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It’s Just My Face

Ishia Sillah is a high school student from Maryland. She’s passionate about writing, equal rights, and poetry.

“Why are you so mad?” “I swear you always have an attitude.” These are a few of the things I’ve heard so often when I walk into class, which is ironic because my school claims it’s a  “safe” and “diverse” community.

That word ‘diverse’ really sticks out to me because it means ‘different.’ Though when people see it they often associate the word with concepts like  race, religion, and sexual orientation, but it just means ‘different’ or ‘difference.’ Well if they’re going to tie it to things why can’t I? So I’ll tie it with a lot of things, like facial expressions, because the diversity of my facial expressions is way different from the person to my left and right. Maybe I don’t smile as much as everyone else; it doesn’t mean I have an attitude. It doesn’t mean I’m going to scream at the first person who dares to say, “Hi.” It’s the face I have when I’m relaxed. It’s the face I have when I’m alone or when I’m with others. The face when no jokes are being made, no sad stories are being told. It’s just my face. Do you have to comment on it? Why actually make me mad when there is nothing I’m even mad about?

The word “safe” really makes me laugh because I don’t feel it. I have to wear a mask for protection from my teacher. Yes, you read me right; no need to go back and reread. It’s my teacher. She’s seen this face since the first day of school, and nothing has changed except the seasons. I’ve received more opinions from her than I have learned from her. I’ve never given her a legitimate reason to act this way. But her constant insistence on singling me out during class actually gave me something to be mad about. She rallied the classroom around my face. By constantly pointing out that I looked like I had an attitude. Drawing their attention away from the lesson and to my face. Without any necessary reason to do so.

I shouldn’t have to compromise who I am to fit whatever personal preferences she or anyone else in that class has. I have the right to learn, regardless of what facial expressions I make, and I have a right to express other facial emotions besides happiness. It would be one thing if I look “angry” and words leave my mouth with aggression, but I speak with a respectful tone. Yet my teacher doesn’t try to understand me or ask where I’m coming from. She just assumes I have a bad attitude.

A day did come when I couldn’t take her words anymore. I was actually angry; life was just consuming me. It was like I was already drowning, and she was just pushing my head further underwater. I told her, “I’m not in the mood today.” My friends tried to defend me, but she told me to get out. Me. The girl who was drowning and just wanted a hand to help her. What made this day different from others is that my friend had said I wasn’t okay, and I didn’t disagree with her.  I’m not one to hide the way I feel. I told her I wasn’t okay because it was the truth, and I’m not obligated to lie and say I’m “fine” when I’m not just because that’s what other people might be expecting.

This experience is not mine alone. There are millions of Black girls dealing with the same situations. Research from the National Women’s Law Center shows that Black girls face unfair discipline in school. As early as preschool, Black girls are punished more often and more severely than white students, not because they’re misbehaving more in school, but because their teachers are let their unconscious bias affect how they treat their students.

I’m telling my story because I want teachers to understand where many Black girls are coming from. I didn’t tell this story just for Black women and girls reading this, because many of them probably lived this story. I tell it for the teachers, especially the white women who make up over 70 percent of the teaching population. I tell this story because they need to understand that often, we’re not mad until they constantly say that we are.

It's time for change, and we must act now. Time's up.