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Joshua Burrell: Growing up black in Columbia

Joshua Burrell is a Columbia resident and a junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, majoring in television and emerging media studies with a minor in journalism.
Joshua Burrell is a Columbia resident and a junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, majoring in television and emerging media studies with a minor in journalism. (Courtesy photo)

Columbia is ranked a top 100 diverse city by Niche — a national ranking and review website — but there aren’t models for class differences. Race and class intersections make appreciating Columbia difficult when you’re darker or have less income. So what’s it like growing up middle class and black in Howard County?

I remember being one of the few black people in Advanced Placement courses at Hammond High School. I appreciated my privilege, but it didn’t heal anxiety from being a sole representative of my culture. Howard County is an affluent county, yet there isn’t any cultural enrichment.

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“An essential component of blackness is being identified as other,” said Eva Dickerson, an Atholton High School and Spelman College alumna. “The immaterial experiences were very detrimental to the development of strong racial politics, my confidence and having a global perspective on the world.”

Racism hides in Howard County’s public schools. The track system was and is a means of segregation. It places education opportunities in the hands of teachers who were biased against ethnic kids. Not all teachers were consciously biased, but their interactions made it clear that they saw color.

Students in low-level classes were reprimanded harsher and teachers were less lenient in letting them express themselves. Even academic aspirations were taken lightly to maintain track system structure.

“With teachers, there was blatant difference in behaviors with black and Latina students,” said Zion Peart, a Columbia native. “I remember seeing some students who would genuinely want to improve in class, but it could be seen as kissing up or trying to play the system. Their learning was ultimately taken less seriously.”

There are unfair distributions of black and brown kids in remedial and on-grade level classes because of intolerant teachers who see acting out as causeless insubordination. In some cases, students only had each other to rely on.

“I was lucky enough to grow up in one of the more diverse parts of Columbia,” said Mubotu Nzuwah, a Wilde Lake High School graduate. “Some things you don’t notice until people make their groups and you see your friends look like you.”

Relationships were often established in classrooms. Extracurricular activities helped people diversify their friend groups, but people were more likely to befriend classmates. Shared experiences shape closer friendships and some friendships resulted from scholastic competition.

Black kids were in a perpetual state of competition. Black students competed against each other and cultural stereotypes in predominantly white spaces. Other students competed to show their blackness by conforming to stereotypes of black materialism.

“It made me feel insecure sometimes. People would flex name-brand clothes and my parents wouldn’t buy it,” said Taelor Brown, a Hammond High School graduate.

“Black people perpetrated flexing more than white people. White kids never got into materialistic competitions with black people because they already felt better than us.”

Black materialism appeals to fashion to mask insecurity. The idea is wearing nice or high-end clothes makes one look well put together, therefore others can’t judge, scrutinize or assume bad of them.

Middle-class suburban blackness substituted consumerism for cultural awareness. Respect centered around socioeconomic status instead of character. Some kids in households with less disposable income had difficulty fitting in because materialism was key to assimilation.

“My father sacrificed a lot for me to be in an area that costs so much and live in such a good school system,” Peart said. “When I first went to a place like Stone Lake [in Laurel], I thought there was an overabundance of space and luxury.”

Children don’t see wealth how adults do. Kids see wealth as doing whatever you want. Kids don’t see bills, groceries or their parents’ sacrifices to give them opportunities for success.

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Class consciousness develops late in the suburbs and, without cultural enrichment, black kids are also less socially aware. Black parents were more “strict,” although they saw Columbia for what it is.

Although school was ethnically diverse, being black in America made you different. One either accepted or denied America’s social climate.

Acceptance can range from unhealthy coping mechanisms to conforming with white expectations of blackness. Denying race relations is assuming everywhere in the world is like Columbia.

“The Columbia bubble is like a perfect world in suburbia,” Dickerson said. “I think the funniest part of growing up in Howard County was not realizing that something was wrong with it until I left.”

Columbia citizens have educational and recreational opportunities unknown to other areas. Anyone raised in Columbia or Howard County will likely have culture shock realizing the world isn’t like Columbia.

Acknowledging social class spectrum and status early in life feels like sacrificing youthful innocence to plan for the future. Growing up black in Columbia is seeing that, even in ethnic diversity, black people are always an “other” in America.

The intersection is a constant struggle seeing resistance in every direction and knowing complacency isn’t an option.

Joshua Burrell is a Columbia resident and a junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, majoring in television and emerging media studies with a minor in journalism.

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