I was born in Delaware, raised between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and now reside in Durham, North Carolina. I am the product of two incredibly hard-working, Black, first-generation college graduates, who paved their own paths in this world without inheriting anything except love and traditional Christian values. My parents worked tirelessly to ensure that my brother and I not only had every opportunity possible to succeed in life, but to also ensure that our lives were substantially more full and comfortable than theirs were.
During our time in Pittsburgh, we lived in a cookie-cutter, suburban neighborhood that was about 98% white. We attended a private, Catholic school that was also about 98% white, and we were enrolled in sports, activities, and camps where we tended to be the only Black family present. I didn’t grow up seeing other Black children on a regular basis, but because this was all I’d ever known, it was my norm, and I didn’t question it.
For my parents, growing up Black in the 1960’s and 70’s meant taking your shot at achieving the “American Dream.” Although they understood the intricate systems designed to disadvantage Blacks and benefit whites, the rhetoric was that you work hard, do your part, and pave the way for the next generation. By being the first in their families to graduate from college and acquire jobs in competitive fields, they believed that they did just that. They were the first to move to the suburbs, to build their own home, to send their kids to private schools, and frankly, to provide the lifestyle to their children that white families had been able to provide for generations.
What my parents didn’t understand at the time, and what we’ve discussed at length in recent years as my brother and I have become adults, is the staggering impact of socializing their Black children in a white neighborhood. As my parents were chasing the American Dream, they didn’t know to think about how difficult it would be to preserve Black culture in our lives. They didn’t understand how challenging it would be for them to relate to their own children, because our daily experiences and norms differed so drastically. While my parents grew up in all Black neighborhoods spending afternoons with their cousins after school, learning to fry porkchops at the age of 9 and singing the ‘Live Every Voice and Sing’ every Sunday, my brother and I grew up in all white neighborhoods spending afternoons at our wealthy white friends houses, eating their after-school snacks from Trader Joes and Whole Foods and observing their routines. Even though our home operated as a “traditional Black household” for the most part, little outside of our home represented our Black identities.
As my parents were chasing the American Dream, they didn’t know to think about how difficult it would be to preserve Black culture in our lives.
When I was about 8 years old, my parents did some hard thinking about the life they wanted us to have–one that was full of opportunities and that provided access to an excellent education, but also one that reminded us of who we were. Because the demographics of our small, suburban town in Pittsburgh made this nearly impossible, my parents began researching other communities elsewhere where we would not be isolated in our Blackness. They made their bucket list of must-haves: a substantial Black population and great public schools. Sadly in our country, these two qualities tend not to go hand in hand, which made my parents’ search narrow and challenging.
In 1999, my family moved to Shaker Heights, Ohio, where I spent the rest of my formative years and graduated from high school. Here, my brother and I attended nationally-renowned public schools where the demographics were about 50% White and 50% Black at the time. Shaker Schools had been featured in documentaries and written about in research papers on the achievement gap. The school district seemed to offer every possible opportunity to all of its students, and yet, Black students seemed to fall behind their white counterparts across the board, a trend that mirrored the national rhetoric of “Black underachievement.”
While Our middle school and high school principals were Black and several of our teachers were Black, our honors and AP courses seemed to lack the diversity that the district boasted. At a young age, I noticed how students were being tracked along lines of race, and that my brother and I were arguably outliers because of the white, private schools we attended before moving.
So now that I was in a school full of other Black kids for the first time in my life, ironically I found myself as one of the token minorities once again because of the racial composition of my “gifted/advanced” classes.The only difference was that now, I wasn’t isolated because of a lack of diversity; I was isolated because of a disproportionate allocation of resources and investment in students on the basis of race.
Now, even in my diverse school, I had just as few Black friends as I did in my 98% white community. And worse than that, my Blackness was called into question by other Black students. I wasn’t Black enough because of the classes I took and the way that I spoke. As young, 9-year-old kids, we were able to discern differences and assign characteristics to one another. We were able to gauge culture. We were able to divide ourselves. White kids achieved and took the hardest classes, so that meant white people are smart and meant to be successful in school. Black kids fell behind and took the easiest classes, so that meant Black kids aren’t as smart as white kids. These dangerous mindsets continue to dominate public schools all over the country, and in some of the wealthiest districts with the most resources, the gap between white and Black and achievement is the widest.
In addition to these blatant inequities, I struggled to understand what my Blackness meant. In my efforts to negate stereotypes, I experienced tokenization. In my efforts to ignore my race over all, I bought into the colorblind rhetoric that so dangerously sustains the status quo of dominant whiteness and subordinate Blackness.
What I’ve learned is that being socialized in a white community limited my exposure to my own culture, which was an inevitable sacrifice that my parents had to make to achieve upward mobility.
What’s interesting is that I know my parents genuinely believed that by providing us with the same opportunities that had been historically reserved for white people, we could achieve equitable outcomes. It wouldn’t matter that we were Black as long as we had access. But the thing about systems is that they don’t need individuals to sustain them–they sustain themselves. A system built on racial injustice doesn’t need racists to survive–race is the most dominant indicator of outcomes regardless of if racists are involved or not. The reason why the overwhelming majority of affluent communities that my parents researched were white is because of the multi-generational wealth that resulted from racist, discriminatory housing policies throughout the 20th century that explicitly excluded African Americans and intentionally created the gap that we now refer to as “wealth disparity.” We call this the “achievement gap” in education and “health disparities” in public health, but it’s the same injustice, replicated across every system over and over, and race is at the root of it all.
I’m learning that the way that I grew up–Black in a white neighborhood and distanced from my own culture–is a unique experience that will become even more prominent as the Black middle class expands. As young Black professionals, we have to be vigilant in not being divisive or judgmental, but focus instead on reaching into our communities helping the next person, making every effort to disrupt the systems that maintain the status quo.
I often think about my future children and the life that I’ll create for them. Where will I raise them? What schools will I send them to? How will I teach them about who they are, knowing that their stories and identities will often be either absent or misconstrued?
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