Updated: Jul 16, 2020
My high school years were a time of hyper-overachievement for me. I have always been an overachiever, but as I grew to be a teen, it became more nuanced by my race.
My parents had two different views on race, as I remember it:
My Hispanic/Native American mom warned me that because of what I am, a Black/Hispanic/Native woman, people would underestimate me and count me out, because of the stereotypes that have formed around people that look like me. I would get invited to Ivy League receptions for prospective student in my junior and senior year. At the time, I was planning to be an engineer. I would always put on makeup and make sure I was dressed in business casual attire, complete with heels. When we would arrive at the reception, I’d find that I was the only Black person AND woman in the room. The rest were white or Asian young men, and they would NEVER be dressed as well as I. They would be wearing graphic shirts, jeans, sandals or sneakers…I always felt overdressed. When I asked my mom why I had to keep dressing “fancy” while all the rest of the kids dressed comfy, she told me:
“When people are guided by stereotypes, they automatically assume that nerdy-looking white and Asian guys are intelligent, regardless of how they dress. You are an Afro-Latina woman. If you dressed as sloppily as these boys, they would not make the same assumptions about you, looking at your appearance…
“You will always have to outperform everyone else just to be on the same playing field…:
My Black dad was a person who “didn’t believe racism was a problem.” He believed that attributing race as a challenge was a cop-out, and that I just needed to try harder at everything and rise above it. I have also heard him say that white people were the superior race, and that’s just the way things are. We are inferior, and that’s why we have to work harder, blend into their world, assimilate. After all, our own ancestors were the one who sold us into slavery. We couldn’t defend ourselves because we were just inferior. I remember growing with this sentiment, eventually ACTUALLY believing that I was inherently inferior because I was Black. I also remember thinking “at least I’m light-skinned, so I’m a little higher on the scale of worth. I say these words with terror, because it’s hard to admit that I really regarded myself as a lesser human being.
Either way, because of both sentiments I was taught by my parents, my teen years were dedicated to making sure I was an “exceptional Negro.” I felt pressure to fight every negative Black stereotype so that I could seen with more worth in the world. Also because I was Black, I had to prove that I was smart enough and worthy enough to belong in whiter, “successful” places.
I did everything I could…
I was an AP scholar.
I joined JROTC and placed in the top 5 cadets in the entire city of Houston, 2 years in a row.
I joined student government.
I was a student ambassador for the Houston Hispanic Forum.
I joined theater.
I played basketball and lettered in cross country.
I won 3 awards/scholarships for my PSAT scores, and I believe I was the first from my school to do so.
I received over $2 million worth of scholarship offers from schools such as Yale, Stanford, etc.
I received two full ride offers: one to Texas A&M University and one to the United States Air
I became the second person from my high school to ever attend USAFA.
I graduated in the top 10-15% of my class. My IQ is 140.
I literally received an award at graduation for doing the most…no seriously, there was an award for the student who was extremely well-rounded in all aspects, and was very active at school and in the community. It was meant for the student who was the most distinct representative of the school as a whole. It went to one female and one male. I was the female recipient….I didn’t even know that award existed.
I did everything I could to be the “exceptional Negro…”
One day at lunchtime at the Air Force Academy, I was sitting at the table with some upperclassmen. I was a sophomore. I’m not sure exactly how the topic came up, but one of my white upperclassmen addressed me, saying that I “didn’t deserve to be here.” He said the only reason I received my appointment to USAFA was because of affirmative action and because they needed more token black people for their diversity quota, not because I was smart or intelligent…
…I didn’t say anything. I didn’t defend myself……half of me actually accepted it, because of my conditioning to believe I was a lesser being…
…but the other half was in shock. I did everything…I did everything right. Despite poverty, despite trauma at home, I did everything to be exceptional, to earn anything I’d ever receive….
…but here I was, at the Ivy League-equivalent institution I worked so hard to attend…and now I knew, that all some of my white counterparts saw was a hood-rat that got a handout.