“Your success will always be married to your race.” The line rolled off the tongue of a white classmate as I, age 15, stood ready for the bus. “Every college will accept you because you’re Black.” She was composed as she spoke, mechanical and perfected, as if she’d practiced these sentences in front of a mirror. The bus arrived, we proceeded down the aisle, and let our legs hug the faded green seat. We had been friends for almost four years. Seated beside her, I smiled to protect myself, all the while processing her belief that my story both started and ended at the edge of my skin.
I was studious in school, starting ahead of schedule and skipping seventh grade altogether. At twelve, I began high school in Ontario, California, wearing pigtails and a patent leather backpack, my days bookended by math and science. In between I sought comfort in the company of Mrs. Zondervan, the pious librarian with oversized glasses. In the sanctuary of the stacks, I fell in love with reading, with books like The Bluest Eye and Their Eyes Were Watching God—books that captured the maturation, suffering, and fortitude of Black women. Senior year, I was elected student body president, set to graduate with honors at the top of my class.
Next was the University of California, Berkeley, where approximately 3% of my fellow undergraduates identified as Black. That homogeneity was evident in my chemistry lab, when the instructor asked us to find a study partner for the semester. To my right a white classmate smiled at me and twirled her pencil. “Do you want to partner up?” I asked. “Sorry,” she mentioned after a second, “I’m waiting for my friend.” But minutes later, it was someone new to her, another student who was introducing himself. They exchanged names and agreed to work together as partners. A sense of loneliness washed over me as I surveyed the room. I was the only Black student in the lab.
Meanwhile, my Biology instructor avoided my name. I listened as he’d pronounce those of my peers. Like a shadow, I felt myself grow darker, tucked behind the heels of others. When I raised my hand, he’d say, “Yes?” however by no means “Adaira.” It was like being invited into a room with out furnishings or meals and being requested to make myself comfy.