Unapologetic and authentic: two concepts that I try to instill in my youngest daughter as she navigates the tween world of middle school. She is quick to say she’s sorry for everything, even when she didn’t do anything wrong, and she’s struggling to let her true self out of the box she has locked herself into. For example, she is smart and beautiful, caring and considerate, and enjoys making up dance routines to her favorite K-pop artists. Unfortunately, she feels that no one accepts her for who she really is, so she presents a different persona at school, playing it safe and trying to fit in with the other kids. As a young Black girl, she stands out in the crowd.
Unfortunately, I struggled with my identity as a young Black womxn for many years. When I was younger, I walked around the house with a towel on my head pretending I had long, straight hair. I pretended to speak “African” when two White boys made fun of me and a Black friend at the monkey bars. I was usually one of two other Black students in the class, and remember having only one Black teacher until high school where I had two. In fact, high school is when I was exposed to Black history beyond the few paragraphs in textbooks and the obligatory Martin Luther King, Jr. tributes. My family was active in the Black church community, and we had a large extended family that gathered frequently for Sunday dinners and birthdays. There was no question about my Blackness—until I graduated.
I was the first in my family to go to college, and I chose a university 600 miles away. It was a predominantly White institution with a small but close-knit Black community. However, I was from El Paso, which is not the mecca of Black culture, so I struggled to fit in with the students from Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston. Most of the Black students knew each other because they participated in a summer bridge program for which I did not receive an invitation because I was in the top 10 percent of my graduating class. They teased me for talking “like a White girl,” code for using proper English, which is how everyone speaks in my family. Needless to say, it was very difficult for me to break into the tight circle of Black students who did not see me as “Black enough.”
As a result, I took advantage of every Black-themed course available to learn more about Black culture and history. I joined the Black Student Union, attended cultural events on- and off-campus, and visited other colleges with larger Black student populations. My class papers and projects always had a Black centric theme, such as a research paper on sickle cell anemia and a magazine project featuring Black senior citizens. I also participated in a march protesting a White fraternity’s tournament logo featuring Michael Jordan’s body with the head of “Sambo,” a derogatory Black caricature. Yet, despite my efforts to increase my racial awareness, I struggled when I visited home because my family said I sounded like a White girl and acted differently than before I left for school.
Recently, I conducted a research study for my dissertation centered on the lived experiences of Black womxn students attending Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs). As I interviewed participants, I began to see parallels between their gender and racial identity development and my own experiences, especially working at HSIs. The womxn shared stories of how they were teased for “sounding White” and combatted stereotypes, especially a Nigerian student who was told by African Americans that she was a “different kind of Black.” When they entered classrooms, they checked to see if there were other Black people in the room, and one student said her instructor labeled her as “aggressive” because she always spoke up in class and asked questions.
As a professional, I spent many years worrying about what others thought of me while trying to make sure that I didn’t come across as aggressive or angry, an experience known as stereotype threat. I became very self-conscious about what I said in meetings and how I was perceived by others, especially when I was the only Black womxn in the space. During the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual meetings were just as upsetting because I spent most of the time staring at my video to monitor my facial expressions while scanning the screen for reactions to what I said. One day, I spoke to a consultant about my challenges, and she—a White womxn—told me to be unapologetic and authentic. She said I needed to embrace everything about being a Black womxn and that it was not my responsibility to adjust to other people.
Now, I speak up with more confidence at meetings and care less about what people may think about me when I speak—or when I don’t say anything at all. And when I am the only Black womxn in the room, I don’t mind standing out.
Doreen M Hatcher, Ed.D. is a university administrator with a passion for helping students transition to college through meaningful engagement. Doreen worked at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) as assistant director of alumni relations; at Colgate University as the assistant director for a summer resident opportunity program for "minoritized" students; and at Cal State San Bernardino (CSUSB) as the coordinator for new student and family programs and later as the director of alumni relations. She also served as an adjunct faculty member teaching first-year seminar courses at UTEP, CSUSB, and the University of Phoenix. Currently, Doreen is the special assistant to the vice president for student affairs at California State University Channel Islands. Doreen lives in Southern California with her husband and three children.