The Big Shake-Up
When I was eleven years old, I felt like I had no cares in the world.
I was living in sunny Southern California, and at the time the older of two kids; my youngest brother wasn’t born yet. I spent weekends playing with all my cousins and shopping at “Penny’s” with my grandmother. I didn’t think my life could get any better.
I had the pleasure of growing up with my mother’s side of the family (my mom is one of five sisters). I had never pictured my life without them a short car ride away. At the time, I had so many amazing Black women surrounding me with love, like my grandmother and great-grandmother, and my grandmother’s sister, my aunt Neicy. All of these amazing women made me feel like anything was possible for me.
The sense of belonging I felt at that age is something I wish I could bottle up and give to every young Black girl I meet. It’s a feeling I didn’t know that I would need to hold tightly to later in my life.
When I least expected it, my dad told us we were moving to Illinois, where he was going to start a church in the small town where he grew up.
How could he?! We were so close to our family in California, and I had never lived anywhere else. I mean—people dream about moving to California; I had never heard of a mass exodus to Illinois! I lived two doors down from one of my aunts, and I could walk to her house at will. I was on a personal campaign to get her to stop smoking cigarettes—she was down to a few cigarettes a day—I couldn’t leave now, we were starting to make real progress!
Now, you might be thinking, “Minda, what does your family leaving California have to do with this book?” And I am so glad you asked that question! That family move changed my life forever. If it had not been for that move from California to Illinois, I probably wouldn’t have written this book.
When I moved to that small, majority white town in rural Illinois, it was the first time I remember experiencing racism. It was the first time that I felt being a Black girl wasn’t beautiful. And, it was the first time I questioned whether I belonged. The lessons and stories that I will share with you in this book are about some of the hard lessons and ugly truths I learned as a Black girl in a small, white town that only trial and error could teach me.
If I’d had a book like this one back then, I might have loved the skin I’m in so much earlier in my life. Back then, I was going through the angst of being a teenager and feeling isolated, like many teenagers probably feel, regardless of race. But not all teenagers will experience being one of the only Black girls in a class full of white kids, nor will every teenager be called racial slurs. And not every girl will grow up in a country that treats people like her as second-class citizens because they are Black or brown. If I had a book like You Are More Than Magic when I was growing up, I might have been able to see my own worth way before I became an adult.
I don’t want you to move through life not knowing how amazing you are, just the way you are. Other people don’t get to dictate how you use your voice and how you choose to show up in this world as a young girl living in her color—living in your beautiful Black or brown skin. You need to know right now: You are more than magic at this very moment in time.
I Am Not Dora the Explorer
Before moving to Illinois, I lived in an area of California called the Inland Empire, which was racially diverse.
Representation was all around me: My community included Mexican kids, Native American kids, biracial kids, kids from all sorts of backgrounds. And I was never the only girl of color in my classroom. I was exposed to so many cultures living in our community, and I didn’t know anything different from diversity. At eleven, I thought the rest of the world was experiencing the same America as I was.
So, moving to a town that was far from diverse felt like moving to an entirely new country. When we finally got settled in Illinois, our family stuck out like a sore thumb. The town was predominately white. The second-largest group was Latinx, but they were still a small percentage of the population. I was thrust into a new experience of being “the only one.” I was the only Black student or student of color in my classes and on my block.
Quick Q’s: Have you ever been the only one? How did that make you feel?
For the first time in my life, I was the only Black girl. I had no idea how much being the only one would dictate how some of my teachers would treat me, or who wanted to date me, or the words my white friends would use because they heard them in a rap song. I quickly learned the beauty standards of rural white America, and they didn’t include a “Black is beautiful” campaign. (Now, don’t get me wrong—everybody wanted to be my friend. I was the new shiny Black girl—and it was “cool” for them to finally have a Black friend.)
When we arrived, we moved into a small, one-bedroom apartment that happened to place my family at one of the most affluent schools in town. Almost 99 percent of the students were white, and their parents or guardians were doctors, nurses, and teachers. My parents did not have those types of jobs, at the time, and we didn’t have that type of money. And with all these changes I was experiencing, it was the first time I felt ashamed of where we lived and what we didn’t have.
