Embrace Diversity With Stedman Graham

I was always pressing, always trying to convince myself and others that I was good enough. We were living only in the moment because we had to, most of us thought. As I grew to high school age, I internalized a lot of rage. We had been disrespected for so many years that we felt we had to prove ourselves. Our self-esteem had been diminished. That led to physical intimidation. When we were about fourteen or fifteen, several of us would walk into places outside Whitesboro and feel all eyes in the room on us. We'd turn around, look menacingly at them, and bellow, "What are you looking at?"

But most of our parents in that era "stepped in line." They bought into this whole race-based consciousness and were unwittingly enforcing it. They were always aware of how they carried themselves, and hence, so were we. I had to watch every move I was making because I felt I was always in jeopardy: I had to work at fitting in. Away from Whitesboro, the realities of racial bias were hitting me hard, and I would often internalize racial incidents that went on in my high school. There was always some race-based controversy.

As a person of mixed Native American and African American ancestry, I was light-skinned. Because of that, I suppose, I was a little more palatable to white America than some. But "light-skinned" became a selfattached label and a stigma for me. We were all subdivided into differently shaded groups that often marked how much money, culture and, class we were due. And I felt I was naturally entitled to a little more because of the lightness of my skin. I might even be able to get into doors that darker-skinned blacks could not, I thought. It took me a long time to realize that such race-based thinking was to my detriment. Instead of focusing on my academic merits, I was becoming class-complacent and class-conscious.

There was a time in my life when I said to myself, "I don't know how a black man makes it. How do I get past the labels and the psyche of the world and all this separation?" After all, our world is a place that seems to shout out, "We are going to put up all these obstacles and create a system that labels you and keeps you locked in with bars all around you. We know you're probably not going to make it, but if you somehow do, well, that's amazing. We might even throw you a bone if you get out."

I never imagined in my wildest dreams that success in life was more about understanding who I really was. For the longest time, I thought I would be happy if I got lucky enough to get inside the white world even just a bit. Of course, there were certain unwritten rules you had to follow to accomplish this. You had to be subservient in the way you talked and acted. You had to walk softly. Otherwise, you would be knocked back into your place.

Obviously, we felt as if the whole world was telling us what we could and couldn't do, and it seemed the bar had been lowered for African Americans. When counselors told us to "stay in school," they usually didn't mean "go on to college." They just meant we should finish high school. We were even told by a school counselor that we shouldn't plan on going to college to become a doctor or lawyer or dentist because those weren't the professions that people of color could choose.

Hundreds of years of labeling and programming have affected millions of lives. Imagine how many legacies would have been different if people were free to believe that they could be anything they wanted.

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