Like most high school seniors, it has been a stressful fall for me. College admissions pressure, the election and constant news about discrimination in communities around the country. So, I wrote about it for my college essay.
“I was lynched once.” So Leo proclaimed, during our junior year of high school. The school was reeling from a video, posted on social media, in which a drunk senior had used the vilest racial slur imaginable, described others as his “slaves,” and threatened to “get my dogs to beat your ass.” Instead of our usual marine biology class that day, we were talking about the video, about race relations at my suburban private school and in society as a whole.
I didn’t know how to respond to Leo, who is white. To understand my confusion, you need to know that I am an adopted, multiracial twin raised by white lesbians. My brother and I were adopted at birth in San Antonio, Texas, and raised in Washington, D.C., in a house filled with love, support and seemingly unlimited opportunities. So I occupy a weird position—“a rich white girl who also happens to be black,” one classmate said.
When Leo described having been “lynched,” looking directly at me as he spoke, I felt humiliated and confused. I was the only black student in class that day―the other African-American girl was absent. I was unsure if he meant it as a joke. I sat there frozen in my chair, questioning whether I had the ability to speak up or if I should just ignore him. In that moment, all I could choke out was: “I don’t think you clearly understand the meaning of that term and that is extremely inappropriate.” I’m not a confrontational person. I feared that if I said anything else to upset him he would continue to fire back with even more offensive comments.
Leo ignored my comment. That was the last time we spoke.
In hindsight, I’m sorry I didn’t respond more forcefully, but I am also oddly grateful for that moment, and for other hurtful ones that followed. At my school, some kids have been driving cars with “Don’t Tread on Me” flags or Confederate decals. One girl turned up in class wearing a Confederate flag tee-shirt―after another girl was told she would have to take off her “Black Lives Matter” sweatshirt.
I’ve been raised in an educated, politically liberal environment, mostly shielded from day-to-day prejudice. Having to encounter it directly has made me stronger emotionally and, I think, a better member of my community. When a kid in my math class called someone a “faggot” last year, a few weeks after the encounter with Leo, I told him how inappropriate his language was.
“It doesn’t make a difference,” he replied.
“Does it make a difference that I have two moms?” I asked. He sat down. I felt great―like I had been able to step out of my comfort zone and stand up for something that I believe in.
This year, I raised the question of offensive flags with my guidance counselor, and the school has responded by banning flags on cars. That is not a perfect solution, but at least I was able to get my voice heard.
Now the school is holding meetings at which students can bring up topics they believe are not being talked about enough in the community, whether racial tensions or sexual abuse or other issues. Student peers are stepping forward to help kids become active in the community and help them feel valued.
Seeing discrimination on the news is one thing. Being the person who’s actually being attacked is much harder to absorb. Because I’ve lived my life straddling the social divide, it’s difficult for me to comprehend why people will put somebody else down based on their race or sexual orientation. What I’ve learned in the last year is that some people have to fight harder than others to be heard and recognized. I’ve also learned that, in my own quiet way, I can fight too, and make at least a small difference.
Anna Rosen-Birch is a high school senior at The Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland. She was just admitted to Syracuse University where she will start in the fall majoring in health sciences.