Naomi Coke, 18, and Aaliyah Brown, 17, have learned to master the acrobatics of growing up young, black and female in a predominantly white environment. The Oak Park and River Forest High School seniors, both members of the after school club Students Advocating for Equity (SAFE), have had to maneuver a complex psychological landscape.
When she was young, Coke said, she was extremely shy before an adolescence spent vying for affirmation in a predominantly white environment forced her out of her shell.
“My time at OPRF has taught me to go for what I believe and advocate for myself, and how to deal with whiteness,” she said.
Brown said her experience with SAFE “helped me to grow into myself and to advocate for the equity issues I’m passionate about.”
But that self-determination and advocacy among black women can be translated as threatening and aggressive by some whites, they said.
“One day, SAFE students had to present the dress code to members of faculty and this one teacher was telling SAFE students that a lot of other teachers were coming up to her, saying they’re really rude and aggressive,” Coke said. “Those SAFE members who were presenting didn’t know they were being perceived that way.”
Coke conceded that one go-to mechanism for coping can be effective, albeit somewhat tiring.
“While I don’t have to code-switch as much as other black people do, because I grew up in Oak Park, I do feel like I code-switch nonetheless; just differently,” Coke said. “I feminize my voice and try to talk higher. I try to make myself seem more girly and less threatening. I smile more. … I need to stop doing that.”
Coke and Brown are planning to hold a networking event for female students of color that they’ve dubbed “Black and Brown Faces in White Spaces,” which will allow young minority women to safely discuss the challenges of, and learn tools for coping in, white (particularly professional) environments.
“We’ll have different workshops on topics like public speaking skills, business attire and the importance of networking,” Brown said. “At the end, we’ll have a panel discussion and people will be able to ask questions, feed off each other and grow in that space.”
The event, which the two students are planning in collaboration with OPRF Board President Jackie Moore, will take place on May 11, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., at OPRF High School, 201 N. Scoville Ave. in Oak Park.
Coke and Brown said they’ve invited black and brown female high school and college students across the Chicago area, including Austin and other West Side areas, to join them.
“The whole premise of this event is centered on assimilation, on this theory that black and Latina women need to change themselves to fit into this white norm,” Coke said.
To RSVP for “Black and Brown Faces in White Spaces,” visit: blackandbrownfaceswhitespaces.eventbrite.com. For more info, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.