AS A KID, I NEVER REALLY REMEMBERED FEELING AS IF I DIDN’T BELONG. I was raised in a middle-class household by a white American mother and a black African father. I made it through middle school and most of high school with minimal drama. I was able to hang with kids of all different ethnicities and backgrounds. I was athletic enough to hang with the sporty kids, cool enough to hang with the popular crowd and smart enough to hang with the nerds and geeks. I enjoyed talking with adults so it seemed as if they didn’t mind me around either. I felt I belonged everywhere and with everyone. I was proud that I received a letter inviting me to attend my school of choice, the University of Southern California. I was accepted. I belonged. All was well.
But in everyone’s life, there are moments that serve as defining points. The moment came in the early spring of my senior year. In my honors courses, most, if not all, of my classmates were college bound. Everyone was eagerly anticipating their college admissions letters. Each day, word buzzed around about who got in where.
I remember standing in the back corner of the room with three or four classmates talking before Mr. Hooven’s government class. A classmate of mine came storming into the room. He was a well-liked, freckle-faced kid with fiery red hair. His usually fair skin was reddened with anger. He stormed over to some other classmates of ours and was angrily talking about college acceptances. I couldn’t hear everything that he was saying. But what I did hear, loud and clear, was that the only reason why a certain student in our class got in to a certain school was because of affirmative action and the reason why he did not get in was because of affirmative action.
And this was the point when I began to question my belonging. I became concerned with the idea that people on my new college campus would question whether I really belonged there and if I “stole” that spot away from another student.
For me, this feeling of being questioned made me always feel uncomfortable. It made me lean further into my studies to prove to others and perhaps also to myself that I did belong. In my freshman writing course, if an essay assignment was for a 7-10 page paper, you better believe my paper was 10 pages. And don’t get me started on the time I got a D on a physics exam. I am still tormented by the jokes of my college girlfriends regarding the semester when all I did was sit in my bed, doing physics problems over and over again to ensure that I got 100 percent on the remainder of the tests through the semester to bring my grade back up to within an A range.
This need to prove myself to others and earn my belonging followed me from that day in high school through college, graduate school and into my professional life with my patients. I worried that my patients would not want to be treated by a 20-something black woman. I worried that they would question my knowledge and ability to help them not based on what I knew, but based on how I looked. I tried to compensate for this by being overly professional, by flawlessly explaining to them my understanding of their condition and how I would help them so that I could gain their trust in me. This act is something that all physical therapists should do, but my motivation to provide care in this way was not to be a great physical therapist, but to prove to them that as a black woman, I was worthy.
I am sure that if I talked to my high school classmate today about that comment that has echoed in my mind for the past 25 years of my life that he wouldn’t remember it. It was a simple moment of frustration for him. I know he didn’t mean to harm or hurt me in the way that he did. And I don’t hold it against him. If it didn’t start in that classroom on that spring day, I believe that this would have started somewhere else in my life journey. And in a way, I am thankful for it. It helped to drive me and propel me to do my very best and to become who I am today.