At a recent Town Hall meeting, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke of her dad’s education at Brooklyn Tech, a selective NYC public high school that made a different kind of life possible for him – and I related. As a teenager, I traveled 90 minutes each way to attend Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan because I, too, wanted a different kind of life. But attending this “elite” school (and the “elite” schools that followed) came at a cost.
In high school, I was the only Latina I knew. Because I didn’t fit the stereotype of a Puerto Rican girl from The Bronx, I made the decision that not only did I not count as a “real” Latina, but that I should also avoid anything that could make people think I was one. Hoop earrings were, therefore, out of the question, as was gold bamboo jewelry, nameplate necklaces and tight, sexy outfits. I also did everything I could to erase any signs of a Bronx accent, including speech classes at 16 to cultivate a generic Mid-Atlantic cadence.
I did, however, always wear bright red lipstick and nail polish — because it looked so damn good. Then one day, a friend asked “Why do you do that? It makes you look like a Puerto Rican girl.” In a rare moment of pride, I responded, “Because I am a Puerto Rican girl.” But my pride didn’t go much further than that.
From personal experience, I know that the lack of black/brown representation in NYC’s selective high schools (as well as in highly selective colleges and universities) is an injustice not only to deserving kids who don’t get in, but also to ones that do. Just this week, out of a total of 897 kids, Stuyvesant admitted only seven black students to its class of 2023. For all the opportunity Stuyvesant offers those kids, how can it possibly compensate for the culture shock they’re about to experience?
When, as People of Color, we change ourselves to accommodate an inherently racist status quo, we lose the best of what we have to offer our families, our communities and our ancestors. And because true power and fulfillment come from owning who we really are, an educational system in which extraordinary kids from disadvantaged communities are pressured to dis-identify with their authentic selves cannot be considered “just” or even successful.
The same goes for publishing and media. Human beings cannot become what we do not see; this is not mere philosophy, it’s neuro-science.* And this is why I speak, write and teach, again and again, about REPRESENTATION.
Because I am not in favor of a culture dominated by a Whiteness which insists on denying the value of other peoples, of their languages, their histories and their ancestry. And I am not in favor of a culture in which the cost of “success” is participation in the further eradication of one’s own people and culture.
Representation Matters. And it changes the world.
If you’re in the PNW, join me on March 30 for my one day writing workshop called “REPRESENT!” And express yourself as you really are, not who the White culture wants you to be so you can “succeed.”
*For a scholarly perspective on mirror neurons and literature, see Literary Biomimesis: Mirror Neurons and the Ontological Priority of Representation by Deborah Jenon and Marco Iacobini