Before we moved to Illinois, I had no idea we were what some might consider “working poor.” In this new place, imposter syndrome started to creep in. And if you don’t know what imposter syndrome is—I will tell you more about it in later chapters.
Back in the day, we didn’t have a fancy name to call it, but I would soon understand the shame associated with being in the free lunch line when my friends were not. Or going on my eighth-grade graduation trip to Six Flags with less than twenty dollars in my pocket (even the drinks costs more than that) when most of my classmates had fifty dollars or more to spend. I learned how to navigate uncomfortable conversations about money and say, “Nah, I don’t see anything I want,” while secretly starving or hoping my friends would offer me some of theirs.
I wish I had known that not having souvenir and snack money had nothing to do with my worth as a person. I later learned that I have control over how I see and feel about myself. We will talk about that too as you work through this book.
When I lived in California, during lunchtime, my classmates each had different types of food inside their lunch box. And I had never been judged for the meals that my family would pack for me to eat. But in Illinois, I was suddenly being made fun of because of the fried chicken my mom packed for me at my new school.
One of my favorite things to eat was and is my dad’s fried chicken. And now that same meal had me wanting to crawl under the lunch table because of some of the stupid things my classmates would say about Black people and fried chicken. I didn’t know there was some lunch etiquette that I should have been aware of, until my white classmates pointed out the differences between my food and theirs. And not in a way that made me feel good about myself, but that left me sometimes hating my new life and my new friends.
I went from loving my life, because I felt such a strong sense of belonging, to feeling alienated and isolated. The other kids in Illinois had never had exposure to families that didn’t look like them, and I had to bear the cost of their ignorance. It was a burden I learned to carry as a child, and it would affect me for the rest of my life.
I dealt with so many new emotions that boiled down to socioeconomic factors and being a Black girl in a small, white town. Of course, at that age, I just thought life was so unfair to Black girls. And maybe you think it’s still unfair! Unfortunately, as my white friends lived out their teenage years wearing rose-colored glasses, I kept feeling the unfairness all the way through. I left high school, and by then—I didn’t realize how much damage had been done.
When I entered junior high school, it seemed like the innocence of my classmates shifted.
I used to think they didn’t mean any harm by some of their statements, but now it started to feel like they were doubling down on their racism. I started to realize how taxing some of my relationships with my white friends were, but I didn’t have the language to articulate what I was feeling or experiencing. To make matters worse, I was my white friends’ only Black friend, and they looked at me like the keeper of all the Blackness.
There were days we would be sitting in the lunchroom and one of my white friends would say, “Minda, rap that one rap song, by Dr. Dre, we’re sure you know the words.” Or this expectation at recess to dance on command, because there is this assumption that all Black people must know how to dance. Anything they saw Black people doing that they felt was “cool” in a magazine or on television, they automatically expected I knew all about it because I was Black.
Maybe you have been your white friend’s only Black or brown friend and you know how exhausting some of these relationships can be. Half the time, I didn’t even know what they were referring to, because we didn’t have cable and I wasn’t allowed to listen to music that wasn’t “church music” unless I was at a white friend’s house and got to hear it there.
I was feeling left out inside and outside of my house. I felt pressure to be what my white friends felt Black people should be from their limited exposure to MTV and BET. And I was grappling with who I wanted to be as a Black girl, yet my environment made it hard to figure out how to balance the two. Meaning, I was trying to learn about myself and what it meant for me to be a Black girl, and wasn’t obligated to be the Black girl from their music videos and teen magazines. But in school you sometimes feel you have to be who people want you to be so they will like you.
You might be thinking, why did I remain friends with these people? Or maybe you find yourself asking the same question to yourself regarding some of your friends. To be honest, I thought I didn’t have any choice. I thought if I was going to live in a predominantly white town, then I needed to find some friends that would make being there a little more bearable, and over time I did find those friends. But knowing what I know now, and how it affected me, I should have created better boundaries, because I owed that to myself.
