How To Survive PWIs
***This is directed to adoptees of color, but like I often say both parents and adoptees can learn from all my posts***
Unless you're a cis-straight, white, male born in america, at some point you have probably been the only *insert identity group here*, in the room. Now I've talked a lot about being the only black person in my family, but going into white institutions (work, school, churches etc) was a whole different battle This is a battle that every poc, adopted or not, is struggling with. It's a a constant fight for your humanity and respect. My history with PWIs (predominately white institutions), goes back as far as I can remember. Being in a white family, naturally most of the friends, family, and institutions we were a part of, were primarily white, if not 400% white. On top of that, we lived in Olympia, WA, where, as more it's more diverse today, growing up it was was about as colorful, as a 6 pack of whiteout. Starting with this old Lutheran Church my mom grew up in, it was all white...white and old at that. The old white ladies would pinch my cheeks, grab my hair, laugh about "oh haha you look just like your family"
Obviously, their intent wasn't to be malicious (at least I hope so), but those kinds of things is the equivalent to being treated like a zoo animal. I was fairly young, six or seven, but we grew up in that church and these types of things continued well into middle school. When we got to high school age and we begged our mom to let us go to school (we were home schooled up until this point), I quickly learned the struggles of being the only black person in the entire school. Always being asked to speak for your race, being made fun of for not knowing "black" things or not being stereo-typically "black enough", the overall erasure of black people and culture from curriculum...all that fun stuff that other's have talked about.
My point is, being a person of color in a predominately white area or institution has it's own set of problems and I have a lot of experience with them. So, I wanted to share some of the key things I learned to help me survive in PWIs without cussing someone out every 30 seconds or punching them in the face (although, some people just deserve this). I think for most adoptees you will experience this the most in a school setting so I will focus on that narrative, but the general ideas expand into other areas like work, church, sports etc.
- You Deserve To Be There
I think this was one of the hardest things for me to overcome, especially as both a woman and a person of color. Being in PWIs we are shunned from both white people and our own people. I was often made fun of for being able to attend private schools and go to things like summer camp, when other black kids were not able to. Accused of being "whitewashed" or "acting white". As women, we are often told we don't deserve our positions or we're only there to fill a quota. What the people on the outside looking in didn't understand is, my family was lower class too. My parents worked their asses off to make sure we could have privileges like private school and summer camps. Us, as kids worked too. We owned a certified organic meat farm called "Whispering Springs Farm". We did everything and I mean EVERYTHING ourselves. Us 6 kids got up every single day at 5 am to go birth animals, butcher 500 chicken, make sausage from scratch, go chase down Lilly Bell, our milk cow, who decided to take a stroll down the neighbors and more. We did this just so we could bring it into the Olympia's Farmers Market 5 days a week to sell. That is how we were able to eat. There we days we didn't have running water and had to haul up bucket from the local creek, there were times we went days or weeks without power, we were not spoiled kids who had the world handed to them on a silver platter. But when people don't know your struggles, they assume you just grew up with a silver spoon. So it was hard for me to understand that no matter what other people said or thought, I worked my ass off to get here, and I deserve to be here just as much as anyone else. I worked to keep a 4.0 GPA in high school and graduate valedictorian so that I could get scholarships to go to college that my family could otherwise never afford. I went to 3 different colleges before I was able to get my Bachelors. I worked 3 jobs and attended school full time for 3 years to be able to pay my college tuition and rent in Boston, MA. I fought just as hard as anyone else and I deserve to be here. Even if you didn't come from the "struggle" so to speak, you are still a human who is valid and you deserve to be wherever you please. Having that mindset and confidence will make all the difference when you're out here being an army of one.
- Know Yourself
I mean two different things by knowing yourself.
First, stay rooted in who you are. Know who you are, know what you take pride in, know what goals, values and morals are. It's going to get tough out there and the #1 thing that kept me sane was staying rooted in myself. One of my mentors told me to dedicate at least 1 hour a week to re-rooting yourself. Whether that means going to a cultural event, doing one of your favorite hobbies, reading some blogs you love, do something that re-centers yourself on who you are and restores confidence. Secondly, know your limits. The other side of this is to literally know yourself, so you know what your breaking point is. Whether in the workplace, school, or just walking down the street, someone is going to push your buttons. You need to know what things trigger you to the point of no return and what things just kinda get on your nerves. It's just a way to protect yourself and know what environments or people you need to avoid.
