- Defining Black Identity (Coming of Age at PWI’s)
Lika Mezier’s life began in Baltimore, Maryland. After her father’s work started an office on the west coast, she eventually found herself living in the suburbs of Southern California. She grew up in areas such as Ontario and Chino Hills, and vividly recalls being one of the only three family of color living in her neighbourhood.
“I grew up in the cities of Ontario and Chino, which would be considered suburban, middle class, predominantly white, neighbourhoods. We were literally one of the three black families living in our neighbourhood complex. I vaguely recall us living across from a Latin American family, but as far as people of color being a part of the community, that was pretty much just us. Because of that, the schools I attended growing up were also predominantly white.”
For a long time, Lika didn’t pay any mind to the fact that she was the only black person in most of her classes. She tells me that it wasn’t until she was in sixth grade that she realized that she was black. While most would interpret this declaration as incredulously naive, it happens to be a very common experience for most black American children. For some, it was the Black Birds and the Bees talk, in which your parents warn you about the necessary vigilance you need to have existing as a black body. For some, it was watching the tragic unfolding of the Trayvon Martin case. For Lika, it was when she was cheering on her boyfriend and his friend Troy during a basketball game, and Troy turned around to call her a “stupid white bitch.” Once returning home she told her father about what happened. After listening he asked her questions such as who said this, and where they were from. Troy was from Compton, and while that didn’t mean much to Lika, her father was able to explain the situation to the best of his ability.
“He went on to explain that the way I speak, the way I’ve been educated, and the schools I’ve been in, are completely different from what people experience in Tony’s neighbourhood. I didn’t realize that not everyone that looks like me didn’t have the same experiences growing up. That’s when I became conscious of the fact that I was black. From that point on, I started noticing that I was the only black kid in a lot of my classes.”
Moving forward, this upbringing continued to color her experience of her blackness differently than it did for her black peers at USC. At USC, Lika was an active member of her community. She was a member of Sigma Gamma Rho, an eager jazz vocal member, and the president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC).
“I knew that I wanted to explore my blackness a lot more. I wanted to spend more time with black people, I wanted to do more black things.”
In regards to the divide she felt amongst her and her peers, taking a leadership position within the NPHC was a significant experience for her. The NPHC is defined as a collaborative organization of nine historically African American Greek lettered sororities and fraternities. She was ultimately their voice. As she continued to list incidents in which she disagreed with her “constituents”, but still had to present their concerns to the USC staff, she comes to a realization that while she never lost sleep over this difference of opinion, it’s always been something that has stuck out in her mind.
“Am I not experiencing this place the same way that other people that look like me are?”
From this point, we pivoted to the idea of listening with raw openness, a concept that we explored thoroughly in class. Because of Lika’s diverse upbringing, and her privilege to exist within spaces very similar to USC, she found that she was able to have these difficult conversations regarding identity and politics significantly easier than the rest of her peers. She makes a joke, claiming that growing up her father told her “The three topics you should never bring up to your friends are religion, politics, and race”, and those happen to be the main three things she’s more than willing to discuss with people from all walks of life.
In Towards A New Vision, Patricia Hill Collins briefly explores this privilege. She states, “None of us alone has a comprehensive vision of how race, class, and gender operate as categories of analysis or how they may be used a categories of connection. Our personal biographies offer us partial views” (Collins 82). Because of this exact idea, and the fact that Lika’s personal biography permitted her to understand people different from her on a deeper level, she finds that now she is comfortable with these dialogues.
II. Importance of Education
After leaving USC, Lika took on several jobs. She had an extensive career at USC after graduating as an administrator within the school of music. She left that job to pursue makeup and skincare artistry with MaryKay Cosmetics. Due to some anxiety she had regarding financial stability, she also picked up a few additional jobs. She drives for GrubHub, and also picked up a temp job at USC within their educational partnership office. As time passed, she grew an attachment to the program she was working with. The program is Kinder2College, an academic enrichment program that takes place on Saturdays that aims to help children, typically boys of color, who have deficiencies in reading and literacy, from kindergarten to fifth grade. For girls in this program, they recently started introducing them to STEM subjects.
Kinder2College is a sister program to what is called the Neighbourhood Academic Initiative (NAI), which essentially college prep for middle schools and high schools. In lowers grades we just do tutoring and things of that nature, but once they reach 10th grade there’s a focus on prepping for the PSAT, 11th grade for the SAT and ACT, and 12th grade basically teaching both the students and their families how to either be or support a college bound student. The program Lika works with is used to jumpstart those initiatives.
When it comes to both the achievement and opportunity gaps, these divides begin as soon as these children begin their educational journeys. A factor that a lot of people actually overlook is the issue of literacy with young boys of color. Due to differences in class privilege, some parents are able to afford getting their children started in pre-school, or are involved enough in their children’s academic lives to know they need tutors early on. These privileges are not extended to all children starting in kindergarten.
“We opted to start them at kindergarten, and also start prepping their parents at that stage. This is because what we also found is that if the kid is doing well in school, but goes home and doesn’t have any support, then they are more likely to have a more indifferent attitude towards academics and at the same time stunt their own growth. This is why we’re trying to support the parents as well as the scholars.”
In addition to that, she mentioned something that I wasn’t aware of:
“…what studies have proven is that if a child cannot read at grade level by the time they take their first standardized test, which is I think at around 3rd grade, the statistics show that they most likely will not read at grade level moving forward, and will most likely end up with a career in crime. Therefore, prison administrators are looking at 3rd graders test scores and planning prison cells for when they are older. So, with that information in our back pocket, instead of letting said prison administrators take those statistics and plan for them to go to jail, we said “Ok. Well if it’s happening around 3rd grade, then we need to address those literacy issues at the kindergarten to 3rd grade level.” That’s how this program came to be seven years ago.”
As we continued to discuss this, Lika revealed to me that her inclination to commit her time to this service, or any service, was because of what her experience with the leaders at Sigma Gamma Rho molded her into. She told me that difference between the black sororities and the white sororities at USC was how they approached service. While Sigma Gamma Rho forced them to be a part of the action, the other sororities she knew of took a philanthropic approach of raising money, and just donating it to a cause of their choice. Even though some may disagree, and I was unable to find out if there was any validity to this claim, I was still able to get a more holistic understanding of the significance of black Greek Life.
My interview with Lika took several turns, and our four hour conversation spanned such a wide variety of topics, from Beyonce’s HOMECOMING, to Black Panther (2018), to respectability politics and reality TV. But the most important part was when she shared with me how she defines sisterhood. She said:
“When you think about your blood sisters, you fight, but you know you’ll love eachother the next day. That’s how we need to treat our sisters in real life. And that’s what I believe makes sister as powerful as bell hooks might say.”
I felt challenged by this stance. As someone who has been comfortable in all black spaces for so long, I found that she was what finally provoked me to be more open with my heart, and open to changing my views. It’s comforting to know that USC’s black community has such a gem in their possession.