I was 12 years old when I had my second experience with institutionalized racism. I was the only black person in the one Algebra class my junior high school offered. It was open to 7th and 8th graders and on the first day of class, even though I was a 7th grader, I wasn’t nervous nor did I feel out of place. My mother raised me to believe that, “Those called unto God are called to stand out so if you ever feel like ‘you don’t belong here’ or you feel out of place then it means you are in the right place”. That woman was always 10 steps ahead of me. So as per norm, I pulled out my pencil and paper and was ready to get to work. A few minutes later…
Algebra Teacher: “Sasha? Hi, you’re needed in the administration’s office. Here’s a hall pass.”
Me: “Me? Ok, thanks.”
(Me Now: Would you believe that once all the students had settled in class that morning that the teacher actually called the administration office because it “randomly” came to him that the school made a mistake in placing me in his class?? Of alllll the students in the class he thought that the registrar had “accidentally” put me in his class! The class had about 40 students – 31 were Asian, 8 were either White or Indian, and one was a curly girl who was on her way to the Admin’s office.)
Admin: “Hi Sasha, we just want to make sure you are in the right class. Are you aware you were enrolled in an Algebra class?”
Me: “Yes, I took pre-algebra last year and did pretty well.”
(Me Now: I got an A+ in pre-algebra and my overall 6th grade GPA was a 4.0. Did they not bother to pull my transcripts?! *Three snaps and a hair flip*)
Admin: “Well Algebra is much harder and it’s a much more difficult class. The teacher moves at a fast pace and you will find it more challenging. Let’s go ahead and put you in pre-algebra and see how you handle that.”
Me: “Okaaay….(Mama raised me to respect authority. Authority always knows best right?)”
Y’all, they not only pulled me out of the Algebra class but also, escorted me to the pre-algebra class that very same day. My poor 12 year old mind was so confused! That evening I told the story to my mom and I remember her saying very little and not looking surprised so I went to bed that night convinced that pre-algebra was my fate. C’est la vie. The next morning my mom drove me to school but this time she parked the car in the parking lot. She asked in which direction was the Admin’s office and for me to point ’em out. When we entered the building, my mother asked to speak with the Admin from the day before. I can’t recall everything that was said but I do remember, with one finger pointed in the Admin’s direction, my mom ended the conversation with, “Now put Sasha back in Algebra where she belongs.” My hero. Rumors spread and soon everyone knew. I remember feeling embarrassed and like I had done something wrong. I didn’t want to be there anymore. So what happened next?
In 7th grade I got an A+ in Algebra. The following year I got an A+ in Geometry. In high school, I got A’s in Calculus 1, Calculus 2, and Statistics. I attended one of the top universities in the country and minored in mathematics and later began my career as an analyst at one of the top companies in the nation.
Is this a success story? Eh, it depends on the day you ask me. It’s been almost two decades and I can still hear the Admin’s voice and vividly see her face. It still gets to me like nails on a chalkboard – “I know you think you can handle Algebra but today I’m the hurdle in your life telling you pre-algebra would suit you much better.” Her dubious gaze and patronizing voice was unlike anything I had experienced before at that time and it’s burned in my memory. Was it as shallow as race and/or gender? Or was there something else that she and the professor saw in me or didn’t see in me? What was it about my appearance in an Algebra classroom that made the teacher think I was a mistake? What blows my mind even more is the power a teacher can have in a young woman’s life. Don’t get me wrong, he was a good teacher, but his own prejudice had the power to change the course of my life with one phone call.
The human psyche is real and clearly so is institutionalized racism and sexism. Even though, my default response was to tenaciously outperform my peers and exceed my teachers’ expectations, I know it won’t be every young woman’s response. That is why it’s super important that we all step up the effort to constantly present women with role models who have conquered opposition in all its forms.
A teacher\’s racial prejudice is the most dangerous because they have the power to change the course of a young person\’s life.
I can’t overemphasize enough the importance of instilling confidence, self-worth, high self-esteem, and the value of speaking up in young women today. I lose sleep over it. I lose sleep because it gets to my core all of the other girls that get transferred to pre-algebra and get stuck in a pre-algebra mentality. It’s the other girls who don’t have the tools to cope with the feeling of, “you don’t belong here” that really get to me. It’s the girls who don’t speak up because they are rightfully trained to respect authority that really get to me. It’s the girls that get stuck in a oppressive systems that really get to me. It’s the girls whose mothers can’t come to their defense and speak on their behalf that really get to me. It’s the young girls that don’t get put back in Algebra that really get to me.
Apparently, it all still really gets to me.
More to come on methods to battle prejudice of all kinds in the education system and the tools we can use to cope and overcome self-doubt but in the meantime, this is my GO TO video for whenever life tells me, “You don’t belong here.”, but alas, I know better! You better put me back in Algebra!
Video Source: Youtube
Photo Credit: nrm.org