As a middle schooler in the late 90s, I rarely noticed the injustices that littered the world around me. Total Request Live mattered. The rotation of Destiny Child’s members mattered. Political and social strife did not rank very high on my list of cares in the world. Not to say I did not recognize that all people were not treated equally with equal life opportunities. I knew I was a black girl and was teased regularly and unfairly for behaving “like a white girl.” I was acutely aware of the pale hues of my fellow bus riders as we made our daily trek from school back to our middle-class neighborhood. I realized that my brown face stood out in the sea of white ones in my advanced English and math classes.
While I was privy to the superficial aspects of my surroundings, I never felt the need to delve into why my world operated in the mysterious way it did. Although I lacked (or maybe ignored) the tools to think critically about my environment, my ability to decipher right from wrong was strong. One fateful day in my middle school cafeteria, a young me was munching on a very subpar pizza slice with a Fruit Roll-Up dessert when I viewed something disgusting enough to spit out my fairly disgusting meal.
What I saw was as wrong as wrong gets. At a distant lunch table, a white male student was outfitted in the most awful T-shirt ever. The words “THESE COLORS DON’T RUN” were emblazoned across the top imposed on top of a Confederate flag. I know this sounds gruesome enough, but I lived in South Georgia, so these types of shirts were everyday occurrences. What made it even worse was the picture adorning the bottom of black slaves picking cotton — these were the colors who ran.
Here we were on the brink of a new millennium, and a classmate was paying homage to a cruel, inhumane system that profited off the backs of my ancestors. What made him think it was even remotely okay to wear this shirt? And how was he allowed onto school grounds with his message of hate? After a brief discussion with my lunch buddies, I arose from my seat to address the boy because remaining silent about this blatant sign of intolerance was not an option for me. Once I arrived at his table, I asked him why he was wearing the shirt and if he knew that what it represented was very offensive.
I do not remember his response (even though I am certain he knew exactly what his shirt meant), and I barely had time to hear his answer because a teacher swiftly intervened. She must have known I was confronting him about his shirt, but if she recognized its inappropriateness, why hadn’t she addressed him already? While I do not know if the boy ever faced any consequences for wearing the shirt, I felt proud of myself for making my voice heard. It was a tiny, but meaningful step at the very beginning of my journey as a social justice advocate. Think back to your goofy preteen self. Did you ever stand up for what you believed was fair and just? It’s possible that you were a middle school cafeteria activist, too.