Growing up in a mid-sized Kentucky suburb, I got used to being one of the only black kids in most of my classes. It was a common occurrence to catch other black kids mouthing numbers as they counted exactly how many of us there were in our 2,000-student school. I don't think there were more than 50.
Likewise, Black History Month was always torturous. Not because the subject matter wasn't interesting. Because being the only black person in your class means you are often asked to be the voice of your entire race. Could I shed some light on the civil rights movement for the class? Did I know what plantation my enslaved ancestors lived on? Would I like to read the slave narrative to the class? The experience was stressful at best; horrifically obtuse and intrusive at worst.
Finally, my junior year, I got fed up. On St. Patrick's Day — after another exhausting Black History Month of pulling double duty as a teacher and student — I decided to make a funny shirt that celebrated my blackness in an overwhelmingly white environment. If I was going to be subjected to eighty million questions because my teachers weren't educated on my history, they'd have to be subjected to my unabashed pride in my heritage. I got myself some puffy paint and created a masterpiece.
(Unfortunately I don't have an image of the entire shirt, but underneath the heart are the words "I'M BLACK.")
I was nervous about wearing the shirt to school, mostly because standing out is really not what most high schoolers want to do, and I was proclaiming something my skin did already, but proudly. I didn't need the approval of everyone, I had my own.
The first half of the day was fine. But then a teacher kept reading the shirt aloud as "Kiss Me I'm Irish." Intentionally. Because… I actually don't know why. It was obviously racially motivated, but I still don't get why an educator would pretend to be illiterate.
After a long day of high fives and kids telling me either how much they loved it — or hearing kids whispering hateful stuff about it to one other, my principal took me aside.
"If you wear that shirt in this school again you're getting suspended." he said firmly.
"Because it's offensive and not everyone can wear one!" He was yelling at this point.
"But everyone wears 'Kiss Me I'm Irish' shirts and none of them get suspended!" I was yelling back.
"Don't wear it again."
I was livid. The audacity! It was one thing to be miffed about the shirt and complain in the teachers lounge; it was quite another to threaten disciplinary action against me, an honors student, that could inform my ability to get into undergraduate programs or participate in extra curricular activities.
When I told my mother that evening, she was just as pissed. Since my mother had worked in education for 20 years and had friends at the Cincinnati Enquirer, it didn't take long to get a story together. When the newspaper asked the principal for a comment, he declined. My mother made sure I wore that shirt at least once a week for the rest of the year.
These sorts of micro aggressions — whereby no one's screaming that they hate black people, but they're upset that people of color acknowledge their difference in a way that isn't self-depricating — are incredibly common. You can be proud of being Irish on St. Patrick's Day — or play at being Irish on St. Patrick's Day — but in my world, there was no fun celebration of black people. The experience of wearing the shirt gave me the perspective I desperately lacked in terms of black history: Was our history just a thing of the past? Was civil rights over? Does legislation end racism?
No. Obviously not.
It's 11 years later, and that T-shirt experience has stayed on my mind. Recently, I asked the unbelievably talented hand-lettering artist, Jen Mussari, to help me design a better, more gender-neutral version of the shirt. I'm proudly wearing it on this St. Patrick's Day:
The shirts are available here.
At face value, it's just a T-shirt, but the reaction it gets is immeasurable. Everyone claims to be a little Irish on St. Patrick's Day, but I'm black every day, and I'm so proud.
Akilah Hughes is a comedian, YouTuber, and staff writer and producer for Fusion's culture section. You can almost always find her waxing poetic about memes and using too many emojis. 🍕