Every Thursday, I meet with two high school students in the Gender Consciousness Project through the University of Michigan. The aim of this program is to increase awareness among high school girls of issues related to gender-based oppression through weekly conversations about our experiences as women in a patriarchal society. I joined the program when I was in high school; I learned a lot about myself as a woman and how I had participated in my own oppression by accepting the misogyny that plagues society. When I came to the University, I knew I wanted to continue to be involved in these conversations. The strength the program provided me to embrace who I am as a woman taught me to make space for myself in places where Black women are traditionally excluded. The things I learned opened my eyes to a world full of struggles that I didn’t fully understand or know I played a role in, whether that be casual sexist remarks in the conversations of school hallways or how I judged the ways other women dressed. This program gave me the knowledge and confidence to address the injustices I face, but it also pushed me to fight to change the prominence of sexism throughout the world by calling it out when I experienced or saw it. I wanted to nurture this feeling of empowerment in the generations of high school girls that came after me, so I decided to join the University’s club as a facilitator.
I work with girls who go to my old high school, so I am able to deeply relate to the experiences they have because these are similar to my own from just a few years ago. Every meeting affects me in a different way. I usually feel happy and moved to be a part of these conversations and work with these girls who are committed to doing the work to eradicate gender oppression in our world. But on this particular day in April, after the girls have spent weeks trying to figure out the best path to take on their educational career, it is difficult to describe how I feel. I am usually able to relate and connect with the topics we talk about, but today, I felt a much deeper connection to the words and feelings the girls in the group communicated.
These girls are seniors; they are applying to colleges, getting admissions decisions and figuring out what their life will look like after high school. But what is supposed to be an exciting time is filled with uncertainty and anxiety. This isn’t just casual worrying about not getting into a dream school or whether they will get along with their roommate. On top of those uncertainties, they worry about whether or not they will be accepted in the white male spaces they aspire toward. The maltreatment of the few women that may inhabit these spaces, simply because of their identity, is discouraging. These girls have memorized the demographics of the schools where they have applied to see how they will fit in. They have looked at the graduation and acceptance rates of Women of Color in medical , legal and other fields they want to occupy in their careers. They are so well informed about all the challenges they will face for the rest of their lives because being a Woman of Color in a world dominated by white men has forced them to constantly prepare for the worst.
Their words sat within my mind in a deep way because all of their feelings are the exact same ones I had years ago when I was in their shoes. It hit me especially hard because I can’t ease their uncertainties. I can’t tell them that everything will be okay or all their worries are for nothing, because they are valid. Everything they are saying — about being exploited, undermined, ignored and disrespected because of who they are — is true. The little representation of themselves in the prestigious places they are striving for has forced them to brace for a future of rejection. I want to tell them that a future without all this doubt and fear is possible, but how can I tell them that if I don’t even believe it myself?
The lack of equitable representation for Women of Color in white spaces has poisoned our minds into believing that the success we strive for is inaccessible because of who we are. This belief is second nature because we have internalized the absence of people who look like us in the spaces where we are and where we aspire to be — from the blonde hair and blue-eyed Barbies that filled the shelves at Target to the white characters we read about in our favorite books as children, and from the white girls modeling our back-to-school outfits to the white main characters of our favorite TV shows and movies who have been our main reference points since we were little. If we were lucky to get someone who looked like us on our favorite TV show, they were often dismissed as a side character. At an early age, we learned that we do not belong in this society because we have never actually seen ourselves here. We have learned to keep our guard up 24/7 because we never know if others will doubt and dismiss us because of our identity. Because if we don’t fully know if we belong, why would anyone else?
It is so important that everyone feels seen in the spaces they inhabit so none of us have to grow up doubting and defending ourselves because of who we are. I am proud of the visibility Lil Nas X is creating for the Black LGBTQ+ community, and the work Marsai Martin is doing to create positive Black stories in mainstream media. I hope future generations will grow up believing in their worth because they will see themselves in every place they aspire to exist within. When my girls become successful doctors and lawyers, I hope little girls will see them and believe that their dreams are more than possible and that they deserve shared ownership of these spaces and aspirations.
Columnist Maria Patton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.