Brown Girl by Taciane Santos
A lot of us know exactly what it feels like to stand out. Most say standing out is a wonderful thing and that being different gives others the opportunity to learn. But what if standing out begins to bring out emotional pain and self-harm? What if standing out means you don’t fit in anywhere ever? What if standing out makes you lose love for yourself? What if being so different leads you to alter who you actually are? About 8 years ago I stood out so badly that every day I woke up wishing I was anyone else but myself.
Summer was soon coming to an end and the start of my first year as a freshman in college was soon about to begin. I remember it like it was yesterday… Being the first one in the family to go to college my mother frantically helped me pack a car full of my belongings as she drove her little girl into a world completely unfamiliar to her. It was August 2011 and my first year of preseason volleyball was about to begin. Being on a collegiate team for a fall sport meant that you had to move in a little early before all the other students moved in September. So, my summers were cut pretty darn short! Anyhow, I was extremely excited to take on this journey and to meet my soon to be teammates and hopefully soon to be friends. Can you imagine what it’s like for an 18-year-old girl to step foot on a campus with no parental supervision? Well I felt a vast of emotions… I was excited, nervous, anxious, scared, accomplished, hopeful, but mainly HAPPY.
I was happy to have the privilege to be the first one in my family to step foot on a campus in America and potentially get a degree and the thought of that sort of freedom was exciting too. But I quickly learned that it was not going to go as well as I hoped it to be…
After moving into my dorm and getting settled my soon to be coach sent out an email asking for all of us to meet in the gymnasium so that we can all go over next steps. I had already briefly met some of these girls on campus visits but I had not met the entire team all at once, so I was really excited. I sat there waiting for all of the girls to arrive and found myself crossing my fingers hoping that a minority would walk through those doors. But my excitement quickly came to an end when I looked around and saw 11 white girls and one brown girl which was me. My first thought was, “Dang, this feels kind of weird.” My second thought was, “Well we are all just girls so it is very wrong of me to look at them and concentrate only on our physical differences.” And so, my journey began…
Being the only minority on my team and soon one of the very few minorities on the entire campus in the first 2 years was extremely overwhelming. At first I thought it wouldn’t feel different at all and that as long as I treated everyone with respect color wouldn’t be a factor to consider. Boy, was I wrong… I quickly became so critical of others which is something I have never done before. I began to pay attention to every detail; every interaction; and even details on what those around me wore and what brand names I would need to become familiar with for myself.
Coming from a middle class working family I soon began to panic within. I kept thinking, “Crap I don’t have that kind of money to just splurge on these brand-named items and go out to eat every other night”. I wasn’t sure how I was going to survive. All I wanted was to feel seen, heard, and liked. I was desperate to find someone to just understand me.
As humans, connection is essential; we are social beings! In the absence of genuine connection, we suffer; we cry; we hurt; we act more out of our emotions then out of our values. And by genuine connection, I mean the kind of connection that doesn’t require the hustling for approval and altering who we are to fit in. In my experience, I learned that we really weren’t born to walk alone. Now being on this campus I felt alone every day but I was physically surrounded by people all the time. You may be thinking, ‘well how could she feel alone if she’s around people all the time every day?’ It’s as simple as this: those around me never truly SAW me and when they did it was to compare and contrast our differences or to ask me if I had a chance to snag the latest brand named item. It was like I was invisible ALL THE TIME.
From being left out of social gatherings to being asked about my hair texture, I never felt good enough for anyone. At times, some of my teammates would come to me to vent about a disagreement with another teammate and I would feel SO LUCKY and think “WOW, she must like me and must want to be my friend if she’s confiding in me with this information.” But I quickly came to realize that they would use me to talk about each other when they would fight which would make me think that we were now friends but I was just an outlet for them and I would soon be excluded of everything once again. I fell for that trick every single time because I was desperate to connect.
To experience this sort of neglect at a young age can be extremely damaging. I became an extremely angry person. I hated everything about “white people.” I mentally got to a place where I never thought I’d ever be.
