‘I was constantly bullied’: being a Black student in one of Indiana’s whitest districts

I don’t remember the first time I realized that I was different from my white classmates. I don’t even remember the first time I understood what race was. But I remember the first time I was made to hate myself for being Black.

I was 10 years old when I was called the N-word for the first time.

We had been dismissed from class for the day, so I went to grab my backpack from my assigned cubby in the corner of my elementary school classroom. Before I could throw it over my shoulders, my classmate had made the announcement.

“Look everyone, it’s Tigger the [N-word].”

I was the only Black girl in the room, so I immediately knew that he was talking about me. If that wasn’t obvious enough, he made sure to clarify by staring and pointing at me while he said it.

The shock from the blow didn’t allow me to fully process what happened. All I could think to do was to question whether I had heard him correctly. When he said it again, he made sure to remove any doubt.

One incident, one word: that’s all it took for me to realize that I was considered the “other”. My innocence and naive childlike hope was gone as I was thrusted into a position of subordination.

My school district in Carmel, Indiana, is home to some of the best public schools in the US – it is where I received my education from the age of five until graduation. Other than the less than 4% of Black students in the district, the schools are made up of white hallways, white teachers and white students.

Historically, lighter-skinned Black people were given privileges by white people. As a light-skinned Black woman, I wasn’t given these in Carmel. From the moment my classmate called me the N-word, I was constantly bullied for my Blackness.

The self-hatred that followed was slowly sown into my identity. When students and sometimes teachers made fun of my “exciting” puff ponytail, I got braids. When I got braids, they said I looked like Whoopi Goldberg. When I finally resigned myself to perming my hair in order to make it straight like theirs, the teasing still did not cease.

I quickly realized Carmel wasn’t a place for people like me to prosper. They made sure we knew it too. You could be as smart as Albert Einstein and as charismatic as Denzel Washington and it wouldn’t matter. Every time I stepped into a classroom, I carried the extra burden of knowing that I’d have to go above and beyond. In middle school, I had to work 10 times harder than my white classmates to get the basic acknowledgment they got for far less.

Sometimes, I try to convince myself that if my white classmates and teachers were educated on the true history of this country, then maybe my experience wouldn’t have been what it was. Maybe administrators would see how their choice to dish out a year-long suspension to a Black student for drugs while not punishing the white student (who was caught with more drugs) parallels the “war on drugs” in America. Maybe they would see that adding extra security near the area dubbed “the Black Spot” mimics profiling and over-policing across the country.

My 16-year sentence in the school system ended in 2016, when I earned my diploma. After the world was forced to grapple with a reckoning on race and policing in 2020, Carmel now claims that they are ready to change, but I can tell nothing has changed. As I scroll through social media, I look in disgust, but not shock, at the use of “[N-word] this” and “[N-word] that” in comments made.

But instead of tackling this very real racial abuse, teachers, administrators and parents are more afraid of the bogeyman in the corner: critical race theory.

White parents and families across the country are panicked by the idea of students being critical of the United States’ dark history – especially lessons that center the egregious actions of white people over time. The aim of critical race theory is to contextualize the history behind the racism and systemic oppression that we see today. But the parents of Carmel don’t want their students to be taught about anything that may make their children feel guilty for their whiteness.

The school would rather cater to white comfort than address America’s skeletons.

I never got a say in learning about Black trauma: it was an expectation. At a young age, images of slaves with whip scars on their backs and the horrors of the backlash against the civil rights movement were already burned in my mind.

White students get a say in whether they want to learn about their history. I did not.

Throughout my entire education, I sat silent while teachers sugarcoated white history. I vividly remember sitting in class while my teacher glorified the actions of white people: how brave they were for freeing the slaves, how kind they were for giving Black people rights, and how trusting they were when letting Japanese people out of internment camps.

Parents are also to blame for their failure to teach their children about racism. Their refusal to educate their children sends the message that they are fine with the way society has been functioning. Through their willful ignorance, they are breeding a future generation of people who won’t change the dominant culture, because they believe that everything is sunshine and rainbows.

The parents and administrators of Carmel are giving themselves a pat on the back for doing the bare minimum – for finally intervening in the racist culture they allowed to run rampant. All of a sudden the school claims to care about all students. Their newfound concern involves more training for teachers and administrators, a revision to policies and the hiring of a diversity, equity and inclusion officer to make school more equitable and inclusive.

It shouldn’t have taken George Floyd being murdered to start thinking about the treatment of students that look like me. If George Floyd had not died, Carmel would have continued on in their perfect utopia with their eyes shut and their ears plugged – completely indifferent to the trauma occurring around them.

I refuse to believe that Carmel is ready to change. Their new diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives reek of performative progressiveness used to ease white guilt.

My pessimism stems from the bitter taste that haunts me to this day. I may not know how to fully process the racism I was forced to experience at a young age but I refuse to allow my child’s hope for the future to be broken – as mine was. The only comfort I have is knowing that I will never subject my future children to the suffering I had to endure.

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