I hope you will consider letting your friends know what good looks like to you, especially when relationships don’t make you feel like a healthy friendship should.
Here’s one story about a time I wish I had set clear boundaries with my white friends.
In eighth grade, we could leave school at lunchtime and go off campus with our parent or guardian’s permission. You had just enough time to walk about ten minutes up the street, where there were two gas stations and a popular pizza place. And just enough time to walk back. If you were not back to school in time, you would lose your off-campus privilege.
My mom and I had recently gotten the same new hairstyle, and we were feeling ourselves. It was a popular hairstyle you would see in all of the Black magazines. The only issue was that you had to use this spray that kept your hair looking kind of greasy and wet. But it was the style to have if you were Black in the early ’90s.
At any rate, that Monday, I went to school with my new hairstyle. At lunch, I left campus with my friends to walk to get a slice of pizza. And as we walked up the street, we passed the high school. You would sometimes see the older kids on their lunch break too. Many of my girlfriends liked this because they got to see older boys they thought were cute.
As we walked past a group of white boys, one of them hollered out, “Hey Eazy-E.” Now, I realize I am much older than you, and you probably have no idea who Eazy-E is: Eazy-E was a West Coast rapper. He rocked a similar hairstyle in the ’80s, but when he had it, it was called a Jheri curl.
I had no idea who the boy was talking to. And at first, it was just one of the boys. Then they started chanting it together like they were part of a boy band: “Eazy-E! Eazy-E! Eazy-E!” Suddenly, I realized they were talking to me. Worse, all my friends laughed and called me a greaseball. “Don’t touch Minda’s hair, you’ll need a towel afterwards,” they joked—and that wasn’t even the worst thing they said.
Let’s just say that I chose not to go off campus for a while after that day. And I begged my mom to let me grow the wavy chemical out of my hair—I no longer wanted to be called a greaseball.
That was the moment I started to hate my hair. I wished I had hair like my white friends. And if I am being honest with you, thinking about that story still hurts. Because from that moment forward, I was acutely aware of any hairstyle I chose. I only chose hairstyles I thought the white kids wouldn’t make fun of me for having.
Remember when I said I was trying to balance the two, figuring out who I wanted to be and who others wanted me to be? I loved that hairstyle and it was a popular hairstyle in the Black culture—and when I got it, the white kids made me the laughingstock of campus because they didn’t understand my hair texture. Being Black seemed to become harder and harder by the day.
During this time in my life, I was feeling othered at every turn. And when you go through your tween and teenage years being made fun of by people who are supposed to be your friends, you unfortunately learn to start telling yourself that these white kids and their caregivers don’t mean any harm. You slowly start to believe that maybe you don’t belong, like you once thought you did. I learned to settle into subtle forms of racism and disrespect at a young age. And it was all of those experiences that caused me to shrink and slowly misplace my voice.
When I was growing up, there were days I secretly wished I could ask a genie in a bottle to grant me whiteness so I could belong. I now know I would never, ever want that wish to come true.
I love my skin way too much to be anybody else; I love myself way too much to be anybody else. Growing up in this environment was a tough time for me; I ain’t gonna lie to you. But the good news is that I learned to love all parts of me, and I hope you continue to enjoy all the elements that make you, You! Because there is nothing wrong with you—but there are many things wrong with the status quo. (And if you have never heard of the word status quo, in the most simplest terms, it means the way folks have always done things. Doesn’t mean we should do it this way, but it tends to be the norm.)
Rolling with the Homies
Just when I thought I might not be able to take it anymore, I met the Wilson girls, Stacie and Kendra.
They would only be in my life for two years before they moved away, but those two years made all the difference. I wasn’t the only one anymore. Yo, it makes a difference when you’re not the only Black girl rocking her Black girl braids. When the beads at the end seemed foreign to our other classmates, Stacie, Kendra, and I gave zero cares and click-clacked like nobody’s business, giving them all the energy of a young Venus and Serena Williams. Those were some good times!
