I was a cheerleader for a year in Jr. High. The summer between our 7th and 8th grade years, a group of my friends had decided that they were going to Cheerleading camp at Houghton College.
One of the biggest reasons that this sticks out in my mind is that I liked cheerleading, but I felt that I shouldn’t be one. My mother always had this issue about weight and she projected it on her daughters. Her comment to me “no one likes a chubby cheerleader,” made me feel inadequate. Ironically, when I see cheerleaders today, I know that I wasn’t any “chubbier” than they are. I just wasn’t rail thin and as I mentioned before, this seems to be to accepted norm in the white community- you are either bony thin (which is acceptable) or you were fat. There was also the hair issue. Cheerleaders have bows and ponytails. My hair was a nappy afro. So I only was a cheerleader for one year.
I was an exceptional student still. My grades in Jr. High were at the top of the class. I even had perfect attendance in school.
I was inducted into the Jr. National Honor Society. This was a great honor that I had worked hard for. The thing I remember the most about it was that whenever the class that won best attendance each month got free ice cream, so did the National Honor Society members. Pretty good incentive to be honorable.
I played the clarinet in the school band and in the Rushford Town Band. I was actually pretty good at it and enjoyed it quite a bit. I can still play the clarinet somewhat, and wish I had more time to participate in some sort of musical activity. During Jr. High I had time to do all of this.
I played soccer on the Jr. High Soccer team. I was even Valedictorian of my class at 8th grade graduation. In a nutshell, on paper, I was the perfect child. I was an over achiever – out going and friendly. Everyone who knew me liked me (as far as I know). This was my home. I knew nothing different than what I had.
In spite of all my achievements at this time, a slow misery was creeping into my being. I don’t know if I was starting to really feel different about being adopted or different about being Black, but I felt different and I hated it. I just wanted to be like everyone else. I imagine that this is the angst of most girls in middle school. That they are not pretty enough, or not popular enough or not smart enough. Aside from the pretty part- which was a lie because when I look back – I was beautiful – I had it all. So what was the problem, why did I start really hating the skin I was in at this age?
It was about this time that I started hanging more with my peers than my family. And although at this time, the family life had settled down tremendously, with just me and my parents at home, I still wanted to be around my friends more. This is when I started to uniquely feel the sting of being othered. Being othered is when your differentness is pointed out in ways that make you feel uncomfortable. For example, my friends would say this like some was “nigger rigged” or tell a joke about niggers. And everyone would look at me and say “but we’re not talking about you” or “but we accept you, Sara.” That is being othered. When I was young, I was so happy that I was excluded from being “those niggers” and that my friends thought of me differently. It wasn’t until I got older that I started being angry about this behavior. However, when I was a teen, I was determined not to be associated with “those people” that people in my town talked about and disparaged.
It wasn’t just at school or in my peer groups either. One of the comments I remember most consistently my mother saying is that “the only people who whine worse than the Indians are the Blacks.” My parents had a friend who came over regularly that always had something negative to say about Black people. My parent’s son-in-law would mock the way that Black football players would talk. All of this seeped into my brain, and made me determined to not be labeled as dumb or ignorant sounding. It is hard for me to write about this person who just sat back and let people disparage my race, but I was a kid and I was the only Black person for miles – how would I ever have been able to change this or even speak out against it? Then they would have called me a nigger too and ostracized me.
So during these years when I should have been forming a positive self image, a time when I was excelling on every front, I was dying inside. I would spend hours in the mirror with a towel on my head, pretending this was my long, luxurious hair and that my whiteness would lead me to the highest heights. Even in my achievements, I never thought that I could be Black and successful. This was never a mirror that was placed in front of me. Everything Black was bad according to those who I was being raised around. To them Black people were poor, dirty, ghetto dwelling criminals. This is the image that I was given of my people. It would take years before I was able to dispel this myth in my mind. It would take even longer for me to believe that it is possible to be Black and successful.