Token: My black girl narrative in Oak Park

Opinion: Columns

August 1st, 2017 3:34 PM

By Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley

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In the fourth grade at Horace Mann School we studied the Prairie Era. The curriculum ended with the annual trip to a prairie reserve in which we would dress up as a prairie student during that time period. As our teacher gave us instructions about our roles, I vividly recall my fellow black classmate Jordan turning to me and whispering, "Would that make us slaves?"

I broke into laughter because I realized that we would have to pretend to be white to realistically fit into the prairie narrative that our teacher assigned us. Since the black narrative was not accounted for, acting white during that field trip was the only way I could reconcile being in the classroom of a 19th-century prairie school because, realistically, a face like mine would not be cast as Laura Ingalls Wilder's friend.

Being one of the few black faces in a predominately white space such as Oak Park and River Forest required me to frequently reconcile my race and identity with the majority narrative — the majority narrative being the way I was initially perceived according to my race. 

In high school, the majority narrative of a "typical" black girl was someone who fought during lunch, didn't participate in class, and was not in your honors or AP classes. In efforts to combat the smothering stereotype of the uneducated, angry black girl, I constantly felt obligated to overcompensate by always raising my hand, smiling more, and having a high bubbly voice.

Thus, for a while I hated being black as an Oak Park student. Not because the physical sight of my skin color repulsed me but because I was constantly reminded of how much easier life would be if I were white. Whether it was the strict enforcement of the dress code for black girls, or the assumed threat of multiple blacks gathered in a group, or dreading the aftermath of my hair during swimming class, as a teenager being white seemed like a much better deal.

By no means am I saying that my predominately white classes were analogous to a Klan rally, but during the impressionable years of middle school and high school, I couldn't help but internalize being the only black girl in class. How was I the only black girl? I was constantly told by some of my peers that I wasn't "black, black" or a "real black girl," and for a period of time I believed them. Since the narrative of the academically successful black girl was not commonly accounted for, "acting white" was the only way I could reconcile being in that AP classroom because, statistically, a face like mine was not a successful student. 

I was no more likely to be a straight-A honors student than I was to be Laura Ingalls Wilder's friend in the fourth grade. By my junior year, it became tiring and very isolating. I knew it would be much easier to fall into the majority narrative because there was less resistance, and I was not charged with the task of constantly proving my "blackness," while simultaneously combating its negative stereotypes. 

It was a token experience that shaped my perception as the token black girl.

Michelle Mbekeani, 27,  is a lifetime resident of Oak Park. She is an attorney at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. She is the mother of an energetic and loving 2 year old boy. Michelle enjoys singing and volunteering thoughout the community, supporting Oak Park public schools, and the Oak Park Festival Theatre.