- Choose Your Battles
Listen, people are going to try the fuck outta you. If I fought every battle that came my way, I'd be dead within the hour. Someone says or does something ignorant at least every 5 minutes in PWIs. So the only way to stay sane is to choose your battles. Choose which things are worth retaliating over and which are just not worth the effort. The best way I have found to do this, is first off, take a deep breath, calm down, don't punch them in the teeth...yet. Then ask yourself, is this conversation actually going to help this person grow? Do they care? Do I care? For example, if I'm walking down the street and some random person says something ignorant to me, I'm more than likely going to keep it pushing, and cuss them out in my head. Not because they don't deserve to be called out, but because I don't know them, they don't know me, we will probably never cross paths again, so why waste my energy? Or some super racist, trump -supporting asshole says something rude and problematic in class or at work. I ask myself, if i have this conversation are they actually going to listen? The answer is no, they chose to be racist and I'm not going to spend my life convincing people who are dead set on being racist, otherwise. It's a losing battle. I would rather focus my efforts on having conversations with people who are ignorant but are trying to do better. If you fight every battle that comes your way, you're going to wear yourself out. You'll never make it. It's also not your job. Someone else can "check" them, you don't have to educate every ignorant person. Now if you want to, go for it, but don't feel pbligated.
- Find Your People
This is easier said than done, but you gotta find a support group of your peers. So whether your a black, asian, native, gay, trans or any other margazlied group, having the support from other people going through what you are, is crucial. Now assuming you're in a predominately white city/town, this task can prove difficult. For me, I really didn't have any other black peers until high school and really more like college. When I got to community college in 2010, it was the first time I met other people who had the same experiences I had with being black in PWIs. It was the first time I was able to just relax and be myself. I could let off steam to people who understood, I could get advice from people who had been where I was, I could overall just let my guard down. This is important for your own mental well being. I would start with student clubs or community organizations. I generally advise against relying on the internet, not that you can't have great support online, but because I believe you need that in person, face to face connection for it to be truly helpful. You can't meet your online friend in Kansas for coffee when you live is Los Angeles. However, if you really live in bumfuck nowhere and you have no other options, turn to online. Something is better than nothing.
- Get a Mentor
I am very stubborn. I don't like to admit I need help, I don't like being told what to do, so the thought of having a mentor was laughable to me. Me? Need a mentor? HA! As if, I have everything under control.
In reality, I was a mess. After leaving my first college due to extreme racism and having to move back home and go to community college. I really felt like I had taken 12 steps backwards. I had my whole life planned out, go to college at 18, graduate top of my class at 21, be married by 25, have a kickass job but now here I am 25, blogging and working whatever temp jobs I can find in Los Angeles. Things didn't turn out how I'd planned and for a long time I was in a mild depression because I felt like I had completely failed at life. I should also mentioned that after having to leave my first college where I went in with a 4.0. my grades has dropped to 1.8 and I was on academic probation not doing well at all. When I got to community college, after joining the diversity & equity center, the director who is still one of my great friends (I call her my 2nd mom), really urged me to meet with this woman named Rhonda. Rhonda was a black woman who grew up in the south, in a black family and black communities and was now working in a PWI as the only black woman among a sea of white men. Pretty much the exact opposite upbringing of me. She was on the president's board, she was VP of Student Services, she was always so confident and strong when she walked into a room. She was pretty bad ass and she was black. I reluctantly agreed to at least meet with her and it was life changing. Rhonda was the first one to sit me down and ask me what I wanted to do. She made me write a list, then she made me write down my short term and long term goals. After that, she made me think of how exactly I was going to get those goals accomplished, she pushed me to do better in school. She held me accountable every single quarter. If i got a bad grade, I got an email from Rhonda like "Girl...what is this?" because she knew me and she knows I'm a straight A student, so to see something like a D, was abnormal. So she would bring me in to talk about what the problem was. Was it too hard? Too easy, is it the teacher? How can we fix this. She helped me figure out what I wanted to major in, I wanted to work in entertainment but at the time I had no idea you could actually major in Entertainment Business. She helped me track down schools that offered those programs, she even helped me apply to Howard U at one point. Having a mentor really helped me get my life refocused. Rhonda challenged me to stop mopping around and get off my ass to make the changes I wanted to see. Just having a 3rd party perspective to hold you accountable and help you reach whatever goals you want to, is essential. I think everyone should have a mentor of some form. I would try to find someone who shares something in common with you, and preferably someone older than you who has been in your shoes and survived. You can have accountability partners who are your peers, but for a mentor, I really believe in getting some advise from people who have lived what you have is key.
These points helped me make it through college, and are still helping me as a graduate going into the workplace. Just remember you are valid in whatever your identities are, and people who try and tear you down are only doing so because they are miserable themselves. Most importantly, you're not alone. You're not the first, nor will you be the last one to go through this, so don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. :)