Masks*

by Anthony Docanto

Staring into the mirror half asleep, I put on my sky blue Tommy Hilfiger pants, Ralph Lauren collared shirt, Sperrys, and a tie. “Proper attire” for a prep school kid. But it’s truly upsetting when you can’t recognize yourself in a mirror. Hidden behind a mask, I make my way out of my neighborhood, past the pizza joints, Hispanic bodegas, liquor stores, project housing, and barbershops. As peaceful as it is on a school morning—and as frightening as it is on a summer night—I wouldn’t change my short walk from my house to the Fields Corner Train Station. Something amazing happens: I transport to another world. After two quick stops, I arrive in another universe. Technically, I’m still in Dorchester, but BC High—a school where most of the students look nothing like me, come from towns I couldn’t pronounce and different socioeconomic backgrounds—is nothing like the Dorchester I call home. Every morning for four years I walked through the school doors with a big smile, a disguise for all the agony, anger, and fear I kept congested inside of me.

I didn’t always have to hide behind a mask. Like most of my black classmates, I struggled with the transition to BC High. We came from very homogeneous communities, where everyone looked the same and had similar backgrounds. Never had we been put in a position to make white friends. It’s human nature to make friends with people with similar interests and upbringings and we often stuck together in fear that our white counterparts would never accept us. This is called survival.

Unconsciously, I began to change my behavior, my mannerisms, and my attire. I remember nervously asking my mother to buy me my first pair of Sperrys and salmon shorts.. She was shocked not only by my desire to change my style completely, but also by the price she had to pay. It was the cost of trying to fit in with everyone else at school. Ironically, at a school where we were taught to be ourselves, everyone was the same.

No matter how much I decorated my mask, unfortunately, I was still the poor kid from the dangerous streets of Dorchester. My sole purpose at school was to “fill a diversity requirement.” With my mask on, they couldn’t see the face of a student who couldn’t be more excited to get up every morning and go to school. A student willing to grasp every opportunity handed to him at school because of the lack of opportunity back home. In Dorchester, I feared being tangled up with the local gangs, the easily accessible street drugs, and law enforcement though I never engaged with illegal activities. It is a burden I carry everyday. I never asked for this lifestyle, nor did I want it. I was born into it. Living in Dorchester is like being at a casino. The game is very tempting to play, but the odds are always stacked against you. The system encourages you to play the game by tempting you with false tantalizing rewards, but, is the game worth losing everything you’ve worked for your entire life? My white classmates would never understand this dilemma; their lives seemed too perfect to relate to mine.

Because I spent too much time trying to be someone I wasn’t, my first year of high school was rough. But I gained confidence from upperclassmen who had fought the same war and encouraged me to break free from the chains that held me back from expressing myself freely both inside and outside the classroom. I had to embrace myself in order to enjoy myself. This new confidence convinced me that it was safe enough to get rid of my mask.

I was wrong.

Being outspoken angered my classmates. They strongly disagreed with beliefs so different from theirs. Now that I was no longer afraid to speak the truth, some students began to look at me differently. My assumptions became true when one of my closest friends told me what he heard on class field trip with kids on the hockey team. The following day we were sitting at the lunch table. It was a dark, gloomy and cloudy day. In the middle of our usual conversation about sports, he said, “Yo AD, these white kids hate you, they think you hate white people.”

I was devastated. My heart sunk to my stomach, a chill ran down my back, my soul soon reflected the weather outside. Being pro-black doesn’t mean being anti-white—they unfairly assassinated my character. There was no hope. My white classmates would never accept me, with or without my mask.

However, I honestly didn’t know how to interact with white people and, sadly, all my prior experiences had been negative. I didn’t help myself and never gave them the opportunity to understand me. Growing up in a minority community in Dorchester, I had the ideology that all white people were inherently conservative, racist, and unwilling to understand the struggles of being African-American in the United States. Because of these beliefs, I did hate white people.

This ideology came from a lack of experience and a lack of an open mind. A small dark box prevented me from breaking out of my comfort zone in high school. A social wall built by society and prejudice prevented us from coming together to find common ground. To my own fault, I never attempted to break down this wall either. Confining myself to friends who looked like me and sitting at the “black kid’s lunch table” only helped reinforce the foundation of this wall.

I made it my mission to make white friends before leaving BC High. I believed the only way to do this was by wearing my mask, so it was back to colorful shorts and Sperrys. But I began making new friends, friends I loved being around even without my mask. I trusted them enough to be vulnerable with because they did not correspond to any of the prejudices and misconceptions that I had about white people. They were genuine people who were open-minded. Unfortunately, my newfound respect for these new friends was tough to swallow for friends back home. They labeled me a “sell-out.” In their eyes, I abandoned them and no longer wanted to be friends. They hated the way I dressed and the way I “talked white.” Whatever that means.

Suddenly, I found myself lost in two worlds, not knowing where to go or who I was. Being “too black for the white kids, and too white for my black friends,” I now bore the weight of two masks: one that I wore at school, and one I wore at home. Struggling to please everyone in both environments, I did not realize that in order to please others I first had to be at ease with myself.

High school gave me an environment where I grew to appreciate both communities: home and school. By wearing a mask at school, I degraded myself. I strived to connect with my classmates but never actually gave myself, the real me, the chance to fit in because I was preoccupied being someone else. Now, I see how childish I was for believing that wearing sky blue pants would make me feel more comfortable and accepted at school.

The most valuable lesson I learned at BC High was that being myself meant being happy regardless of what others thought. The decision to wear Sperrys had to be my decision, not the influence of others. I learned never to forget my roots and background and that I never had to. With the mask worn at school, I tried to hide the person who was raised in Dorchester with values and morals. By wearing a mask at home, I rejected everything I came to value because of my experience at BC High. Understanding that my background and community made me the person I am today, I’ve begun shamelessly to accept and appreciate where I’m from and show my true colors. I grew only when I threw away both of my masks.

I recommend you throw away yours, too.