It was 7:30 a.m. on a school day. My eyes strained to stay open, as I rested my head on my mother’s lap. My thoughts drifted as I slipped in and out of consciousness. The time slipped with every brush stroke as I inhaled the scent of highly concentrated coconut fragrance, characteristic of Blue Magic conditioner. Within an hour my coils and curls were tamed into ponytails and twists, adorned with vibrant barrettes and beads.
It was 10:00 a.m. and I was sitting in Ms. Solid’s second grade accelerated math class. I was the only. The only African-American female in the class. The only girl with hair, which would defy the laws of gravity—a misunderstood concept at the time. My coils were an outlier in the homogenous set of flowing straight locks that surrounded me. I was the only.
We followed our typical routine. The class assembled on the rainbow-blocked carpet, as Ms. Solid chose her first group of victims. Of course, I was chosen along with three others. In front of me I faced a hodgepodge of numbers and symbols plastered across the chalkboard, claiming to be math. Tick-Tock. The hands of the clock continued to turn as my former companions retreated to the safety of the plush purple section of the carpet.
I remained, alone. Only to be pardoned later, after minutes of humiliating silence and stares. My thoughts scrambled as I imagined condescending glares and snickers. I was embarrassed as I journeyed down the walk of shame, to the purple section. In that moment, the carpet lacked its former comforting and tranquil abilities.
That “math” problem was the outward manifestation of the ostracism I felt daily. I cannot say whether this was solely a mental phenomenon or a true reflection of my reality, “As one of the few Black faces in this mostly white place.”
Ten years later. I sit beside my senior teammate as she advises me on a strategy for our moot court competition. She covers the basics: nerves, confidence, rules. She addresses the issue of bias among judges she faced in previous years. Initially, her remarks are in the context of gender, until she tackles the obstacle of race. “The judges may be unfair toward you since you’re colored.” The statement is jarring and leaves me in an exposed state. Her words, probably backed with good intent, lacked awareness and tone. I was silent and alone.
It is 10 a.m. on a Saturday, the day of competition. I am standing behind a podium at Duke University. I take a slight step back as the tips of my fingers pulsate. “Madame President and may it please the court. My name is Asia Chester…” I proceed to articulate an oral argument, when the judge questions me on the grounds of relevance. Their question is valid. My eyes are locked in an unrelenting bond with the judge, yet I feel alone. I am the only. In this moment I remember my second-grade self, as I rack my brain for a suitable reply. So, I respond.
What changed? Reflecting, I pose the question, “Who am I?” In the second grade, the answer to that question would be insecure and uncertain. I unknowingly felt limited by the prejudicial constraints of my race. I was the only. Feelings of loneliness and disconnection drove me to seek more, looking beyond the walls of my environment.
I no longer find comfort in silence. I have had the opportunity to break through the confines “of this mostly white place.” Throughout high school, I was able to interact with others who shared the same feelings of ostracism. I found a true place of refuge among those who looked like me and dreamt like me. Imagining a world of possibilities beyond what is readily presented to us.
So, “Who am I?” I am not alone. I am not silent. I am someone who is seeking perspective and change. I am someone working to see changes in the world. And now, I am not the only.
words_asia chester. illustration_lauren maingot. design_olivia ginsberg.
This article was published in Distraction’s Fall 2020 print issue.
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