I quickly became extremely depressed and had consistent suicidal thoughts. I would call my parents every single night in tears begging them to help me; to save me; to get me the hell out of that place. All I wanted was to play the sport I loved; to get the grades I needed; to make everlasting friendships; and to be the first in my family to earn a degree. That’s it. But instead I was consistently forgotten, used, and ignored.
But as with everything, I learnt so much from this experience. Here are some of my key takeaways:
ALWAYS act off of your values and not off of your emotions. When you act out of an emotion you are prone to making mistakes. For example: my teammates as well as other students on this campus consistently made me feel like I did not deserve to be seen. Due to how they treated me I quickly would act out of my emotions (anger, anxiety, nervousness, sadness) and would act in ways that were NO BETTER than them. I became standoffish, ignorant, and quickly generalized everyone to be the same. That is because I chose to act out of my emotions versus out of what I truly value which is love, patience, and active listening. Had I acted out of my values I would have turned every negative interaction with them into a learning experience for them. Which is what I believe is missing in this world. Some people just may not know any better; so, EDUCATE THEM. That is more powerful than letting any sort of negativity affect and destroy you.
Ask for HELP. When you don’t know where to turn or feel like you’ve tried everything you could of to fix your situation don’t be afraid to brainstorm ways to ask other outlets for help. What nearly saved my life was when I finally decided that I should see a counselor or a professor and share with him or her all of what I was experiencing. That is how I got through the next 2 years of college and how I was able to successfully graduate. Vulnerability is STRENGTH do not let ANYONE make you see it as a weakness. When we try to be resilient we are permitting our fears to push our thinking and behavior without our awareness, which is what leads us to act out or completely shut down like me.
Be PROUD of where you come from! Being surrounded by teammates and students who were extremely wealthy and well off made me ashamed of where I came from. I had a hard time understanding why my parents didn’t end up with the same opportunities as these kid’s parents. I began to hate everything about my culture and also acted in selfish ways towards my parents. At one point, all I wanted was to have white educated wealthy parents because that is what I began to assume would equal success. Be proud of all that you are and all that you will be. Remember through pain comes success and battles build CHARACTER.
IGNORE self-doubt! Most of us are extremely tough on ourselves. The moment we make a mistake we begin to dig a hole for ourselves. The moment we feel like we are not good enough we are essentially killing ourselves. As humans, we internalize all of the negatives and we never ever forget it but we quickly let go of positive affirmations that we may receive and forget great things that we may have accomplished. That is just how we are. But we can do better. When I began to let go (with the help of lots of counseling) of all the negative encounters with these girls and embrace the fact that I Taciane Santos had MADE IT TO COLLEGE and was recruited to play DIVISION TWO VOLLEYBALL is when I realized that I was actually the shit. Being brought up by amazing parents but who lacked the resources and knowledge needed to appropriately assist their child to navigate different system was a crappy thing but it FORCED ME TO LEARN HOW TO BE INDEPENDENT. And that’s not such a bad thing. Sure, my self-doubt was and can be through the roof at times but it is all about how you CHOOSE to shift your thinking. It is all in MENTAL.
CHASE YOUR DREAMS! Never allow negative experiences to become a barrier for your future desires. When I finally graduated, I remember thinking, “Damn I made it but there is no way I’ll ever score a job working with at risk populations because no one will care to listen to me.” When I graduated, I let my experiences define who I was. I was extremely timid; I did not know how to raise my voice or confidently speak; I was sure that what I had to bring to the table did not matter. I was allowing one terrible experience to define the entirety of my future. What did I do? I went back to counseling to work through my thinking and I slowly regained some confidence that was stripped away from me at a young age. I now work for a nonprofit called Roca who works with high risk young men and some young mothers to help disrupt the cycle of incarceration and poverty by helping these young people transform their lives! You see, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.
Written by womxn of colour and radical change maker Taciane Santos, whose work for Massachusetts-based non-profit Roca as Special Projects Officer contributes to their mission to disrupt the cycle of incarceration and poverty by helping young people transform their lives.