Growing Up Black in Appalachia: An Open Letter

Growing up, it was difficult to grasp why people who looked like me were tortured because of a trait about themselves they were incapable of changing. It was even more difficult to understand why people who had skin a bit lighter than mine were treated with more respect than my brother and I. Elementary school me didn’t ask questions though, that was just my reality.

Sixth grade was the first time I was called the “N” word. I remember my mom being so angry, especially because it was an adult who had said it. I knew I was supposed to be upset — I knew it was a derogatory word — but I didn’t really understand what it meant. So I let it go, perhaps not fully understanding I was allowing a grown woman to disrespect the skin that I love.

My first real Black History Month lesson was in the seventh grade. Up until that point, my teachers had taught us about Martin Luther King Jr. and other peaceful activists of the Civil Rights era, but now, as preteens, we were “mature enough” to hear about slavery, about the selling, beating and even murdering of people who looked like me. I remember that day I had my head down, reading along with my teacher, but I could feel the nervous glances being directed my way by my classmates. They were looking at me like I had been the one transported across the ocean in a slave ship, that I had been the one chained and whipped.

The summer between middle and high school opened my eyes to the assumptions adults made about me when they saw my skin color. My family was on summer vacation and my brother and I were each allowed to bring a friend. Both of our chosen companions happened to be white. At dinner one evening, our waitress came after we’d finished our meals and asked my brother and me with this pitied look on her face, “Are you two on a separate bill from everyone else?” She assumed that my white parents and our friends were a family who had graciously brought the misfortunate black children along with them.

When I got to high school, my skin color remained the same and yet, somehow, my peers were much quicker to disqualify my “blackness.” Since I was mixed, I wasn’t “actually” black, according to my classmates, I was “the whitest person we know.” Apparently, my lack of blackness in their eyes also meant it was okay to say the “N” word around me and not just say it, but use it casually as a greeting. It amazed me that the white society I was living in could take a word that was created to disparage an entire race of people and use it without a second thought.

In September of 2016, my sophomore year in high school, I watched as riots broke out in Charlotte, North Carolina. Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old black man, had been shot and killed by a police officer and protestors filled the streets. I remember staying up all night watching the news coverage. Fox News showed black and white people destroying property, setting fires, and cops attempting to minimize the damage and hold back the crowds. In between shots of the streets, the coverage would cut back to the studio, where a white man and a black man were sitting side by side. “They are doing what these type of people do,” the white man calmly said, referring to the black protestors. These people. I felt like a generalization of my entire race. My mind spiraled.

Photo courtesy of Madisen Miles

The older I have gotten, the more I have realized that I am always going to live in a world where people expect me to be a certain way because of the color of my skin. I am always going to live with the fear that when my brother gets in his car and drives somewhere, anywhere, he risks being pulled over because of the color of his skin. I am always going to wonder if one day my children will experience the same hatred that I have because of the color of their skin.

Yet, through it all, I have learned to be unapologetically proud of the color of my skin. Instead of being ashamed, I am working to ensure that children and teens of color know they should be proud to. I want to share with them what I have learned– that the challenges society has placed in front of me because of my skin color, the fear society has perpetuated about people with my skin color, they are things I can, have and will overcome. And so can they.

Madisen Miles is a freshman honors student at West Virginia University. She is pursuing a degree in Medical Laboratory Science with a minor in Communication Studies, with the hopes of one day attending medical school.

This story was originally published by HerCampus WVU, a collegiate publication lifting the voices of female writers.

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