I was a young college cheerleader when I discovered that race was actually a social construct and that it had no genetic, biological, or scientific foundation. This was a startling discovery. I wrestled with my very real, lived experience — particularly on what it meant to be one of only twelve black students at a predominantly white institution.
First day of college, I saw a KKK meeting in progress
As my parents drove me six hours from Ohio to Greencastle, Indiana, to attend DePauw University, I noticed a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) meeting in progress in an open field, off the highway, dressed in full costume. The thirty-or-so cowards stood in a circle surrounding a burn barrel. I don’t know if this was their monthly meeting or their ritual after a lynching. Still, I was confused that their symbolism of terrorism and hatred was even tolerated in the open. My 17-year old mind began to worry about what it meant to launch into a world that would allow this.
I didn’t have long to contemplate the KKK sighting as I was met on campus abruptly by students with picket signs protesting our arrival. Their signs proclaimed that due to Affirmative Action, the 12 black students were “taking their place.”
I quickly found refuge with one of the senior black male students who said, “Don’t worry, they’ve been actually taking your place. Most of them are “c” students, and all of you are top 5 in your graduating classes.”
I surmised that the picketing students were crazy and not deserving of my attention. I continued to my dorm room, decorating it to be the cutest room on the floor.
Unfortunately, new classes, friends, and interesting professors existed only in the background of the white student’s obsession with the black students. Most of the students were from extremely wealthy backgrounds (my daddy gave me a yacht for my birthday-wealthy) and had no real experience with black people. The high schools they came from were all white, except for Kelly and Chad, the only black family in their neighborhood — and they were “special.” I mean, they were so articulate and well-dressed! Crazy, right?
Becoming a Cheerleader for Change
Since I had been a cheerleader since I was 5, I didn’t see a world in which I could exist, not being one. Cheerleading was so much a part of my identity that I could care less about the fact that there had never been a black cheerleader before. I tried out. I performed. I made the squad.
Walking around in my uniform gave me a sense of belonging, and I was eager to represent the university. As we prepared for the first home game, I had to learn the school song. Unfortunately, the captain did not prioritize learning the song for the new girls. The day before the game, we found ourselves struggling to memorize it. When it became apparent that we weren’t going to get it in time for the next day, the captain gave us a “hack” to use when you don’t know the words.
She said calmly, “Don’t worry about it. Just say watermelon-n*word-d*ck, watermelon-n*word-d*ck.
“What?” I said, eyebrows up and eyes wide.
She went on to repeat it four more times. It was incredulous to me that she did not know that I might find that offensive. But when you grow up in a white world with no blacks, what is “normal” to you is not even recognizable as racist. This is a “hack” everyone knew.
That’s when I realized it wasn’t enough to be just not racist, you have to be anti-racist. This kind of language was so accepted that my cheer captain did not recognize the racism in her world. Evidenced by the fact that she said it to my face five times, I know she absolutely had no idea that she was using offensive language.
On that day, I became not just a cheerleader, but a cheerleader for change, an active participant in the struggle. The cumulative impact of racism and discrimination was being lived out in our young generation. I set out to disrupt inequality and ignorance wherever I found it. Of course, I was met with resistance, and sometimes, I prevailed. I was happy to see willing learners, and it gave me hope.
Outraged by the murder of George Floyd
Outraged by the murder of George Floyd, I am inspired to see the protesters of every color, in every state and all over the world standing up and demanding change. I am grateful and inspired. I’ve been at this thing for a long time. My anti-racist journey started the day I saw the KKK meeting in progress, coupled with students protesting my college arrival. Even still, I sincerely believe that this flawed, but brilliant experiment called America can and will finally live up to its promise. Do you?