Breana: I'm African American, but Black is fine. I’m from the Chicago area.
Due to the predominantly White contexts I grew up in, at least for school and church, I realized very early on that I was different. It came down to the simple things like what I was eating for dinner at home, the way I styled my hair and the way I experienced daily life.
Etta: Did something happen that brought about that realization?
Breana: I don't know if there was one exact moment. When I was younger, I brushed things to one side. But as I got older, I grew more aware of what was happening in the world and how that affected how people viewed me. I became more aware of the negative connotations that brought, for instance, if something were to happen in the news and the perpetrator was someone Black or African American.
In history class, when you start learning about slavery, everyone turns to you in the classroom. When I was in elementary school, teachers would be like, “Breana, you're Black... slavery.” It became very apparent that teachers and students looked to me to have answers for history when I was supposed to be learning right alongside them.
Living as an ethnic minority definitely affects how I view myself not only physically but spiritually as well. Growing up in a society that heavily focuses on Eurocentric beauty standards, learning how to accept your skin color and hair is not easy because it goes completely against everything society deems as beautiful. Spiritually, not only in White churches, I find it difficult to interact with people who say they love everyone but who don't often recognize their complicity in racism. They are complicit in the same systems that oppress me and the people that I know.
Etta: How has living as an ethnic minority affected the way you feel towards others who are also Black/African American?
Breana: It's made me realize that we have to come together as a culture and as a collective group of people. My ancestors have paved a way for me to be able to do things I would not have been able to do 30, or even 10, years ago. It's made me very aware of the impact I have as a Black person, specifically a Black woman, doing things that I know my grandparents could not have done.
Etta: Do you and your family actively preserve your ethnic heritage in any way?
Breana: In terms of ethnic heritage, many Black Americans technically don't know our ethnic heritage. My grandma's parents were sharecroppers and their parents were on the same slave plantation as their ancestors before them. Essentially, as an African American, it's difficult to preserve an ethnic heritage that you don't know because of slavery. That has essentially been stripped and erased and taken away from my ancestral lands.
In terms of the remnants of that, that is definitely something that my family does preserve. We get together for cookouts. Simply being together and sharing common backgrounds, food, language, and vernacular is a way we preserve Black culture and enjoy not having to prove ourselves to society.
On this campus, I can't say that I've experienced discrimination explicitly. I would say that I've experienced a variety of microaggressions, whether it be someone touching my hair without permission, telling me how I articulate I am, saying I'm pretty for a Black girl or just a lot of things that have been problematic… And off campus, well-
Etta: If you prefer not to say-
Breana: I'm pretty sure I was in Wilmore and someone called me the N-word.
Etta: What does being Black/African American mean to you? And how has it changed?
Breana: When I was younger, I didn't truly appreciate who I was as a Black woman. I tried to minimize and downplay the qualities society has deemed as stereotypes for Black women. But as I've grown, I've come to terms with the fact that it's okay to be authentically who I am regardless of what society has to say. I've learned to accept my hair. I've learned to accept the skin that I'm in. Because Black is beautiful. And there's something about looking at family members, looking at friends, and seeing the strength and the way that they hold themselves in a society that continually downgrades and oppresses. That is something to be admired.
I feel the most disconnected from my culture when people in the majority try to discount my experiences in my stories in order to make themselves feel better. When it continually happens over and over again, you begin to doubt your own story and your own experiences which in turn makes you begin to doubt yourself and who you are.
Especially as a Black American who has grown up in both contexts, a predominantly White and then a more diverse culture, code-switching is something that becomes very common. It's something that allows Black people to interact with both groups of people and have people better understand them.
So, for instance, there can be a sense of fear and shame about my culture. Because of that, I know that in order to be perceived well by other people, I have to talk a certain way, dress a certain way, and act a certain way that I wouldn't with another group of people. In the early stages, it was more due to fear and shame, but now it's become more of a realization that, unfortunately, due to the way that this society is, it is something that is necessary.
Etta: If you could get one message out there, what would it be?
Breana: So many thoughts. I think a lot of people say they care about people. But when it comes to issues of race, they shy away. And as a person of color, you begin to doubt whether or not these people truly care. So if you are truly serious about caring about your friends and family of color, you need to actively be fighting against racism.