My name is Brittini Wright-Burley, and I can relate to your experiences in many ways. I grew up here in Pittsburgh and attended every type of school you could imagine. In my early elementary years, until second grade, I attended the Ellis School where I was one of two African Americans in the grade for both years I was there.
I wish I could say my most memorable experience was a good one but it was not. I remember a school production we put on of “Annie” and I was cast as an extra, something like a fellow orphan. The day of the production, the teachers or volunteers were putting makeup on us and they actually put the same makeup on me as they did on the white children who were in the play. I still remember how absolutely foolish I looked to have worn that. And not one of my classmates could understand my embarrassment or how absolutely ridiculous (and dare I say culturally insensitive) it was.
At the time, I obviously didn’t relate much to the other students but I also remember having a hard time with other African-American children who I encountered outside of school. My cousins would even tell me I “talked white.” My parents, noticing how hard this was for me, moved me to the all-black St. Benedict the Moore in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. At St. Benedict, I grew a great deal. I learned so much about my culture and history that I grew to love studying it. History and reading became my hobbies. I would read whenever I had the opportunity. Books like Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and Sharon Flake’s “The Skin I’m In” were all introduced to me while in the seventh and eighth grades there and they opened my eyes to literature.
I believe the only way to stop some of those incidents is to speak up and let people know when they are being inappropriate.
Although I learned a great deal at St. Benedict and excelled in my classes there, it wasn’t until I reached Schenley High School that my mother had me tested for the gifted program. Schenley was very different from each school I attended previously, and it was my first experience at a public school. It was not as white as Ellis and it was not as black as St. Benedict. It was different. Schenley was the definition of a melting pot. It was truly amazing and diverse. My gifted classes had what I would call a “good” representation of non-whites and did not feel anywhere near how it felt to attend Ellis. It was, in my opinion, comfortable. We created real friendships, had a greater understanding of other cultures and a sound appreciation for education.
Now the end of my educational career brought me to Pittsburgh’s own Duquesne University. Duquesne’s student body population at the time I attended was less than 4 percent African American. That was it. Back to being the minority. But surprisingly enough, the experience was not what I expected. It had its moments where people would hide their racism with passive aggressive comments or, like you said, comments that were prefaced with “not to sound racist, but…” But I tried my best to take advantage of my time there to stand up against what I did not believe in. When someone made a passive aggressive comment, I met it with clarity and directness.
You see, I believe the only way to stop some of those incidents is to speak up and let people know when they are being inappropriate.
Donise, every opportunity we are given — whether good or bad — is a lesson. Our obligation is to learn from those lessons in order to make ourselves better in the future. We cannot let other people’s comments limit our growth and we cannot be deterred by their ignorance.
Although you may not see very many young black people around you now, you are still in good company. We as young black women are in a very significant place in history. We are currently the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in America. We are also among the most educated group in the United States. There will be people who challenge that. There will also be people who believe we are undeserving of our achievements, but we will continue to counter that narrative and push through. You literally have the power to change the world!
Brittini Wright-Burley is the owner and executive director of Wright Childcare Solutions, an organization that specializes in on-site childcare and commercial daycare centers, events and programming, in-home and emergency care, and training and curriculum management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.