In seventh grade I was labeled “a disgrace to black people.” I was made of aware of this second-hand from a white kid in my class whose black friend had branded me as such. I remember this striking me particularly hard. It was a catalyst in my developing understanding of race and my own place in the various communities I inhabited.
I was one of very few black students in my class at Durham Academy, a fact that defined much of my time there. Being mixed-race with a light complexion and born of affluent well-educated parents, I did not fit the idea of blackness that many of my classmates seemed to expect me to personify. At the end of summer it became a game for my more tanned white classmates to see if their skin was darker than mine and to declare with gratification, “I’m blacker than Nico!” That became a phrase and notion that they would employ for things other than just skin tone. Students more skilled at basketball or better able to recite rap lyrics would momentarily become “blacker than me.”
I became accustomed to this treatment and in retrospect I was regrettably passive in the face of it. The power of being called a disgrace to black people was in the fact that it was spoken by another black kid, one who better fit my classmate’s “ideal.” I can only assume exactly what about me gave him this impression. I was bookish, socially reserved, and spoke rather formally. To be a disgrace, though, implied a betrayal of the highest order.
I left Durham Academy after the ninth grade to attend Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite preparatory boarding school in New Hampshire. At Exeter, I had a divergent experience as a high-achieving black student. My behavior was no longer compared and contrasted with a model for how those around me expected me to act. My interests and abilities no longer determined my blackness. I could no longer be a disgrace. I have so far found much of the same affirmation as a student at Duke University. My race still matters and I cannot assert that the black experience in higher education is not different from the experiences of other races. However, the one-dimensionality and pressure to conform are subdued or non-existent.
A way to unite
Last fall I was appointed by Durham’s City Council as a member of the Human Relations Commission. I fill one of the six seats reserved for black citizens in keeping with the commission’s intention to mirror the city’s population. I do not take lightly my position as one of a handful of people said to represent Durham’s black community on a citizen board tasked with ameliorating the diverse city’s social conditions. I cannot help but look back on my years at Durham Academy and wonder whether I am deserving of such a position. While it was undoubtedly ignorant and offensive for that boy to call me a disgrace, it remains true that I have not lived the typical black experience nor have I had to face the hardships associated with it.
I sincerely hope for a future where young black children, and children of all races, are not taught to have such one-dimensional expectations for themselves and for others. I hope that as a member of the Human Relations Commission I am able to effect change in this area. I cannot blame my classmates or that boy for their racial attitudes. The burden lies on the community to teach, not the children to learn, how to respect others and themselves. This ought to be a common cause behind which we can all unite.
Coleman is a Duke freshman planning to major in public policy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.