Finishing this school year with distance learning amid a pandemic, has a lot of people wondering what students are learning while away from school. As a 15-year-old sophomore who attends Holmes High School, I want to share what I’m learning while not in a classroom, looking at the world around me and taking in the stories of Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper and George Floyd, among others.
There’s a phrase we use in my house: “You have to work twice as hard to get half of what they have.” It sums up the unfair reality that minorities have to work harder than others to reach the same heights. It’s a truth minorities in America have to wake up ready to face every day. I won’t pretend to have all the answers or speculate that America is a terrible country, because I don’t believe that, however, I can shed light on what I’m learning about being a minority in America.
What I have learned to be the hardest thing to accept about being a minority in America is that while equality is preached, I am not actually seen as equal. The “American dream” is complicated for me. The differences are subtle in most cases, and you might even miss them if you’re not paying close attention.
I notice things like how there are more military recruiters than college recruiters at inner-city high schools like mine, how people refer to students at my school, and schools like it, as “those people,” or how often people happen to joke about whether I’m in a gang. I’m learning that these things come attached as part of the handbook for living as a minority in America.
I pay attention to the world around me, and I learn other things. Minorities in America don’t get a second or third chance, while most of white America gets a plethora of chances because of their parents’ influence, affluence or even just the preconceived, biased ideas that a police officer, teacher or random woman in a park has about me before I ever say a word.
I can learn what it means to be a minority in America from the more and more frequent difficult conversation topics that I have with my friends of different ethnicities and family members. It’s a conversation and an oppression that white America does not face. Whether it’s African Americans being killed in the street while going for a jog, just for “looking suspicious” or because, by our mere appearance, we can somehow make people “fear for their life.”
I also learn what it means when I see Asian Americans being blatantly persecuted and victimized over the coronavirus, Mexican Americans and the Hispanic community constantly being told to “go home” or that they “don’t belong here,” Arab Americans and Muslims being seen as terrorists because of their heritage or faith, or the countless others that aren’t “American” enough because their skin is darker, or they have an accent, or they simply practice a different faith. All of this is a part of the handbook I’m given for what it means to be a minority in America.
Math is important, too, and I pay attention to numbers, and they tell me facts about what it means for me to be a minority living in America. Whether it’s learning that African Americans are imprisoned at five times the rate of white people, or learning the statistics surrounding my own education, I can see what the data is telling me about being a minority in America.
I look at the numbers for my high school, where the minority enrollment rate is 93 percent, with 77 percent of students dealing with the realities of being economically disadvantaged; the highest rates of those categories in all of Northside Independent School District. The hardest number to look at is 14.9 percent, which is my school’s score on the college readiness index. This is the lowest percentage of students who are “college-ready” in the district, and it makes me wonder why the school with the highest rate of minority and economically disadvantaged enrollees has such a low college readiness score.
I learn how to analyze what goes into these numbers, too. Not only does my school sit at 14.9 percent “college-ready,” but part of what the state uses to calculate that percentage is not only the number of college recruiter visits to the campus, but also the number of military recruiters. The school with the highest enrollment of minorities and economically disadvantaged students only sits as high as 14.9 percent because military recruiters frequently visit, knowing that kids at schools like mine have limited options. So I learn that while white kids have their heads filled with ideas of degrees from Ivy league schools we have ours filled with our only real option being the military.
Schools like mine try their best to curb these stats and disadvantages, but it’s a big gap to have to overcome. The simple fact is that inner-city schools filled with minority students, like mine, see so much staff turnover and such a lack of resources that it compromises our education, while other kids have never known that. This ends up translating to higher education as well — in the U.S., 52.9 percent of all college students are white and no minority group accounts for more than 20 percent of college students. So while I learn that education is a very powerful thing, I learn it’s being attained by mostly one group of people.
What I’m learning from the world around me is that the majority of minorities will come from areas that may not seem to be great and go to schools that don’t have the capacity to educate the same way other schools do. I’m learning that there will be major hurdles and America may not always want us to succeed, that the path to success for minorities will not be nearly as easy for us as it is for some, and that minorities will have to work twice as hard as others to hope to have a chance at success. I’m learning that we won’t be treated equally, get equal opportunities, or get to feel normal and safe in public interactions.
And I’m also learning something about myself. I’m learning that I will work hard anyway, with some added conviction, to see these things change. Like most Americans, I hold the “We the People” at the beginning of the Constitution with reverence. The iconic phrase is something I used to view with awe when I was younger, I believed America was the utopia that it’s founders wrote about. As I’ve gotten older and now at 15, some of the naivety has faded away, I can view this phrase with clearer eyes. These unalienable rights spoken of in the Constitution really only applied as long as you wielded some sort of influence. The idea that all men were created equal held true as long as your skin color wasn’t too dark, then you were only three-fifths of a person. “We the people” wasn’t something that encompassed the entirety of the American population, but I hope that at some point it will.
What I’ve learned during this time is that I am committed to “work twice as hard,” despite the challenges, starting with using my voice and my knowledge, in order to start to change the inequity and injustice still alive and well around me. My hope is that while I do this work, others will do the work of listening, learning, and getting to know people that are different than them. Then we can all learn that it’s a lot harder to hate up close.