Seated at my desk, I wrote my name out in cursive on my classwork: Madeline King. I thought I had done relatively well for a 5-year old. My A’s looked almost as good as my mother’s, but not quite. My teacher- we’ll call her Mrs. M- came around to check how the class was doing. She was impressed with everyone’s work- except for mine. She noticed my name was written in cursive. Mrs. M chastised me for writing my name in cursive and not print. I noticed that everyone else had written their names in print. I became embarrassed, and erased my name.
That same teacher would complain to my mom during parent-teacher conferences that I was advancing too far ahead of the class. She told my mom that I needed to slow down and stay with the class because I was causing too many problems for her. To spare my feelings and self-esteem, my mom didn’t tell me her parent-teacher conference conversations with Mrs. M until I experienced blatant racism in high school.
Mrs. M wanted me to blend in with the other black children in my class instead of excelling. I had already skipped a grade by this time, and she didn’t want to see me skip another. She, instead, suggested to my mother that I should “slow down.” Instead of slowing me down, my mother made sure I went to one of the best high schools in the state of Oregon.
At this school, black girls were used for basketball and basketball only. I was an outlier. Instead of playing basketball, I wanted to sing in the elite choir and take a course-load of AP and honors classes. The AP classes never happened because I was always a percentage point beneath the threshold necessary to get into those classes. Even though I knew white girls who had lower grades than me in the prerequisite to the AP classes, I tried to not let that bother me. I was told from an early age that the system would not always work fairly. I wasn’t bothered until I was exposed to racism on an even larger scale during my sophomore year of high school.
My sophomore year, I began singing in the elite choir mentioned previously. The state I am from, Oregon, is the only state besides Texas where high school choirs are treated like sports. We compete for district and state trophies. I was very excited to be competing in something that I knew I was good at until I saw the racial demographics of my choir. I was the only black person in that choir. I knew what was going to happen. Sure enough, I became the token black girl of the choir and received many, many stares at our performances that year. One of our performances I remember clear as day.
Every year, we’d perform at a major donor’s home in the hills during Christmastime. It was exciting for everyone except for me. At this specific performance, I was barely greeted at their doors. I was being stared at. Looks of disgust and confusion were being thrown at me left and right. I decided to stand in the back for this performance instead of staying in our usual formation of me being in the front because I already felt uncomfortable being the only person of color in that house full of people. Even though I stood in the back and tried to make myself invisible like how they treated me when I walked in, I was still the outlier in the group. All eyes were on me. Dealing with this at 14 years old was rough. I felt alone, just how I’d felt 9 years previously.
Erasure defines my first, and frankly all, my experiences with racism. Racism has a special way of making a person the outlier when it should be a lot more scarce than my black face, especially in the 21st century. The racism I dealt with was passive-aggressive. The people weren’t calling me a nigger to my face. They wanted me to be 3/5ths of them, like slaves were. Those people made it clear that I wasn’t worthy of intelligence or superiority.
The racism I dealt with in high school and even before shaped who I am today. For years, I was cautious not to excel repeatedly or to make myself known. My experiences as a senior in high school and freshman year of college helped me realize that racism is going to find me whether I hide or make myself known, so I did the latter. I decided to fight racism with excellence. I am preparing to start my master’s program at 19, and I bet if my first-grade teacher knew that, she would choke. Maybe I should tell her.