The Wilson girls and I also went to the same church. Before my dad started his church, we attended one of the only Black Baptist churches in town. And church was one of the only places I got to see the other Black people who lived in our new town. Since I had become friends with Stacie and Kendra from school, it was nice to also see familiar faces at church.
I got baptized when I was twelve, and that special moment in my life happened with my two new friends Stacie and Kendra by my side. All three of us got dunked under the water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I had become way too familiar with alienation and isolation in Illinois, but when I met the Wilson girls I remembered what it felt like to belong again. And I felt like a million bucks!
One thing is certain: I have always loved having strong friendships with other Black and brown girls. We always got each other. That’s why I included an entire chapter on friendship in this book. When you’re feeling the isolation, it will be those friendships that help keep you grounded. By no means am I suggesting you won’t have close friendships with girls and women who don’t identify the way you do, but there is a special bond with other girls and women of color.
With Stacie and Kendra by my side, I learned there is power in numbers. For two years, I was reminded of the beauty of being Black. I had friends who looked like me to share experiences that didn’t center on trying to fit in with the white kids. Sometimes I wonder how much I would have shrunk if I had never met Stacie and Kendra. Our friendship helped me love myself in ways I didn’t realize I needed. I look forward to sharing more with you about my friendships and about the importance of having healthy relationships with your friends in the chapter called “What About Your Friends.”
When I wrote my first book, The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table, I thought about all the lessons I wish I had learned before I entered the workforce. I quickly realized that I needed some of these life lessons way before entering corporate America. Soft skills like understanding your worth, finding your voice, and learning how to navigate systems that produce bias—Black and brown girls need that information, right now! (And if you’re wondering what soft skills are: those tend to be things like communication skills, active listening, and things like time management. But in my opinion, there is nothing soft about those skills, we all need them.)
When I was traveling for my first book tour, I looked into the crowds of like minds and faces, and saw that some women would bring their daughters and nieces to my book talks. They’d whisper to me, “Gotta teach ’em young.” I met fathers who purchased the book for their infant daughters, so they’d have a manual when they reached our age.
It struck me that we should start having these conversations at a much earlier age. I saw myself in their eyes. How much more hopeful would my life have been, back when I was struggling with being the only Black girl in my classroom in Illinois, if I’d had a big sister to guide me? If I’d had someone to remind me that everything I need is already inside of me?
What if I had the language as a young Black girl to help me articulate my place in this world, even when others questioned it? I wish I had known I could use my voice as a teen and that I didn’t have to wait until I was an adult. If I had been encouraged to do so—I would have been a force to be reckoned with. Our minds are continually challenging the status quo, and for better or worse, this world shapes who we become.
I need you to know that you don’t have to sweep your feelings under the rug to appease any group of people. You are the next generation to set this world ablaze, and we shouldn’t wait to address the issues you face. It might be too late then! I need you to have the tools to show up in this world and be your brilliant self today! Because as our mutual friend Beyoncé said, “Brown skin girl . . . I’d never trade you for anybody else.” And I don’t want you ever to feel like you need to be anybody else. I need you to know that your feelings matter, and the world needs to know that too.
Oh, and trust me—Future You will thank you for doing the work now, so you can rock it out later.
It’s no secret that I’m pretty excited to go on this journey with you.
I am the oldest of three kids and the only girl. I don’t think my brothers appreciated all the advice I smothered them with. But, just like any older sister, I gave it to them anyway!
You Are More Than Magic will discuss many topics that I think will serve you well as you grow up, but most importantly, I want you to have the tools you need to enter college, join the workforce, or build your own table—meaning start your own company. The world is all yours!
There are kids just like you building companies and working to make the world a better place. There are young girls like Mikaila Ulmer, Naomi Wadler, Mari Copeny, and Marley Dias, who use their voices in ways I would never have imagined at your age. Let me tell you a little bit about these young girls that look just like you.
Mikaila Ulmer is a teen entrepreneur who started her lemonade business in Austin, Texas. You can now find her lemonade in stores like Whole Foods.
Naomi Wadler is using her teenage voice as an advocate against gun violence here in the United States, and she highlights how gun violence affects Black girls and women.
