Navigating religious and predominantly white spaces while being ethnically and racially ambiguous can be a precarious experience. Often, religiously affiliated schools serve as spaces where micro-aggressive and sexist behavior are neatly disguised in dress code rules based on biblical teachings. Having attended a religious school myself, I became interested in the experiences of other people who hold these identities.
I decided to engage in a conversation about attending religiously affiliated schools with Synclaire, a fellow writer at Honeysuckle Magazine.
Leah Toledano: Upon my arrival at a private Christian school at the age of thirteen, I figured it would take time for my new classmates and I to get accommodated. However, in lieu of the typical introductory greeting, “What are you?” became the standard starting point of any dialogue.
As “Are you mixed?” was frequently uttered with slight contempt from my condescending white peers, I swallowed shame, internalized alienation and otherization. Rather than befriending me for who I was, understanding the “exoticness” of my identity appeared to be the prerogative of my classmates. To them, my mixed identity was a mystery.
Synclaire: I think it’s difficult navigating high school in general, but especially as a biracial person when there’s no set group where you truly feel like you belong. I went to a predominantly white religious school. Christianity implies that everyone is supposed to be loved, and we’re all children of God, but there was such segregation throughout our school.
White students were always more popular. I never really felt like I fit in with the Black students either. I was also afraid to be seen as one of the Black kids because I saw how my white classmates treated them. I heard the jokes and the falsified acceptance, and I did everything in my power to not be subjected to that treatment, but much to my dismay, my brown skin served as a tool to isolate and objectify.
When classmates would go to Hawaii and get a tan, they would put their arm against mine and compare our skin, but they would always make sure they had brown tanned skin and not black.
I think a lot of people think that racism is saying the N-word or that because American slavery is over with means that racism was abolished as well. There are just so many layers within racism, and when people would say things to me like I’m pretty in spite of my race or because of it, or make little comments about my skin complexion, it was always really hurtful to me.
LT: Yeah, for me, as the years progressed, my body became a force which needed policing according to administration and teachers. I had not tasted hyper-sexualization for the first time while I was in high school, yet what had surprised me was the commonplace occurrence of teachers, both men and women, commenting on the tightness and length of my uniform. My body became inappropriate, sexual, and blasphemous, and it was my duty to prevent boys and men from fetishizing me in order to maintain my own purity.
S: I was always dress coded and policed, while many of my female classmates were not. I was told I was a distraction, and I was taught to believe that my body is something to be feasted upon instead of respected.
LT: It’s no coincidence that my white peers also escaped the level of body policing that others are subjected to. Thin, cis, white bodies are inherently appropriate, un-offensive, and idealized, permitted to take up as much space as needed or desired; the “other” is deemed the opposite of such, according to virulent Eurocentric standards.
S: I was treated as a token, but unlike a real token, I felt like I had no value. I was used for certain things such as sports, sex, and as proof to demonstrate that my conservative classmates were not racist. I was disposed of when I no longer served that purpose, and it was so hard feeling that way all the time especially when I had no one to look up to who looks like me or who had the same experience as me.
Every day I would hear guys saying that they wanted to be with me because they wanted an NBA kid because they believed my melanin would be the key to produce an athletic child. I would also hear white girls saying that they had “jungle fever” and would talk about how they wanted pretty light skin babies with blue or green eyes.
LT: I adopted the practice of white-washing myself in order to achieve a level of believable desirability early-on in my young adult life. One of these practices included chemically straightening my hair, a process that was excruciatingly painful and required intense commitment. Every time someone asked me if my hair was naturally curly and kinky, I felt I had failed. When a peer commented, “You look white, but have black girl hair,” I was reminded time and time again that I was unsuccessful at this performance of whiteness.
White-washing also requires a certain level of disassociation, of which I was pretty good at. It also requires self-hatred, internalized racism, and self-degradation. The pressure to be white was undeniable, as I erased myself while struggling to become something I was not and stifling my chance at exploring different facets of my own identity early on.
S: Institutions use diversity as a marketing tool and do nothing to protect their students of color. They demonize these students and idolize their whiter affluent peers.
The BSU at school was harassed, and their posters were plagiarized. My school let this happen and never punished the perpetrators. They believed that the people who were performing these actions were “good” students because they were going to the navy, football players, or class presidents. My school also forged diversity by selecting students of color to take photos for publicity but never provided marginalized students with real care or assistance.
LT: There is an undeniable systemic privilege in being ethnically and racially ambiguous. Yet a larger symptom of these failed institutions is exemplified in the fact that not even I was granted the opportunity to find strength and resilience despite possessing the privilege to do so, as the feeling of otherization was too overwhelming. Without owning the language and vocabulary to describe my own experience, I struggled to place the blame on a more systemic issue while I internally sought to hold those micro-aggressive individuals accountable.
Colorism undoubtedly dictated the experiences of my other classmates who weathered harsher sufferings because of their darker complexion. My school failed to listen to the cries of racism that other students and I vocalized, ultimately refusing to provide safe spaces and essential resources for those who truly needed it at the time.
S: For so long, I thought my only value was my body and my sexuality, so I began to sexualize myself to get people to notice me because that’s what I thought that mattered. As a teenage girl growing up, believing that all that mattered was my bra size was damaging to my self-worth and my self-esteem. It has taken so long to get over these fears. These thoughts have been instilled in me for so long, and I’m still working through them today.
LT: The lifelong effort of abolishing these racist institutions begins with deconstructing the white euro-centric hegemony and uprooting the state and state-sanctioned violence. It is essential to pay close attention to the insidious ways that racism has manifested and still manifests. Hierarchy allows for those institutions to be complacent when they refuse to hold their oppressive members accountable and recognize harmful behavior. It is a continued effort to rewrite the narrative and destabilize any form of hierarchy when institutions continuously fail us.