a second home.  We never blended in, vanishing into the throngs of White girls we attended school with. We had no desire to.  We relished our difference, understanding that we were not who they thought we were:

“No, I’m not from Brooklyn.”

“Yes, I wash my hair, and no, you can’t touch it.”

“Actually, you don’t pay my tuition”

“Sorry, I don’t know the words to Gangsta’s Paradise.”

As I matured, I learned how to shift, to code switch, to signify, to survive in an environment that lacked true cultural competency, and more importantly an advisor who could help me breathe when the comments became too much, someone who could  provide a safe space to remove the mask, or to sometimes just laugh and be a girl.

As adolescents, there were times our parents were the last people we could confide in. My mother, in particular, was famous for saying, “your only job is to learn your book” and while I never doubted her love for me, she wasn’t the first person that came to mind when I needed to express my disappointment after discovering that my crush, who was a lovely shade of deep brown and attended the boy’s school in the neighboring town, was more interested in a White girl who lived in the sophomore dorm. The rejection was complete when he asked me to “hook him up”. Hurt and upset, I reached out to a friend who I had known since ten years old, also attending boarding school. As another teenage boy, I figured he could show me where I went wrong. Before I could even delve into the story of my heartbreak, my friend interrupted me and said, “Look, we’re cool with you, we’ll probably even marry you, but White girls are more open to certain things”. Further explanation was unnecessary, and his careless dismissal only confirmed my position on the fringes of my high school.

As with most crushes, I quickly rebounded, but I never made the same mistake again. I clung tightly to my friends, leaving the business of living for those sacred moments we spent off campus, where I was visible, where I existed as an individual. Still, there was a piece of me that was envious of my male counterparts, and that feeling only increased as the years passed. They were noticed. Girls flirted with them, liked them. White boys tried to imitate their speech. Society recognized them as “endangered”. In school we read Frederick Douglass, but not Harriet Jacobs, learned about Martin Luther King, but not Ella Baker.  Emmett Till was lynched. Independent schools focus on recruiting and retaining boys of color.  Trayvon Martin was murdered.  As recently as last week, President Obama introduced My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative aimed at supporting young men of color. And somewhere in the midst of this, I graduated, and hundreds of girls and young women follow a path similar to mine, without ever believing their voice or their story matters.

Today, I’ve come full circle, working as an administrator at an independent school. As I teenager, I was convinced that after I demolished my school, I would become a lawyer, so my journey into education was a bit of a surprise. Nonetheless, the more young women I encounter in the halls, at workshops and conferences, telling stories reminiscent of my own so many years later, I’m convinced I’m in the right place. At first, it was shocking to me that with the addition of affinity groups, diversity coordinators, and organizations dedicated to increasing the numbers of typically underrepresented students, that these issues still persist in independent schools so many years later, but I quickly realized that the problem is much bigger than just a school’s inability to reach and include its students of color, it’s how they view the black and brown girls and boys that walk their halls. We are the problem, we must bear the responsibility, we must teach others and ease their fears.

After 20 years of attempting to fit the mold and seeing students, especially young women, of color struggling to do the same, I’ve decided on a new approach: break it and fashion a new one. A recent conversation with my mother revealed that her purpose in sending me to independent school was to give me access, resources, and the skills to navigate a world that, despite how fabulous she believed me to be, was not rooting for my success.  She wanted me to be fearless and proud, not cowed by others’ expectations of me.  Communicating that message has become key in my relationships not only with my students, but my colleagues. It is not enough to simply admit these students; we must be committed to engaging them as fully participating members of the school community, not as ambassadors of some foreign land. My goal is to provide our students with the tools to move beyond the stereotypes and misconceptions, to speak boldly, even when their voices want to waver, and sometimes to give a hug when needed, because I still remember what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.

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7 Comments

  1. Gina Parker Collins
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Nicole, the first couple of sentences were intense! Thank you for sharing the deepest and darkest of your experiences, how you rose above it, and for fully and poignantly developing your voice so that many #indyschoolgirlsofcolor can find solidarity & empowerment.

    As a mom of a girl and a boy, I notice that right now the national focus does not include girls of color and their voice, so I appreciate you sending RIISE this article. Girls are paying for the necessary upliftment and focus on boys, most noticeably with the initiative set forth by #POTUS, whom the article clearly calls out as a dad of two #indyschoolgirlsofcolor
    http://www.salon.com/2014/03/06/black_girls_zero_sum_struggle_why_we_lose_when_black_men_dominate_the_discourse/

  2. Josie Cole
    Posted March 15, 2014 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for writing the article and even expressing some of the same thoughts I have had as a mother and woman of color. There is a need to stop trying to ‘fit the mold’, for it is an insult to the God who created each one of us. Being a woman of color is a celebration not a death sentence!! Whether my daughter or the hundreds of teens women I have mentored pick up this mantle, is up to them, but I will continue to pray that we all find self acceptance and self love in the knowledge of God’s great love for us!!

    • Gina Parker Collins
      Posted March 19, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      Josie, thank you for your comment. It is a powerful affirmation as a mother and a woman of color.

  3. Judith Clarke
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Thanks for being transparent. As a mother of two Indy alums (girls) some of your thoughts are familiar, and continuing the conversation will eventually bear fruit.

    • Gina Parker Collins
      Posted March 19, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      Thank you Judith for your comment! You have done it so your continued feedback and those of your daughters are important to our network. Stay in touch, we need you!

  4. Nicole
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Thank you ladies for responding! As I tried to express in my post, it’s become so important for me to show young women of color that their minds and bodies are valued, that there is beauty in difference. It won’t stop others from inadvertently questioning our worth, but it certainly goes a long way towards recognizing that we don’t own others’ opinion of us, we are not inherently deficient. We simply cannot live or grow in that space, so let’s recreate it. If we begin this work mother to daughter, sister to sister, teacher to student, we will undoubtedly affect change and shed light on a topic that has been “invisible” far too long.

  5. Miriam
    Posted April 11, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Thank you Nicole!!! You hit every topic that we had to deal with in this land of Independent School!!! But what I really love is that you didn’t just discuss the problem, but also a solution. Hopefully when our daughters come into this world, the expereince will be more welcoming as a result of this awareness. Again, thank you!!

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