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Growing Pains By Shatyra Culpepper

Growing up I was naïve and shielded from the hatred and ignorance in the world. I had never experienced racism for myself but I knew of the cruelties of America as well as it’s hateful past. Although I grew up in the South, I never felt that I would experience racism. I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood and went to a predominately Black school. But over the course of 3 years I began to realize that that ideology was completely ignorant living in a society where people of color are oppressed through separation and deprivation.

As we were in Performing Arts, me and my teammates had a very heated discussion on the topic of race. One girl made the comment suggesting that I was White and Asian. Based solely on that fact that, at the time, I could not recall any predominantly Black movies or directors and had diverse interests, and implied that I appeared to be White or Asian. A surge of embarrassment and pain went through my body. I wasn’t being heard and their opinions were completely ignorant because I identified as Black. I never saw race, gender, or interests as a way to dislike someone. It was an idea foreign to my mind and body. Being called something that I didn’t identify with made me feel like a deserted graveyard empty of the bodies that were supposed to fill it. But it also confused me because I didn’t understand why it bothered me. I thought I was so secure in who I was. It could be the fact that I trusted my peers because we were all Black and identified deeply with our heritage. I had never felt this feeling before. The feeling of displacement in a community that I called my home. The feeling of constant disapproval from myself and others. The feeling of a deserted town, abandoned for its differences.

Because I didn’t want to cry at school, I cried to my Aunt who consoled me but also basically told me that my feelings weren’t valid. But I was still crippled by anger. Me and my aunt talking inspired me but made me feel similar to a deserted desert. I didn’t feel like anyone cared. No one was there to give me the water or comfort I needed. I felt like I was being excluded by a community that I loved to represent. I felt like I wasn’t Black enough. I became frustrated with the idea of people being stereotyped based on how they looked. I became frustrated with the ignorance and lack of sensitivity people had when approaching the idea of identity whether it was based on race, gender, or age. I began to realize that division was occurring between us. The separation our oppressor encouraged. This separation gave them the control and power.

But over time, I decided to not only not let people define me but to also be an advocate for people and encourage unity among women and people of color. I decided to speak up about body types, race, age, and religion because I felt that someone's interests and appearance is not an invitation to assume what they identified as. I decided to be an advocate for those things to ensure that America and society were not a comfortable place where identity was disrespected. The emptiness and loneliness I held on to during that entire situation fueled my passion to be a human rights activist. I wanted to ensure no one had to feel the embarrassment and confusion I felt about my identity just because someone jokingly questioned mine. What you are is what you choose to identify as, as an individual. I learned that despite what others say my feelings and opinions are always valid, no matter how big or small. Thanks to those ignorant comments, I gained a new voice that was stronger than before.

© Shatyra Culpepper. All rights reserved. If you are interested in quoting this story, contact the national team through this website and we can put you in touch with the young person's teacher.