'It's kinda weird being the only black girl'

A few years ago, my daughter, Whitney, allowed me into a special part of her world - a journal I had asked her to keep during summer camp a couple years ago.

We found this discarded journal while moving. When she said I could read it, I stopped in my tracks, perched myself between the mountains of cardboard boxes and dove in.

I was engrossed as only a parent could be as I read her accounts of camp life. Things were "cool." People were "nice." Mom hadn't written yet (ouch). Food was good.

Amid these reflections of fun and contentment, though, I got stuck on one sentence. "It's kinda weird being the only black girl in my cabin...." My stomach felt empty. I remembered having that feeling myself.

When I was a girl, I recalled how awkward it felt to have to explain to friends that I didn't have to wash my hair every day because it doesn't produce as many natural oils as theirs.

Oddly, no one seemed to think it might be strange to be surrounded by people who had to wash their hair daily.

I felt that my everyday existence was often marginalized and interpreted through the everyday lives of others. The music I liked, movie stars I adored, and my role models were the exception and not the rule.

I heard songs and saw dances described as the latest thing when they had, in fact, hit my community the previous year. It was like time travel, the Twilight Zone, or a bad case of dj vu.

Things got more difficult in high school. In American history class, the contributions made by members of my race were overlooked or, even worse, unknown. Students and teachers alike were surprised that I had issues with presidents who were slaveholders.

Even today, as a self-assured adult who has friends of different backgrounds and an appreciation for myself as well as others, I still get that feeling Whitney described. It doesn't go away, but it adds a dimension to my life that I wouldn't trade.

That feeling usually means I have something inside me that the community, camp family, friends, or schoolmates have yet to experience - a perspective, an experience, an opinion, a rhythm, a spice without which the community is truly not at its richest.

When these differences are explored and appreciated, it adds a substance to everyday relationships that is invaluable.

When colleagues are unaware of my history, culture, and other unique aspects of my experience, I am able to share things they would not have otherwise known. Sometimes long-held stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions are challenged and replaced with more enlightened ways of thinking.

I am even blessed when I'm met with hostility or opposition because I'm different.

These moments often inspire me to remind myself of all that is special about me: I take time to visit African-American museums, enjoy music that my ancestors created, or just read about the inspiring lives of other African-Americans.

This strengthens me, helps to remind me of my worth, and also reminds me of the invaluable worth of all individuals. And this atmosphere of inclusiveness is what I try to nurture at home and in conversations with my daughter.

While I was working at a large, prestigious university, for example, one of the doctoral students - who was not of the same ethnic background as I - came into my office and said that it was one of the few places in the university she felt that she could go and freely be who she was.

It's possible that children who are in trouble - gang members, runaways, those who may hurt or even kill others - may have a feeling that they live in environments that only value a certain hairstyle, nationality, clothes designer, wealth, status, family structure, or speech pattern.

While everyone is valuable in his or her own right, it is often those who are different that the community needs most.

It's a terrible feeling to believe that who you are - your life experiences, insights, tastes, and styles - are unwelcome or underappreciated by the culture at large. These unique qualities are who you are, and who you are is always indispensable.

As usual, Whitney couldn't wait to get back to camp the next summer. When I dropped her off, one of the campers greeted me with a hug and a huge smile. "It's really good to see more black girls here at camp this year," she whispered in my ear as we embraced.

She was almost giddy. One of the new African-American girls was in Whitney's cabin.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to home@csps.com, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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