There are a lot of things I don’t remember about my high school career. This is on purpose. Before I drink booze I kindly look at my glass and whisper, “If you’re going to get rid of brain cells, take the ones with high school memories encoded on them. I don’t need them”. Okay, I’m kidding. I have never done that. But, I very willfully don’t think about high school, because I hated it. However, I’m going to unearth some of the boxes from the mental attic and talk about it, because a former classmate, that I recently regained contact with via Facebook (who I liked back then, and now really respect the adult she’s become), asked me to write about what it was like going to our school as a woman of color. Her question kind of took me off guard, but I immediately thought I knew what she was getting at.
(The writing of this post is going to degenerate several times to me just listening to the music I listened to in high school, I just know it).
I was born and raised in San Pedro, California. San Pedro is a peninsula and home to Los Angeles harbor. It’s actually about 25 minutes from Los Angeles proper. It’s a small, sleepy ass suburb, in the middle of nowhere, that most Angelenos can’t identify on a map. According to 2008 (two years after I graduated) population information, there were 86,012 people living in San Pedro, which is only 12.06 square miles. That’s 6.6 thousand people per square mile. It’s not a large town. The median income was 57k. 44.2% of the city was white, 40% latino, 5% asian, and 6% black. It’s not a big town. It’s not a particularly diverse town, either. It’s better than Alabama, I suppose, but it’s not a cultural melting pot. Most of the families that live here have lived here for generations, most of the money comes from a working class culture, the town has a small town feel. It’s got a Friday Night Lights vibe…but not in a good way. Do you know what I mean?
That was the thing that worried me the most about high school, when I started going to San Pedro High. I wasn’t so much a “rah rah, go team” kind of person, particularly because I didn’t love San Pedro. I have a love/hate relationship with my hometown; I can talk shit about it, but no one else can. I knew I wanted to leave San Pedro, and that my dreams were bigger than marrying a hometown dude and having kids, and whatnot. Not that it’s a bad life, it just wasn’t the life I wanted. So most of my time in high school, was spent figuring out how to get the fuck out of high school and away from San Pedro. But, let me back up and say there are a few things I’ve always been obsessed with. John Hughes movies and Clueless. So, there was this dichotomy of my idea of high school, and how it should play out, but also realizing I was a Daria or an Enid from Ghost World, not a Molly Ringwald. In fact, the best way to describe all of this, without the added complication of color, is to quote myself, in the speech I gave at graduation, “When I started high school in ninth grade I only had a vague idea of who I was, but the unrealistic image of who I thought I should be was burned into my brain. I envisioned my time in school would mirror the cinematic gem Clueless; my hair would always be perfectly quaft, my clothing impeccable, I’d have a gorgeous but soulful boyfriend, I’d be popular and smart and every minute of my life would be perfect, just like a cola commercial. And I would display this cola commercial life to the world and everyone would like and accept me for it. I was wrong, and at the expense of myself I stretched and strove to make my life that way. It wasn’t until the end of the school year that I started to realize that who I was acting like wasn’t me, it wasn’t a person I liked, and I was not the only person majorly unhappy with this stranger in my body. So, in tenth grade, I switched hats. I went as far to the other extreme of me-ness that I could. I had five different hair colors that year. Why? Because I liked the colors. Because I hoped it would establish me as my own person. Because I hoped everyone would recognize that I was my own person and that I could never succumb to their “I have to be just like everyone else” mentality. It was only another extreme, and while I’m less ashamed of this one, I still had a ways to go before I became the person that stands before you.” My speech glossed over the fact that I completely felt like an outcast. I was this girl that everyone knew, but I don’t think I had very many close friends. Some of that was my own fault, some of that was just the social/cultural climate of our school.
