I was being so productive last Saturday morning I could hardly believe it was real. I woke up at 8:00 a.m. despite having been up since 1 a.m. the night before, and instead of laying in bed listening to music or going back to sleep, I decided to catch up on reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers for a literature class. I arrived at the part where a black family is gathered, and the grandfather is speaking about what he thinks it will be like when Jesus Christ returns.

He says, “And this here the way I done planned it. I reason I will get to stand before Jesus with all my childrens and grandchildrens and great-grandchildrens and kinfolks and friends and I say to him, ‘Jesus Christ, us is all sad colored peoples.’ And then He will place His holy hand upon our heads and straightway us will be white as cotton.”

And that was when my heart tragically fell from its ledge in my chest, crashing into the bottom of my stomach with utter disappointment. Productivity session over. I know this is fiction. But Richard Wright praised this novel for its “ability to embrace white and black humanity.” If the black characters want above all else to be white, I felt that McCullers had to have misunderstood “black humanity.”

I live in a completely different era than do the characters in McCullers’ novel. I grew up with my mother blasting James Brown’s “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!” through our house from a large stereo on Saturday mornings. I have the luxury of exclusively following black models or celebrity accounts on Instagram, so the most glamorous photos I immerse myself in daily are of dark-skinned women with flawless skin and gorgeous curly hair. In that regard, my Instagram feed is healthy for me. Seeing those photos builds my own self-esteem, and while I could write an entire second column about how hard it was to reach this point, I’ve grown to be proud to be a black woman. 

But McCullers’ characters—assuming for the sake of opinion writing that they’re real—didn’t experience my upbringing. On the page before, the family’s father says that his mother had been born a slave. They were living at the beginning of the twentieth century when it was still much more difficult to be black than it is now. 

I know this. Why did reading this make me so fueled with rage that I got out of bed before 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday to open up my laptop and write out my thoughts? A study from University of Chicago found that while 57 percent of non-African Americans rated African Americans as less intelligent than whites, 30 percent of African Americans said their own race is generally less intelligent than whites. The reason for my dismay, then, stems from an unrecognized anomaly in my childhood: while I have grown to become comfortable in my own skin, not all minority children grow up with parents who help instill pride of who they are. 

We place the blame on other races for believing representations of black people in the media and expecting black people to fulfill those stereotypes as a result. Yet not all African Americans themselves understand that the representations of their own race, as portrayed in the media, do not represent the majority of black people in America. If you think less of your own race, then it’s not a shocking desire to want to be a different race. This is a troubling problem on both sides.

I don’t often like to pinpoint blame for broad societal issues, but I do think a lot of how African American children perceive themselves begins with parents and teachers. When I was in fifth grade, I spoke on the phone with a friend about a test we had recently taken, and we both agreed that we probably hadn’t done as well as another girl in our class because we knew that she was really smart. 

After my phone conversation, my dad—who had overheard—called me into the living room and told me very seriously not to assume that anyone else was smarter than I was. He told me that I was just as smart and could have done just as well on the test as anyone else in my class. I haven’t thought about this incident for a while, but these critical interactions between parents and their kids instill a belief within children that they are smart in their own right, regardless of the people around them. And in case parents don’t teach self-confidence to their children, elementary school teachers should regularly teach their students about what it means to be confident in their academic abilities. 

There may not be a direct correlation between self-confidence and perception of one’s own race. However, for a race that already receives damaging coverage, low self-image in concert with negative perceptions of blackness as a whole can lead individuals to exemplify internalized racism, or to hold discriminatory attitudes toward members of their own race. If black people themselves see their race as inferior, then there won’t be a push to stop profiling, to stop police brutality and to stop the racial divide still present in some areas of America. They will allow this state of sort-of-equality to continue, because they don’t believe the portrayal of the black race they see to be deserving of full equality. 

We continue to hold onto the idea that children are born with no inherent prejudices. A large part of how we perceive the world and the groups of people surrounding us, then, is molded by parents and early experiences. We who have the opportunity to impact the minds of younger kids should think about how our perceptions of other people are being transferred to those who learn from our example. 

With all things considered, maybe McCullers and her characters should get a pass. Early 20th century American society ingrained the notion within people of all races that white people were superior. I like to think we’ve taken a few steps forward since then. To wish to be white when you’re not is to deny the beauty of diversity and the priceless value of the “other.” We must do more thinking about how our perceptions about groups of people carry over to those with whom we interact.

Victoria Priester is a Trinity first-year. Her column, "on the run from mediocrity," runs on alternate Fridays.