I’m Compromising Myself And My Blackness To Push Social Change

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Maya James crouches in front of one of her favorite hangout spots, the cistern at the Grand Traverse Commons, in her hometown of Traverse City, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Maya James.

My hometown of Traverse City, Michigan, is a vast land of freshwater, blue skies, wildlife and green as far as the eye can see…and three different hate groups within a three-hour drive of my house.

It’s complicated living in this mostly white town. I’m mixed – my dad is black and my mom is white. So I stick out. But there’s a lot to love about this place: falling asleep to the sound of cricket whispers and the smell of wild flowers, family gatherings and bonfires on the beach. That’s partly why I decided to stay here for college.

This beautiful town is also a great place for hate, and it hides so easily here.

In college, I’ve gotten used to hearing other students throw around racial slurs and laugh. And driving around campus, I see cars with Confederate flag license plates. During one campus forum on race issues, when black students raised objections to the Confederate flag and its associations with slavery, it seemed to offend a majority of the students there.

No matter how hard the other black students and faculty members tried to explain our everyday struggle living here, the white students still disregarded us. They said things like, “My girlfriend is black so I can’t be racist,” or “It’s about Southern pride.” Except, we are in the North. And the Civil War is over.

In social situations, the conversations just end if race comes up. A few students invited me to a party last year, and a large group started talking about “what black people do” while playing the game Cards Against Humanity. Jokingly, I blurted, “Oh, come on, white folks.”

The room fell silent, and everyone avoided talking to me afterward.

When I started the Black Student Union at my college, I had to beg three students to sign on. But the club never got off the ground and disbanded because I could not get enough interest.

So I changed the name to be more inclusive: Students United for Social and Environmental Justice. I just hope the umbrella is big enough to attract members and bring civil rights actions to campus. We are trying out our first meeting in September.

I get it — the more that you embrace your “blackness” here, the less people want to do with you.
I’ve had to compromise myself and my community more than I want, hoping for diversity and dialogue. At the moment, those hopes are more pipe dream than reality.

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