My First Time
Recounting the first time I experienced racism at the US Coast Guard Academy
Previously published on the now defunct Contemporary Spinster online magazine in summer 2020
The year is 2004. It’s December in Connecticut. Finals season. I have a long weekend and my computer needs to be sent away for repairs. I request some days off base and head to IT to turn in my computer before I leave for my days off. I run into Kristy (not her real name) outside on a smoke break. She says, “I’ve been expecting you. Place the computer on my desk and fill out this form.” I walk into the office and two ladies are having a conversation. I say, “Kristy asked me to place my computer on her desk and fill out a form.” They don’t really acknowledge, me but I smile and continue. Kristy walks in and says, “oh you found it. Great!” Some more words are exchanged, and I leave. The entire time the two ladies continue having their conversation. A few days later I return to base and collect my laptop. I walk to the barracks and plug my laptop into the network, open outlook and wait for my email to populate. (This was before smartphones and widespread wifi; our email did not have remote access). I walk outside to take down the note giving me permission to be away. I start going through my emails, and I am crushed. In my emails, I find that I have demerits. I think it was for failure to obey orders or something like that. With growing anxiety, I see that I have many emails from my company officer accusing me of being disrespectful.
Tears are stinging my eyes.
I’m not sure what has caused this, but I try to make sense of what I am reading. Here’s the timeline I can make out: 1. One or both of the ladies having the conversation (whom I had minimum interaction with) reports me to her supervisor. “The black cadet was rude to me” she claims.
2. Her supervisor emails me asking me to come discuss being rude to her staff. I do not respond (because my computer is being repaired).
3. She emails my company officer asking him to follow up.
4. He emails me asking me to report to this lady. Again, I can’t respond because I cannot access my email.
5. A few emails later, I am called disrespectful and given demerits and restricted to base.
I read all of these emails for the first time, all at once. By the time I read all of these emails I’m sobbing. My friend D walks into my room really happy that I’m back and stops in his tracks. It might be the first time he’s seen me cry. I show him the emails. His face changes color. “But you were not even here!” My chest is heaving risking trouble he closes the door and holds me. I’m inconsolable. I hang onto my friend for dear life. At least one person knows the truth. In his arms I find the strength to say what’s hurting the most in all this mess. Between sobs it escapes. “Everyone knows I’m not just the Black cadet, I’m the foreign cadet.”
You see of all the injustices I faced that day the biggest one was the erasure of my identity and my reduction to a stereotype. No one questioned the white lady to find out details of how I was rude to her. They simply believed her because everyone knows young black girls are rude. It’s an accepted fact in many circles. No one went to my room to look for me. I was summoned via email, because no one would go down to the black girl. Nowhere in the interaction was I given the benefit of a doubt. I was cast as the stereotype and it was accepted because certain stereotypes are ingrained in the Americas psyche.
This is why representation matters.
At the end of the day my “crime” was existing in a space that was a traditional white man space. Upon scrutiny, the accusations were seen for what they were, but the damage had already been done. For the rest of my time there, I walked a little softer and didn’t hold my head as high. I chose my battles carefully. Eventually I healed and I started fighting again and now I try my best to show the world that little Black girls are not rude. We’re smart and strong and ambitious. We’re amazing and we can do anything we set our minds towards. We are have a right to be here.