Life Lessons

I Am Not a Junior Mint

I consider myself fortunate to have gone through school without much peer ridicule, I weaved through those years in what I like to think of as safe social anonymity. In other words, I wasn't particularly popular, but I was generally well-liked and had a small solid group of friends. But even in a generally kind and supportive environment there are a few moments that have stuck with me, seemingly innocent comments that were proverbial and left me unsettled. Not enough to make a big deal out of it, but enough to make me question myself.

That heavy question...who am I?

Well, first off, I'm not a junior mint.

So, the memory. It was sophomore year of high school, my second year on the Varsity soccer team and it was the season's end banquet, the night of accolades and recognition. As a newly formed tradition, every player was given a candy by the captains to describe some feature that made them unique, some trait that contributed to the team atmosphere. I was given a pack of junior mints. The inspiration behind the choice?

Because I am black on the outside, and white on the inside.

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To give you some context; I am bi-racial, my father is African-American, and my mother was Caucasian (German and French). I grew up in Bellevue, WA which at the time of my formative years, did not have a large African American population. In sports, I was often one of maybe two or three girls of color. In school, most of my peers and friends were Caucasian. Even with my Dad's family, whom I have always had a close relationship with, I typically saw just during holidays and birthday celebrations.

I looked around and saw few who looked like me and such observations carried a weight that never felt good. At home, it was just Mom and I, my Father playing a very distant role and my brother off to college. My Mom, amazing and inclusive, gave me much validation in my own beauty. She made it clear that I was a person of two cultures and that was absolutely perfect. And I am incredibly grateful to her for that.

So, I connected with people in other ways, through activities, books, soccer, music, dance and found joys and commonalities. As my social groups, those were the places where I learned to form habits, mannerisms, and rhetoric. I imitated what I admired and felt comfortable with. But with my upbringing being predominately around Caucasian families, neighbors, friends, and interactions with the African American community pretty limited, I guess I did not talk the way many African Americans do. Or at least not in the way the other girls' perceived African Americans normally speak.

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I think that's where their inspiration came from. I think.

It was almost as though by the fact I spoke eloquently, without a lot of slang or creative vernacular, that made me more white, but by all appearances, I wasn't. Therefore a junior mint suited me quite perfectly. I type that and I feel the resentment in my chest. It's a subtle feeling, like an ache, and incredibly annoying. 

The details of the moment have grown hazy over the years. I believe I smiled, laughed, and accepted the candy. What remains distinct though is the feeling of being split into two types of people and feeling wholly uncomfortable by it. Self conscious in a more public way than I had yet to ever experience, wondering what the hell that reason had to do with soccer. I felt misjudged.

But then again, did I really know myself? Did I know who I was?

It's amazing how years can go by, it will be 10 at this point, and still the effect is there. Now, I hold nothing against the girls who did that, I don't believe they were trying to be passive aggressive or cruel, I don't think they knew. Perhaps their intentions were cruel, but I am a strong minded woman who has every power to decide what description I want to fit me.

But that is now. Back then, I didn't feel so strong.

I wanted to belong to a single source and by being pulled into different roles, I felt more confusion than confidence. When someone makes that the focus, it becomes an impressionable identifier for you, even if it never held the same significance before. I wish it did not affect me so much, but perhaps I needed it to open the internal dialogue, to determine what was valuable in my identity. 

What I have grappled with and come to find is that my value lives within the fluidity of my personhood. I recognize the beauty of multiple cultures because I have had the awesome fortune to know two beautiful cultures. It has not always been balanced, the lens through which I view the world is heavily influenced by a predominantly white suburbia. But that is not everything. I live a life influenced by that and by much more.

As much as I wanted to be a part of one group, I realized that a singular identification runs the risk of being exclusive, living in ignorance of all the brilliance of diversity. The nuances of different cultures shape our view point in ways that broaden it. By the fact I belong to two different cultural groups gives me an understanding and willingness to be open. In the simplest of descriptions, I am an example of the old adage - the melting pot.

Then again, I think we all adjust our demeanor and language depending on who we are with. I tend to speak differently with my friends than I do with elders and I don't think that is a bad thing. It only becomes harmful when you fear to speak one way or act another because of misjudgment. When I'm inclined to say a phrase in the double negative because that's what is emanating from me, but the fear of appearing less educated holds me back, that is harmful. My teammates knew me by how I presented myself in that social environment, I spoke with them differently than with my Dad's family at home, and tied with their own perspective, the innocent gift was reflective of a stereotype that I was, until that day, ignorant of. 

Bottom line:

Others' opinions are of no consequence to you. As long as you live out your life with respect and hold yourself to the high standard you feel called to own, beyond any prejudice or ignorance, you are doing exactly right.

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The greatest accomplishment of personal acceptance is to let those moments of doubt go. I strive to remember who I am today, not as much a reflection of my past, but the progress I've made through it. If I were to ruminate over this incident, come across a box of Junior Mints, and instantly feel insecure by it's symbolism, I would be cheating myself. I let that define me, I deny myself a life of proud validation. 

I am so proud to be mixed. I love my skin color and the people who I am related to. My history, my life, my future is richer for it.

I want to note that this experience is incredibly minor to what so many people of color have faced and I don't write this as a plea for sympathy or claim that it holds special significance. I am incredibly fortunate I live in a time and community that is more inclusive and I cherish that. This is an exploration into the minute but powerful facets of experiences and how they can shape our identity.

The truth I am choosing to take away, a decision I have to make continually, is that we have the ability to change what does not empower us.

I choose what defines me. 

I am not a junior mint.

I'm just me.

 

To your fulfilled life,

Kels