I definitely wasn’t as woke to race relations when I was in high school as I am now, and I definitely had some unpacking do you during and after college. That said, I was aware there was definitely some weird race shit that affected the way I related (or didn’t) to my peers. First of all, I was a black minority in a majority white school. Which could be overlooked, if I had been into football or cheer or wore Hollister or whatever. But, to add a layer of complication, I was a Nirvana T-Shirt wearing, Good Charlotte listening to, guitar playing at nutrition, emo girl with a gay best friend. So, there went whatever street cred I had. But then, I had a hard time with the emo kids, because I was black and that scene was a very white space in 2003. However, I had two things going for me; I’m really fucking smart and I can be really charismatic. Which led to my counselor telling me she wanted me to be a part of an on campus club; called LetUp (Leaders Empowering Teens United for Peace). San Pedro High School, at the time, was coming down off a slew of gang violence, and there was a lot of tension between different gangs, which spread to the cliques, which made fights on the basketball courts a daily thing. My counselor had this idea to get together kids from different cliques, put them in a room together for an hour, and basically make them get along. She figured we’d take our peace back out to our cliques and bring some peace back to the school. She thought I was a leader. I thought I was an emo who was the president of Gay Straight Alliance because no one else wanted the job. Statistically, her methods worked and on campus violence dropped dramatically. It didn’t mean kids wouldn’t be kids. Which is just another way to say people are assholes. So, a ton of kids on campus knew me, because of the club. I didn’t really get into fights because of the club. And, I started doing athlete’s homework for cash, because they met me in the club and realized I was doing better in our shared classes than they were.
I’m losing my train of thought; let me condense this into one thought - I was not black enough for the black kids and not white enough for the white kids and that’s basically where I spent my high school social career in some weird limbo. I wasn’t good enough to be considered a good kid, but I wasn’t bad enough to be a bad kid, and mostly I did my best to be myself, fly under the drama radar, and try to ensure I would go to college and get the fuck out of San Pedro. There was a black girl who loudly told her friends she was going to fight me, because I thought I was white because I brought my guitar to school, and in the same week two white guys cornered me in a hallway and told me I was a poser and bet I couldn’t name five punk bands. I responded to both situations by rolling my eyes and stomping off. I really wonder how I made it through all four years of high school and only got into two fights. My high school theater teacher refused to cast me in a role everyone thought I was a shoe in for (an aging rocker mom who wore a leather jacket), because the girl he cast as the daughter was white passing and no one would believe with my skin tone I was her mom. I think the most damage was done to my self-esteem, over anything else. One day I wore a mini-skirt to school (mine was way worse than what girls are being sent home for now, btw), and some girl hissed “slut” at me, and another told me with my black body I could not pull off clothes like that. That skirt went into the back of my closet and didn’t come back out until college. I never thought I was a good dancer, because the dance team was filled with bodies and skin tones that didn’t look like mine. I thought, “pretty for a black girl”, was an actual acceptable compliment for years. I spent years not understanding or accepting my blackness because I wasn’t sure where it left me in the world, because for most of my school career, but particularly high school, I wasn’t black enough to be black and I wasn’t white enough to be white.
I’m not sure what the tipping point was—I had a great English teacher my freshman year of college who introduced me to bell hooks; and I went down a rabbit hole to read everything of hers I could get my hands on, even going so far as to order books from my schools’ sister library. A friend turned me onto Cornell West. Obama’s race to the White House was a big fucking deal. I went to a few African American Student Alliance meeting, because I didn’t have anything else to do those afternoons. I was an early adapter on Tumblr. I’m still learning. I think as my generation has gotten older we have found ways to reclaim our blackness, while also re-defining it. My high school best friend and I talk about this often. We almost plotzed when we read Zoe Kravitz’s interview with Nylon last year, “I identified with white culture, and I wanted to fit in. I didn’t identify with black culture, like, I didn’t like Tyler Perry movies, and I wasn’t into hip-hop music. I liked Neil Young. Black culture is so much deeper than that, but unfortunately that is what’s fed through the media. That’s what people see. That’s what I saw. But then I got older and listened to A Tribe Called Quest and watched films with Sidney Poitier, and heard Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. I had to un-brainwash myself. It’s my mission, especially as an actress.”. Spending my adolescence in a majority white town didn’t help me see past the stereotypes, and allowed me to deny myself easily. I’m not ashamed of this and I don’t blame anyone, I just count it as fact and hope I can be part of a world that makes that more difficult.