Finding My Voice by Colette Johnson

As my senior year of high school comes to a close I’ve noticed a few changes in myself. One, I’ve been a lot more vocal in my Creative Writing department. Two, I’ve gained more confidence in myself not only as a writer, but as a Black woman navigating a predominantly White space. Three, distance learning has its challenges but it’s not impossible to navigate. Four, I am not longer afraid to reach out to my teachers and counselors when I need help, Five, My mental health is important. Six, I wish I had reached this point in my life sooner. 

I’d never had an issue with my confidence before high school. I think this had a lot to do with the environment that I was in. My middle school had been predominantly Asian and Latino, and while I was one of the only African American students I was still surrounded by other minorities. High school was a culture shock as I had never been around many White students before, and many other students with a different socio economic background than myself. When I had auditioned for the Creative Writing department I knew that I would be the only minority, however I wasn’t prepared for the micro aggressions that I’d face from both teachers and students. 

During my freshman year, I was unaware that talking down to a student was a micro aggression. I did not know that singling out a student to answer questions that you think they wouldn’t know the answer to is a micro aggression. There were many times where I was called on to answer a question that I, in fact, did not know the answer to. However, being surrounded by white students who are looking at me with blank stares as I stumble over my words to fabricate an answer to suit the instructor terrified me completely. I felt that I had something to prove because at the time I was the only Black student. Subconsciously I was putting pressure on myself that I had to be a good example of what a Black woman is to trump any of their assumptions, something I didn’t realize I was doing until my senior year. 

Freshman year was the beginning of my quietness in school. I would never volunteer to read a passage out loud, or give my opinion on a discussion topic. I was silent for the most part. Keeping to myself and only reluctantly speaking when spoken to. This led to a series of conversations had between the department head and myself. She’s been an influential part of my journey to finding my voice, always encouraging me to share my thoughts, opinions, and takeaways that may be different from my peers. I could never bring myself to do this out of fear of being judged; I didn’t want my intelligence to be questioned. I think many African American students like myself are taught with the understanding that we are going to be judged no matter what we do for simply existing. It was drilled into me at an early age that I had to show that I wasn’t incompetent, that I could keep up with the other kids. 

I didn’t start to gain the courage to speak up in class until we started distance leaning this year. Perhaps the fact that we’re virtual and not in the classroom contributes to my boost in confidence. I feel more comfortable in my own home behind a computer screen. At the beginning of January the juniors and seniors started our fiction unit working with an Artist in Residence named Danny Nuygen. Danny chose to bring in a series of short stories for us to read, many of them dealing with subject matters involving race, social class, and economic status. I related to many of the pieces in this fiction unit than I have in the past, most likely because I understand the adversity and struggles faced by the characters. I started speaking in class, sharing my own thoughts and experiences on race living as a Black woman in America, something I would have never done in the past.

Colette Johnson, Class of ’21

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