Written By Aspen S. – Official Contributor of The Crowned Series
As of late, I’ve been thinking more and more about the idea that representation matters. While I wholeheartedly agree and I think my more recent experiences have allowed me to discover, really, just how important it is to see yourself in the spaces that your enter.
I should start off by saying that I never gave this much thought to the idea until I started working in higher education. Growing up, I lived in a racially diverse city but attended a private school where I was one of three Black children in my year and probably contributed to a total of no more than twenty Black students in the entire school. When I was eight, my parents moved to the wealthiest county in Maryland and with this wage gap came a clear racial disparity as well. After a painful summer of leaving my friends , I came back in the fall enrolled in the new county’s public school system.
Oddly enough, I feared the change because nobody wanted to be the new kid but I loved school so I put my best foot forward. At first glance, not much had changed for me in the academic environment, as I was still one of very few Black children in my grade and in the school. But the real difference was that I no longer had the diverse neighborhood to come home to every afternoon. And my interactions with students certainly reflected that. I vividly remember my first day of school and getting on to the packed school bus, something that I had never done ever before (parent volunteers drove us on field trips at the private school). I was greeted with all of the kids staring at me, and one girl in particular whipping her neck back and forth to look at me and then my white-passing mother standing at the bus stop before asking, “Are you adopted?!?” loud as heck. As someone who naturally hides from the spotlight, this was the absolute worst-case scenario on my first day at a new school. More importantly, although we were all kids at the time, it showed me more than anything that to those kids I was different. It told me that the idea of a mixed race couple was foreign to them, let alone the sheer diversity in appearance that defines non-White people in this world. Furthermore, it taught me not to expect to see many other people like me and my family in this new place that I was expected to call home.
Moving forward, things only got worse when my peers realized I was smart. At the private school, I was placed in a very small, accelerated math class with five other students. It was celebrated by the teachers and even my classmates. At this new school, they assumed that I was not likely to excel. So, when I began receiving 100% on all of the assignments because I had already learned the material a year or two ago, the educators were stunned. I was forced to take a series of tests to prove that I belonged in the Gifted and Talented (G/T) courses. And even worse, when my neighborhood was redistricted the following year, they made me take the tests again even though I was attending a school five minutes away and within the same county. My academic file was all the proof they should have needed but I guess they needed to be sure before placing a Black student in the G/T courses.
So, all of this backstory leads to me back to who I am today. As I reflect on my educational experiences, going as far back as elementary school, I’m starting to think about the smaller details that I was not able to realize in the moment. Most notably, I think about how I did not have a Black teacher until I was in the 7th grade. Ms. Johnson taught my G/T US History course and she was a force. She brought a sense of authenticity to her classroom that quite frankly scared my white peers. They complained that she was mean and graded too harshly, and while Ms. Johnson was serious about the work we handed in to her, my vision of Ms. Johnson was never that she was mean. In fact, my memory of Ms. Johnson was meeting her and her colleagues, fellow teachers of color that taught at other schools in the county, at the local library on weekends to interview for my National History Day Project about education policy and reform. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Ms. Johnson was going out of her way to invest time in me and my educational experience, and to create a network for me with other women of color.
In high school, I had one other Black female teacher. Several years after graduating, I would go back to visit her whenever I went to the school. In college, my undergraduate worked focused on Biology. There, it was very rare to have a professor that identified as a woman, let alone a woman of color. I distinctly remember a Chemistry professor that I had that was phenomenal. She was new and a lot of the students talked negatively of her teaching methods because they were different than that of the old, white men who taught the course in all the years prior. I guess my learning style meshed well with her teaching style, because I loved her course but she very quickly left for maternity leave just after the first half of the semester.
I say all of this because I think that my experiences would have been drastically different had I saw more Black women as teachers during my own educational experiences. I come from a family of educators so surely I knew that Black teachers existed my entire life. All of my grandparents worked in the K-12 public school system as either teachers or guidance counselors, and my aunt is a high school math teacher. Matter fact, one of the things I looked most forward to every summer was when August would roll around and it was time to decorate her classroom with colorful math posters and inspirational quotes. It marked the end of summer and reminded my siblings and I that the school year was coming.
Despite this, I never realized the true value that teachers like Ms. Johnson had in my life and in my educational success. It is teachers like her that have allowed me to really see the role that I can have on students as an administrator in higher education. I am currently in the job search process within student affairs. At an on-campus interview, I was interviewed by a student employee at a large public institution. The student was a Black woman and when I asked her what she was looking for in a supervisor, we both suddenly got emotional. It seemed as though tears were starting to well up in her eyes (and mine!) and she quietly said that she wanted someone who understood her. We both knew what she meant and although she didn’t need to say anything else, I could tell that she felt the need to clarify herself to her White, male counterpart who was also interviewing me. She said that all of her former supervisors were men and that even though one of them has been great in providing her with staff development opportunities, she just wanted more. I knew exactly what she meant without her even saying it because it was something that I had unknowingly longed for for quite some time and only just recently received what I have been looking for through my graduate internship experience where I am blessed to interact with four Black women who inspire and/or supervise/mentor me in ways that I never could have imagined. It was in that moment that my job search truly became more than just about me.
Now there is no guarantee that I will be working at that particular institution next academic year, but no matter where I end up I realize that I have a unique opportunity in my work. I have the opportunity and the responsibility to be my authentic self in order to serve as a source of encouragement and more importantly, empowerment, in the young Black women that I will be supervising, advising, and even just interacting with each and every day. I have the ability to use my identities as a platform to advocate for them and affirm their experiences, and to serve as a resource that is there to guide them towards the opportunities that they still seek. I’m sure that such a role will pose challenges and yield an emotional impact, but it is a challenge that I must accept. Here’s to hoping that I don’t let them or myself down!
– Aspen S., Official Contributor of The Crowned Series