Mari Copeny, who is also known as Little Miss Flint, wrote a letter to then president Barack Obama, drawing his attention to the Flint Water Crisis in her hometown when she was just eight years old.
And last but not least, Marley Dias. When Marley was in elementary school she launched a book drive to donate one thousand books to Black girls at other schools. She wanted them to read books where Black girls were the main characters.
You have a voice just like these girls. You just have to decide how you want to use it. This world has space for you, you just have to decide how much space you want to take up!
What to Expect
I mentioned some of the hard times I had growing up Black, but that isn’t the only thing this book is about.
We will discuss how to have tough conversations with adults, because part of using our voice requires us to be good communicators. Being a good communicator will also require you to have courage to discuss certain topics that might be taboo in some Black and brown households, or with your friends.
And, if you ever feel like you are being discriminated against, we will discuss how to advocate for yourself.
We’ll discuss how to handle rejection or hear “no” in response to things you think you really wanted. I also have some advice about having a healthy mindset, because having a healthy way of thinking about yourself will be critical to your success as you get older. And I had a blast writing to you about lessons I learned on my first job at the Dairy Queen making Blizzards and writing very messy “Happy Birthday” messages on ice cream cakes.
As you make your way through the book, you won’t just receive advice from me. I also conducted a series of roundtable discussions with young girls that look just like you. I asked them the same questions that I ask you in this book, and I included some of their thoughts and responses.
They were brutally honest with me about their experiences being Black and brown girls in junior high, high school, and college today. I learned so much from our conversations, and you will find that you are not alone in your experiences. One of the college girls that I interviewed, who lives in Indiana, told me that she just wants to feel “seen.” She told me she is “tired” of being an afterthought to her white classmates. Listening to her speak reminded me of my own experiences.
My hope is that Black and brown girls won’t be the only readers of this book, but that white kids who want to be better advocates and friends to their Black and brown friends, so they can feel “seen,” will also read it. And I pray that white adults will pick up this book. It’s important for white caregivers and teachers to read this book, because let’s be honest, some of their problematic behaviors (intentional or unintentional) are harming Black and brown kids. And their actions are serving as a “role model” for their children—who will more than likely replicate the harm.
In order for Black and brown girls to walk in this world without feeling discriminated against and alienated in their classrooms or in the boardroom, we need all hands on deck to change the way the world works for all of us.
One Last Thing
I want you to know there was a time that I dealt with some of the same things you’re experiencing or might experience one day. What type of big sister would I be if I didn’t tell you everything I know?
I don’t mind being vulnerable with you about some of my past experiences, so I hope you will trust me along this journey. You might feel alone now or unsure of where to place your new experiences—but you no longer have to wonder what next steps to take, because my goal by the end of this book is to equip you with all of the answers to those questions (or at least most of them). You never have to go through some of this stuff as the “only one” in your head—ever again.
I wrote this book so we can talk about these inequalities and experiences out loud. You are more than just some cute little saying like Black Girl Magic—you are so much more, and I hope you are already starting to realize that.
Oh, and before I forget. I wanted to tell you how to get the most out of reading or listening toYou Are More Than Magic. As you might have already noticed, I’ve included “Quick Q’s” to help you pause and marinate on some of the experiences I’ve shared with you and to help you reflect on your own. Also, at the end of each chapter is a section called “Show Me What You’re Workin’ With.” This is a list of questions to help you navigate difficult situations you might be experiencing now or in the future.
And as you can see, I have already started opening up to you, so I hope you will open up to yourself when you get to this section and don’t skip over it. Asking yourself the tough questions is part of standing in your brilliance. What you can confront, you can conquer! And you can conquer it all.
This book was written in a style that makes you feel like we are hanging out on a Friday night, chatting it up over some of our favorite snacks, while digging into life as we know it. And, because I got your back, there are resources at the end of this book for the adults in your life to help them be your best advocates and champions. So, without further ado—I will see you over in Chapter Two so we can get this slumber party started.
Copyright © 2022 by Minda Harts. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.