Helen Wamey, 16

“I want people to know that there’s more behind the mask. Often times I have to act harder than I really am. I’m actually a pretty sensitive person.”

Feeling different and singled-out is nothing new for 16-year old Helen Wamey. When she was the only black student in her grade after switching from a public elementary school to a private middle school, “it was a culture shock,” she remembers. “In middle school, you’re a kid, you’re trying to figure out who you are, but you want to fit in and look like everyone else.”

Helen couldn’t relate to her school friends when they would talk about their hair or began to share make-up with one another. She started to feel self-conscious about her own looks – her nose, her lips – and tried to conform by straightening her hair. She began buying things that her white friends had, even if she didn’t necessarily want them. These changes eventually caused tensions at home: “My mom, who is from Cameroon, wasn’t used to seeing me like this. She didn’t understand what was going on with me.” More and more, Helen felt the need to change or hide parts of herself, an experience often felt by many children of immigrants. “I felt like I had to ignore my culture because I thought it would make me look less different, be less different.”

It wasn’t until her sophomore year of high school when Helen became friends with other black students. “It was nice to be with other people who had gone through similar things as I had, who knew what it felt like. I felt less alone. When you’re black, it’s not that you only have to be friends with other black people, but it’s good to have them close to you in your life.”

Still, being one of only a few black students at a predominantly white school, Helen doesn’t always feel like she can truly be herself. “I can’t be ