I remember the very first day I got my violin after weeks of constantly begging my mom to let me play the cello.
“It’s just too big — we’ll never be able to carry it back and forth,” she said. “Why don’t you try the violin?”
After about another hour of trying to explain to her that the violin was too small to contain all my musical talent, she eventually won me over with the promise of ice cream. Still reeling from my compromise (or as I called it back then, “defeat”), I went to school the next morning still excited to receive an actual instrument and be free from my recorder-induced “Ode to Joy” hell.
I remember how shiny and black the cases were. If I looked into them for long enough, I could see my future as the greatest violinist to ever walk the earth (take that, Tchaikovsky). After the school year was up, my mom noticed my dedication to the violin and decided that I had proved myself enough for her to pay for private lessons. After speaking to some of the parents on the playground, she found a teacher who was willing to take on new students, and I was the happiest fifth-grader, ready to fulfill my prophesied achievements. I remember those classes being the best parts of elementary school, and every week I looked forward to going back.
After a couple of months of building my proficiency, my teacher told me her student showcase was coming and that it was time for me to pick the piece I wanted to perform. You literally could not have told me anything after that: I was officially a real violinist! We scavenged through each piece I had learned and played them one by one to find the one I had mastered. After we got it sorted, those weeks leading up to the showcase felt like one long, agonizing blur.
The day finally came, but that morning felt like it took a million years. My outfit was laid out on the bed from the night before, and I annoyingly walked back and forth in front of my parents’ room waiting for my mom to come do my hair. Three hours later, we were finally in the car for what seemed like all of five seconds before we arrived at the door to the recital.
As we opened the door, all of my excitement quickly gave way and turned into anxiety. I looked up at my mom, and her normally olive skin was now a light shade of red — not an easy feat for a face spotted with freckles. We didn’t say anything, but we knew: We were the only two people of color in the room of more than 50 people in one of the most diverse cities in the country. That was the first time I experienced being the only Black kid in the room, but I soon learned it would not be my last.
I continued to play into high school, but I had the same experiences outside of music lessons. While taking AP and honors classes, my sister and I would come home and trade stories about how the teachers would awkwardly stare in our directions after reading the N-word, or how the whole class would turn in our direction when our teacher proposed a question that had anything remotely to do with race.
Even when we didn’t have an answer, teachers would coax a statement out of us. Each time it happened, we would exchange looks with the one other Black kid in the class: Why do they keep asking us? Like hello, we’re just students — we’re learning, too! But we were the only Black kids in the classroom, and everyone knew it. We were their only source for a Black perspective outside of the white homogeneity of the classroom. After all, we were real, breathing, Black people! Looking back, I think they meant well — but those good intentions only ever made us feel like experiments. Like we were the outsiders that got lucky enough to be included, the prize tokens.
But if this was luck, they can keep it. There is no good reason for there to be only one Black kid at a violin recital or in an AP class of 30. Access to programs such as AP classes, violin lessons and general advanced academic programs is severely limited for BIPOC students — and when you pull back the veil of tokenism, it exemplifies racism to its core.
To be the only Black person in an academic space shows the ugly reality of “diversity” without proper inclusion — it’s a facade, an empty perfunctory gesture. It is not because Black students lack the drive or talent, but because the proper resources are not allocated to make up for inequity whose historical roots lie in unaddressed structural racism. Creating and participating in clubs that harbor and prioritize Black students in white spaces has been one of my focuses in college, and it makes an otherwise lonely experience more normal. But inclusion cannot — and should not — stop there, nor should it be the job of students.
At the start of my freshman year in college, I remember standing in front of the door of my first class, just as I had done at the beginning of my recital. Being the only Black person in the room never made me feel special — I only felt alone. As I sat down, I scanned the room with shameless hope, and just like that, we locked eyes. I quickly switched seats.
Savon Bardell writes the Friday column on the experience of being a Black student at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]