You’ll be surprised to know that I now fully consider myself to be a menace; I feel comfortable in all of my social spaces on campus. I arrived at Yale as a tender little flower, after finishing my “sentence” at an all-girls, predominantly white school. Yes, it is dramatic to call attending a prestigious, private school that gave me access to quality education and fulfilling friendships “serving a sentence.” However, my school also left me in a deeply confused place. I was a mess and was dealing with mental health issues that I concealed with “the smile”: the exuberant, eager smile that everyone always expected me to have. This smile hid my uncertainty when my white English teacher said the N-word when she quoted a text; this smile hid my uneasiness when a white man pandered for my affection by saying that he needed “hot chocolate.” So even though my school gave a lot, it took a lot. I was ready to flee.
I needed something new, something fun, something … perfect. I needed college.
Yet, I started off college on the wrong foot. Upon arriving to Cultural Connections — a pre-orientation program — I cried. For three of the five nights that I spent there, I found myself sobbing, usually in the arms of a friend from college. These weren’t cute, dainty cries either; they were deep, heaving sobs that were melodramatic in retrospect, but conveyed my very deep distress. I had entered Cultural Connections expecting to instantly relate to other first years of color, but I didn’t. I couldn’t pinpoint any external problem, and so I assumed the problem: me.
This experience in my pre-orientation program influenced how I acted in so-called “black spaces” on campus. I began to conduct myself according to a monolithic conception of blackness — a blackness that wasn’t entirely mine. I found myself laughing along with jokes that my black peers told even if I didn’t fully understand them. I professed my love for all black culture — be it black music or black literature — even if I had never encountered it. I hadn’t actually read bell hooks or Audre Lorde even though I nodded enthusiastically whenever their works were referenced. When I would attend Yale Black Women’s Coalition meetings, I opted to agree with those around me despite personal reservations.
But I didn’t stop changing myself when I left black spaces. When I tried to rush for sororities, I still conducted myself in a particular way. When I rushed, I loved the experience: it was a high- energy, girl-flirting extravaganza where you met a new person every minute. But after the glitz and the glamour of rush faded away and I found myself under the dim lights at Barracuda during bid night, I had one thought: Yikes. I looked at the sea of girls, and I assumed that I would not fit in, because I wasn’t tall, rich, blond or a size 00. How was I supposed to fit in? I decided that the answer was to act as much like these girls as possible. I hid many things about myself: I didn’t mention my love of thrifting, my decidedly lackluster winter break plans, my problems with my weight and my different experiences as a black woman. I talked about these things with other friends on campus, but never with my so-called sisters.
I was a chameleon, changing myself when I entered different environments, adopting a subtle system of signaling to make every space my space.
But over time, I learned how to be myself. When I joined the board of the Yale Black Women’s Coalition, I finally felt that I had developed the voice to express my opinions. As an officer, I finally had the ability to steer the conversation and push back on the opinions of others. I wasn’t afraid to discuss issues that are usually thought of as “white” in black spaces: I was no longer afraid to suggest that black women should seek to build coalitions with white women. And, conversely, I wasn’t afraid to share my reactions to Charlottesville in my sorority. The work that we had done to diversify that space and include women of color made me feel closer to the women in my sorority.
Young Teni, you have the capacity to make your groups what you want them to be. There is no one way to be a black student at Yale; we shouldn’t have to sacrifice all of our social and academic interests in order to fit into a uniform conception of blackness.
So why do I call myself a menace? Because I own all my spaces. Because I don’t sacrifice any part of my identity. So hold your head up, girl; you’re f—— dope.
Teni Lanre-Amos is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .