I'm No Stranger to Adversity

To tell you a little about myself, I am a black woman. Although, you can probably guess that much just from looking at me. I have other labels that I can announce to the would to even further justify the fact that I am a minority, but those two most visible labels can't be hidden, and they're enough to make me feel othered in many of the spaces I simply exist in. I don't think I'm defined by those labels, but they're the first thing that people see, and so, many don't take the time to see me beyond that skin-deep level.

The first time I experienced that "othered" feeling was the summer before high school. I was attending a summer camp called Duke Tip. Its a pre-collegiate program where middle schoolers stay in college dorms in attend classes in college classrooms, and they get to focus on a subject and learn something you can't in middle or high school. I was studying Programming for Robotics, and I was one of the two students who didn't have Programming for Robotics as their first choice when it came to subjects to study. What did I have in common with the other student that didn't really want to be there? We were both women of color. Every other person in the room was male. I endured a lot of teasing and doubt from the other students, because they didn't think I belonged there, or even could belong there--- they were irritated because I'd probably hold the class up, and then they wouldn't get to learn everything they wanted to. I resented that. So, for the rest of the summer camp, I was driven by spite to quickly catch up, and maybe even do something that they couldn't do, so that I could prove them wrong. And, I accomplished that. This is why all my friends from college joke about how I started studying Computer Science out of spite.

That was the first time I felt othered, but at that time, it didn't really effect me. By the end of the summer, I had the respect of my classmates, and they were even asking me for help with their programs. My teacher from that class even planted the seed in my head that I should go to NC A&T and actually study engineering, since I was so diligent and good at it. None of their insults were really all that cutting, and I look back on that time and see it as a positive experience, as a whole. And maybe its because we were all so young, there was never any true, genuine malice or prejudice behind their words. Those kids that beefed with me in the beginning were just kids regurgitating ideas they heard from somewhere else. By the end of those three weeks, they took it all back and we walked away as friends.

It was later on, once I was a senior in high school, that I opened my eyes to prejudices around me. In 2016, a few big changes happened. First, I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. My mom is an African American History expert, in my opinion, so, naturally, the book was on her bookshelf. I'm not sure why I picked it up and started reading it. Perhaps it was simply staring at me one day and it caught my eye. Either way, that book opened my eyes and made see the world a little bit differently. Sure, I knew Black History and the struggles my ancestors went through, but it hit differently hearing it from the point of view of someone who went through it and didn't think that he should just "turn the other cheek."

Around the time I was reading that book, a black man was shot and killed by the police, unprovoked, not even a mile away from my neighborhood, while he was waiting in his car to pick his kid up from the school bus. Suddenly, I was aware of the fact that things hadn't changed all that much. From the Civil Rights Movement to the present, people of color are still suffering. I started thinking back and re-evaluating my own life with a different lens. All those instances of micro-aggression--- all the little snide comments and remarks that made me feel uncomfortable, but I ended up ignoring and letting go because I couldn't explain why they felt wrong--- it all looked different.

The world didn't pause for me to gather my thoughts. After all, with the election, "to vote Trump or not to vote Trump" was the only thing the people around me seemed to want to talk about. I didn't expect it, but one of my best friends at the time was the loudest person next to me when it came to supporting Trump, backing all the arguments he made no matter how bigoted they were, and even going so far as to say that the black man that was shot by the police deserved it. She said much, much more, but I don't want to repeat or relive it any more than this. It was too much for me. I remember getting up and walking away, and from that point on, eating lunch in the Computer Science classroom with my friends that were a grade below me. She didn't understand why I ended our friendship without giving her another chance, but I didn't understand how she could consider her a friend while fundamentally not valuing my life.

Also, in my senior year, since I was completing all of my requirements to graduate with a class period to spare (I only used one study hall instead of two, which was the norm), I wanted to do a self study. There was a precedent for all the things I wanted to study, but I added and changed a few topics to include more of my interest in Computer Science and Robotics. My self study was denied. I wasn't given an explanation, just a no. It reminded me of comments that faculty members had told me all the other times I asked for something, including letters of recommendation: "I can't see how you provide any value to this school. You're not involved enough," and "You're not smart, so you shouldn't apply to any more Ivy Leagues." I think getting comments like those, every time I raised my voice, cut me down to the point where I believed them. (I went so far as quitting on all the unfinished applications I started for schools that were "too good for me." I still got accepted to Virginia Tech, and was offered a scholarship, but I didn't attend because it wasn't a large enough scholarship for me to be able to really afford the out-of-state tuition. Also, I was understandably tired of PWIs at this point.)

I remember, also in my senior year, I organized a large book drive--- my school even got involved to help me manage it because it got so large that people were donating through Barnes & Noble. I didn't even realize how large the impact was. The local paper interviewed the school about it, and the school let them interview a student that donated two stuffed animals, and yet, conveniently, I didn't know about it until after the article was released. Furthermore, as a student, I was heavily involved in the performing arts. I was a part of almost every single production that the school put on, and the school often made promotional videos to advertise the shows, interviewing the staff and students that had a hand in making the performances what they were. Somehow, I was never asked to give my thoughts in those videos. Maybe you can catch me in the background, actively working on something, but otherwise, it's like I was erased entirely. Was I just consistently too busy to disturb when the videos were being filmed, or did the school think I wasn't worth being acknowledged for my work and involvement?

Anyways, I ended up attending an HBCU for my undergrad. It was nice to take a break from the endless judgment and exclusion, and focus on thriving and getting my education in an environment where people understood, cared about, and really saw me for who I am as a person. I really thrived in college, but I had always been a bit of an over-achiever. At the time, if you asked someone in my department which student you should talk to for advice or guidance, from coursework to professional development, I was one of the people they'd suggest.

While I was earning that degree, I participated in a number of internships, even getting a return offers to work full time for one of those companies once I graduated. It was in that more professional environment where the same sort of micro-aggression I experience in high school came back to pick at my confidence and sense of self. At my entry-level position, when I didn't do work at a standard three levels above me, it was, "you're not working hard enough. I don't see how you add value to the company. You're wasting resources. I'm not saying you should work more, but at least get more work done." When my my expression was anything but the broadest of smiles, it was, "are you angry? You look like you don't want to be here. You should lighten up." Some days, it felt like no matter what I did, it was wrong, and when I accomplished something big, it wasn't enough.

I don't mean to say that everything is bad. Its not, because even tough situations can be valuable learning experiences and opportunities to grow. I learned not to place so much value in what other people think and say about me, because no one knows me better than I do. I also learned that I'm under no obligation to stay in an environment that isn't accepting of me. I don't have to grin and bear it and prove my worth to someone who doesn't want to acknowledge my efforts and accomplishments. I also learned that, regardless of of how much others try to dim my light, there are still people who will be able to see my shine.

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