“Being black isn’t a costume to be worn or some stereotype to fulfill. Being black isn’t a formula to solve or a puzzle to complete. We all have different personalities, different beliefs, different values!”
These words, spoken by junior Ashley Collins in a piece at last month’s Open Mic Night, paint a picture of a girl who struggled to accept what it meant to be black. However, after the inciting incident of being called “white-washed” by a high-school friend, Collins set out to understand what it meant for her to be black.
Her piece discussed the expectations people have on her race to be a certain way in order to be “qualified” or fit for her skin. Her spoken word challenged her audience to reconsider their different faces of black.
When she heard that her friends considered her “white-washed” for her behavior, it led her to a simple question.
“What is being black to you?” she asked.
These high school experiences helped her grow to better understand what she expected from herself and who she was, but coming to college presented more challenges that surprised Collins in the new ways she could grow.
“How do I respect someone else’s feelings while also feeling like ‘mm, nope, you’re wrong?’” Collins later said in an interview with The Voice.
This question feels especially important with the political atmosphere of 2016, the year she started college.
Then she noticed something. Disagreements can be respectful, and all parties can learn from the experience. Sometimes, people can be insensible and wrong, but other times, there is a way to grow.
“I think that’s the biggest challenge, being to respect someone else’s opinion. Just because I hear someone out or I respect them in that way doesn’t mean I have to agree,” Collins said.
But growing is more than hearing conversation with people you do not agree with. It is about considering who you want to become and being fearless in pursuing those dreams. People cannot be afraid of embarrassing themselves or being uncomfortable, according to Collins.
“It’s being able to challenge that person, or being able to ask my questions, and ask ‘why is it that way?’ or ‘are you thinking about this side, or this part, or are you aware of this?’ and making it a conversation rather than tearing you down,” Collins said.
These principles, which began to form after the “white wash” conversation in high school, have encouraged Collins to push past her self-set boundaries and discomforts in college and pursue what interests her.
In order to learn about yourself, Collins believes college should be a time to force yourself out of the box –either by your own choice or by others’ assertion. Being able to explore new things, and being willing to do them alone when your friends say no, is vital to growing as a person and better understanding who you want to be, she believes.
“Do the things that make you uncomfortable, challenge yourself with things you never would have done and you’ll learn more about yourself than you ever could sticking to the same things you’ve always done,” she said.
Collins has grown up since high school, where problems could be laughed away awkwardly. But when she questioned her friend on her actions junior year, she opened up a new power for herself. She continues to find and share this view with others through her writing.
Now, she expects herself and her peers to push each other in conversation with an openness to be challenged, confronted, and, yes, wrong.