Personal Essay By Gloria Makori
The first time I was called the N-word was by a neighbor, in third grade, who shared my skin tone. It confused me. I had always thought the word was spoken by a white person to a black person in a derogatory way. I wasn’t aware that it was socially acceptable to be used black-to-black, nor was I aware that there was a difference between the term “n—er” and “n—a”.
I grew up with Kenyan-born parents and most of our knowledge of race in America came from the media. Whether we watched movies or news reports, the black people were usually portrayed in a negative light. This influenced many African’s assumptions of African Americans. When I asked my parents about the word and explained what happened, they were very upset and reported it to the principal. It had to be a strange situation for the principle—a white woman addressing two black students on the topic of the N-word. There was a slight tension between me and my neighbor after this but we remained complicated friends. There would be times where they would call us “African Booty Scratchers” or make comments about the food that we ate at home. It upset me but I didn’t believe there was much I could do about it.
I pushed the confusion aside, ignored it, because I needed to have them as a friend. They helped Americanize us so we didn’t stand out too much at school. (They taught us that we should call our parents “mom and dad” instead of “mummy and duddy”.) It was a weird relationship because when we were with them, we were African and they were Black. However, in our predominantly white school, we were all grouped as Black. I was able to feel a bit more comfortable about being black my first two years of high school. The school was more diverse though the Africans and African Americans were still different social groups. I didn’t really know where I stood, so I made friends from all groups. I didn’t know the difference between race, ethnicity, and nationality back then.
My parents sent me to a boarding school during my junior and senior year of high school. I was uncomfortable with the change but it brought an opportunity for growth. Naturally, I became friends with a few Kenyan girls. It was easy to be friends with them because we had similar upbringings. I felt like I didn’t need to conform around them. I could simply be myself.
This was the year when the #blacklivesmatter movement spiked due to the murders of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner. At my boarding school, the sensitive topics of race were avoided, but I became prouder of the skin I was in. The #teamnatural and #melanin movement became popular on social media. I would see more YouTubers and Instagram models who looked like me. It gave me a sense of pride because the same African features that I was made fun of for having, were the same features that people were now embracing. I stopped using chemical perms on my hair and accepted my natural curls in a healthy way. I made a lot of self-improvements, but I was still unable to be a leader. I was feeling more comfortable in my identity and wanting to educate myself further on systematic racism—something I didn’t know existed until the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the Spring of 2016, I was accepted to Berea College. I had applied after looking for affordable colleges on Forbes. I was excited to learn that not only was the school tuition free, but it also was the first non-segregated, coeducational college in the South. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, graduated from Berea College!
I remember the excitement I felt on the plane looking out the windows over the two-hour flight as I watched the landscape change from the city of Minneapolis, MN to the countryside of Lexington, KY. As I exited the plane in the small Bluegrass airport, a gate attendant came up to me, squeezed the knot on my headwrap, which was resting on my forehead, and smiled, “you are just adorable” she said with a thick Southern drawl. It was a strange interaction, but also amusing. I wasn’t offended because, by then, I had learned that people’s actions depend on their upbringing and worldview.
It took time to adjust to being at a liberal school in the South. I started learning more about the LGBTQ+ community in college with growing respect. And, to understand my own identity better, I signed up to be a part of the executive committee for both the African Students’ Association and the Black Student Union. I helped organize different events to bridge the gap between the two groups. It was not easy because both groups felt like the other saw themselves as superior. However, it seems useless to divide ourselves when we have bigger issues at hand.
As the first few weeks of 2016, an election year, went by, a tension slowly grew between the students and the community. We had many Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students on campus. The local community would throw drinks at us, rev their engines as we crossed the sidewalk, drive around campus with the confederate flag, and some would yell offensive comments and slurs. It was difficult and uncomfortable for all of us.
I decided to work for positive change by taking advantage of my roles in the Center for International Education, African Students’ Association, and the Black Student Union. We opened different conversations and controlled discussions on campus to understand different perspectives and to find a solution of some sort.
We maintained mutual respect in these safe spaces by following a set of guidelines so that we didn’t cross boundaries. I liked this approach and it enabled us to tackle issues with respect, focusing on solutions rather than fighting over differences. I attended Berea College for four years, and continually put myself in uncomfortable conversations because that is what I believe it means to be an engaged human being in this world. Discomfort is a catalyst for growth.
Two months after I went back to Minnesota due to the pandemic, George Floyd was murdered about 15 minutes from my home. I found out about his death the day after it happened—the smoke from burning buildings ten miles away heavy in the air outside my home. It was scary to be so close to the situation. People were angry about the murder, people were angry about their businesses being burnt down and looted, and people were angry at the government and how they mishandled the situation.
Highways closed by 7PM, stores were boarded up with wood, the grocery store next to my house doubled in customers (due to other grocery stores being broken into). It became normal to wait in line outside for 15 minutes before being allowed in. This was the last thing we needed during a global pandemic!
It was uncomfortable walking in public because the skin I wore was a public statement and possibly a threat. I felt like those years of self-growth had gone to waste. I spent a week struggling with the emotions. Eventually, I realized that I had a choice. I could feel miserable and helpless about the injustices of the world or to do something positive that would help my community.
I cannot control what happened, I only have control over how I react. I chose to use that time to do more research to educate myself on the topic. Then, to use that knowledge to engage in more discussions via zoom and with my family. I tried my best to support more POC businesses, while also using my art skills to create impactful and uplifting images.
We all have our strengths and limits. The most important thing we can do is step back and analyze the situation. Then, approach it in a way that aligns with our morals and beliefs, and take positive action! ɷ