Over the last few years, a lot of white parents and others learned for the first time about “The Talk” that Black parents have had to have with their sons and daughters for generations — the painful conversation about ways to try to stay safe during an encounter with the police, from keeping your hands exposed to leaving your license and registration visible on the dashboard at all times. Of course, white families lack awareness of this reality because they do not share in it.
The Talk isn’t a one-time conversation but an ongoing (sometimes agonizing) process of questions, stories, reminders and pleas. As a Black mother to two incredible young Black women, I think we are overdue for another “talk”. Some of it will be familiar to you. But all of it will be as important as ever as you begin your journey at a school 2,500 miles away from home, an elite institution where you will be surrounded by your peers — and where you might feel more alone than you ever have before.
So much has come to light over the last 14 months that has long been bubbling under the surface. And while there has been a lot of talk about change and reform and racial justice, I have to tell you that there is also a terrible hypocrisy among liberal institutions that pride themselves on being progressive, but who also have shameful statistics when it comes to diversity among their students and professors. The very same institutions and individuals that say the right things about race and equity all too often continue to sustain systems of structural racism – and benefit from them. And who perpetuate or shrug off the microaggressions and overt acts of racism that are used to hold Black people back – to keep us “in our place.”
It is painful for me to know with certainty that you will encounter people who — despite all you have accomplished to earn your place — will challenge you, your credentials and your right to be there. It might be a look you catch between your fellow students when you contribute to a class discussion, or a professor’s expectation that you are in their class solely to represent the opinions of all Black people, or demands to show identification and “prove” you belong on campus that aren’t made of your white classmates.
I did my best to try to break the cycle of poverty that I was born in. But even with my best efforts and the accomplishments that I have achieved, I still can’t make your journey any easier. Having two Ivy League-educated Black parents is just not the same as having two white parents.
This is the diagram and destiny of all Black families: No matter how successful you are, you are always Black.
I have mentioned over the years the challenges of being the first in my family to obtain a college degree. You know that my own mother and grandmother never even had the chance to finish high school. Growing up poor, I didn’t think a lot about intergenerational wealth, building a legacy or passing on a family business. I was too focused on simply trying to survive! As I watch you pack up for school I’m reflecting on those days in the Carr Square Village and the lessons I learned there, and once I left, and headed out on my own into the world.
At school, I expect there will be times when you look around — as I often did — and realize you are the only Black student in a classroom or at a campus event or a party. Even though Black women are among the most educated populations in the country, we are dramatically underrepresented at top schools.
You are, each in your own ways, strong, sensitive, brilliant Black women. I hope I’ve found ways to remind you of that every day. But I do worry when I think about you being so far away from home and confronting the microaggressions and isolation that are certain to be part of your law school experience.
There are things they don’t teach you at the Ivy’s that will be instrumental in getting you through:
- Humility, patience and resilience. A childhood of experiences like standing in line for government cheese carried me through many difficult days at the University of Chicago and at Harvard Law, times when someone tried to make me feel I didn’t belong, that I was lesser-than, or that I was somehow getting something I hadn’t “earned.” The judgment of strangers didn’t matter by then — or at least, it mattered less. A childhood surviving the hardships and confronting the biases poverty brings ultimately taught me I had nothing to prove to anyone but myself. My very first semester at the University of Chicago, I was shamed by another student for the way I talked. It was hurtful — but I didn’t let her shame into silence for long. Instead, I worked to improve so that I could keep speaking up and speaking out.
- Family is everything. As a young person in St. Louis taking care of my paraplegic grandmother, I developed bonds and memories that I would rely on time and again over the years. When I felt alone — even when I was surrounded by people in a lecture or dorm cafeteria or the library — I knew I carried with me the love and support of the people who knew me first and loved me best. I hope, in the harder moments, you will step back and remember what matters. I am always there for you, even when I am 2,500 miles away.
- Strong work ethic. You’ve heard me tell stories of the nights I spent cleaning offices with my godmother as a child, when she was working multiple jobs as a janitor and raising me. She put her all into everything she did, and taught me to do the same just as I’ve tried to teach you. That work ethic got me through four years of college, law school and beyond. Hard work isn’t a guarantee, but for us, success doesn’t come without it. Yes, I found support from many people over the years. But there were times when what helped me most was blocking out the noise, putting my head down and doing the job I knew I could do as well or better than anyone.
As young Black women, you will have to work to block out the lies society – including your fellow students, school administrators, and professors — tells you, about what you are capable of, about what you have already achieved, about the success you can have and the lives you can build.
Here are some things that might help:
- Find common ground. Connecting with your fellow students is crucial. Take the time to join clubs or groups that reflect your interests and passions. Look out for students “from home” who can relate in different ways to where you come from.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to your professors. Yes, they are there to teach you, but plenty of them do this work because they also want to support you inside and outside of class — even if your challenges are not directly related to the coursework. Take advantage of office hours. Don’t be intimidated — they are people too. And if you have the sense that the very professor you need help from is part of the problem, do not stop looking for an ally among the faculty.
- Strike a balance. You’ll need to be prepared and do the work. That will build your confidence. Falling behind is incredibly discouraging and hard to recover from. But you also need to take advantage of all that school has to offer, from speakers and events to clubs and socializing. Some of the connections you make will lead to lifelong friendships — and just might lead to your first job.
- Get support from a professional. The university has mental health professionals on staff for a reason. The isolation and depression students face at school, the academic and social pressure — these are realities many students face – and they will be magnified for you as young Black women. Don’t wait to ask for help.
Areva Martin is a Harvard graduate, a CNN Legal Analyst and founder of the Special Needs Network, the country’s premiere autism advocacy organization. Her daughters start school at New York’s Columbia University in the fall.