New York — By Kaylee Pierre
Reprinted from YouthComm with permission by Youth Communication, a nonprofit publisher of teen-written stories and curriculum to help educators strengthen the social and emotional skills of youth.
In 2nd grade, my White teacher wrote on the dry erase board: “character traits/adjectives.”
“Who knows an example of a way you can describe a character?” she said, her voice barely reaching the back of the room. The room remained quiet.
She looked around the class. “You could have a character like Kaylee, who is sassy and quick-witted, or like Saira, who is calm and quieter.”
I didn’t know how to react. I rarely participated in class; I was confused as to why she described me as sassy.
She wrote the word on the board in a red marker. I didn’t have the confidence yet to speak up and say, “No that’s not me.” I just sat there and let her characterize me as she wanted. I sank lower in my seat, feeling tense and self-conscious.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized that this was an insult.
An Exciting Opportunity
Growing up, I became passionate about debating, but I rarely got to compete. Most often the debates around school were over issues like what tasted better, chocolate or vanilla milk.
In 7th grade, though, my school decided to have a mock criminal trial contest. The case was about a college freshman who was accused of hitting a runner at night. There was an argument that the runner was at fault for running in a dark street with no sidewalks and possibly being intoxicated, and the driver claimed he drove away because he thought he had hit a deer. It featured a lengthy handbook jammed with rules for the trial.
Our class was divided into groups of nine. I was the only Black student among eight other White students.
I was the direct examiner, basically the lead. The night we received the handbook, I sat at the dinner table, way past my bedtime.
I used a yellow highlighter for anything the prosecution could use against us. Pink was for anything we could use against the prosecution. Green was for cross-examination, and blue was for direct examination. I used a red pen to write in the margins, annotating anything that I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget.
I was so excited. I could hear the words on the page in my head; I began to memorize them and was more than prepared to go to school the next day and begin prep with my team.
Greeted with Boredom
But when I walked into the classroom the next day, it was apparent that I was the only one on my team who was excited and motivated about this project. My teammates’ faces looked bored. They sat low in their chairs, still wearing their backpacks, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice.
I sat and placed the handbook down. “I think we should first look at the evidence and then make our arguments, and then our opening and closing statements since then we’ll know what to include,” I said.
No one seemed interested in what I had to say. To fill the awkward silence, I began to flip through the handbook, the sounds of the paper momentarily filled in the emptiness in our corner of the room.
I looked up from the book, and at other groups working cooperatively. My confidence in our ability to present a cohesive argument diminished.
They Tried to Undermine My Passion
I clearly had a disengaged group of kids who didn’t care about this assignment. On the third day when I was passionately trying to explain how we might frame an opening statement, one of the kids, David, cut me off.
“Could you chill out?” he said.
My tone got lower, as I was now afraid of seeming too worked up. Then two more times I was told by someone in the group to “calm down.” Before the class ended, another one of the White students asked me, “We’re obviously not interested; why are you so pushy?” I didn’t have an answer for him.
Still, trying one more time, I asked towards the end of the class, “If everyone can, could we meet at the library after school?”
“You’re so obsessed!” David yelled. This reminded me of when my 2nd grade teacher described me as “sassy.” I was speechless.
Was I obsessed? Was I being too pushy and loud? On my way home, I debated over the manner in which I had spoken to the group. Could I have used softer tones? Should I have just delegated responsibilities instead of trying to incorporate my own opinions? I went from questioning whether I was being over the top to starting to believe that I actually had been.
Afraid of Speaking Up
The day of the competition, our teacher went around to each group, asking to see our work. When he got to us, everyone in the group looked at me. During the entire time we worked on this project, I was told I was too loud and bossy, but now that it was time for someone to bail them all out, they expected me to do it.
“We all had different schedules; we couldn’t find a time we could all meet up,” I lied. When the teacher walked away, his head nodding in disappointment, no one thanked me. After being told I was too aggressive by my team, I didn’t have the nerve to speak up about how no one else had done any work.
Ultimately, both sides were unprepared; the other side lacked an opening statement, and so our team won.
Still, instead of celebrating the victory, I thought more about why classmates and my 2nd grade teacher labelled me as sassy, and pushy, and how it made me feel like I was inadequate and maybe shouldn’t be allowed to speak freely.
The Roots of a Damaging Stereotype
Some of you may be thinking, Aren’t you assuming too much about my classmates’ and the teacher’s way of speaking about me? However, a history of mischaracterization has put generations of Black women like me on edge about these negative descriptions. In American popular culture, Black women have long been portrayed as sassy and ill-mannered. This trope is rooted in slavery and was particularly exploited in film, television, and literature during the 20th century.
Back in the 1920s, "Amos ’n’ Andy" was a popular TV show that featured an all-Black cast voiced by two White men. The Black women, who were also voiced by White actresses, were characterized as loud, assertive, and constantly angry.
Today, similar interpretations are still frequently perpetuated in the media. When Serena Williams competed in the 2018 US Open, she received multiple warnings regarding her behavior during matches. For decades, White males like John McEnroe and Jimmy Conners were lauded for their fiery temperaments, proving what great competitors they were. Yet many White media members took this opportunity to paint Williams as an angry Black woman.
Mark Knight, a White Australian, drew a cartoon in one of Australia’s most-read magazines, The Herald Sun, where he depicted Williams by accentuating her figure, giving her bigger lips, while also dramatizing her throwing a tantrum, depicting her as uncontrollable and ill-mannered.
I often wonder how I am perceived and whether that first impression I make is racially influenced. My experiences serve as a reminder that as a Black woman, I may often encounter people who will try to gaslight or associate me with a trope.
But as I enter 11th grade, I will no longer allow someone else to broadly paint me the way they want. I’ve decided that I know who I am and I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. I don’t care if being smart and opinionated makes others feel uncomfortable. I will speak up in a strong and confident manner. I can be passionate about many things and just like anyone else I will express myself boldly and excitedly without being inhibited by ignorant stereotypes.