'Black Girl, White School' finds camaraderie in shared experiences
Olivia V.G. Clarke began attending a predominately white institution (PWI) in middle school, and even though both of her parents gave her valuable guidance based on their own experiences, Clarke lacked Black mentors close to her own age who could walk alongside her.
"I had to kind of navigate this world on my own,” said Clarke, now a local high school senior. “Middle school is already a very awkward time, on top of being a minority and not knowing your environment and just wanting to fit in and wanting to be 'normal.’ But the normal you see is white, and you can't be that because you're Black.”
About a year and a half ago, Clarke began collecting stories and poems from other Black girls and women who attend or attended PWIs in hopes of anthologizing the entries in a book. “I was thinking about how much I would have liked to have that,” she said. “I thought, I might as well help other girls that are in a similar situation that I was, or who have already gone through this, to create a space of understanding and camaraderie.”
Clarke recently realized her goal with the publication of Black Girl, White School: Thriving, Surviving and No, You Can’t Touch My Hair, a book of essays and poems by Black girls and women with experiences involving predominately white institutions. Clarke divided the book into sections such as Code Switching, On Blackness, Black Girl Magic and What I Wish I Had, which features “Dear Me,” a letter Clarke writes to her middle school self.
“My hope would be that [Black girls in middle school] would read that and want to seek out mentorship … specifically at school, because having a strong, tight-knit community of Black women outside school isn't always as helpful when you're in the moment or when you're in a situation where you're alone,” said Clarke, who sometimes plays that mentor role for her younger sister. “I also would hope that girls who are maybe closer to my age will read that and think, OK, I know a couple of the younger Black girls at my school or wherever I just graduated — maybe I can reach out to them, offer a helping hand, let them know that I'm here for them.”
The book isn’t just for young girls, though. “We have stories from middle schoolers, stories from high schoolers, from college students and from women who have graduate from college, as well. You can use it whether you are in middle school or whether you are now a senior in college,” she said. “The different experiences may happen at different times for different people, but most of the things in this book will happen to Black girls, unfortunately, at some point in their lives.”
One consistent topic threading itself throughout the book is the lived experience of microaggressions. “You see a lot of snide comments or things that are said in a way that’s like, ‘It's a compliment!’ But really it's pretty damaging,” Clarke said. “You also see a lot of stories talking about the self-esteem issues that come with starting off at a PWI so young.”
In addition to the book, Clarke also recently released a support journal with affirmations, activities and coloring pages — “Just in case you need a break,” she said — and she also plans to publish an ally journal filled with discussion prompts and reflection points for parents, faculty, students or casual readers who want to be allies to the Black community.
While Clarke planned to release the book regardless, the cries for racial justice that swept the country during this past spring and summer was confirmation that now, more than ever, Black Girl, White School is needed. "With the protests, it felt like people might be more willing to listen,” she said. “It was also very important to me that I would send this out and make sure that not only are we looking at the voices of adults and how they're protesting, but also looking at the kids we know — the Black girls that are in your classrooms.”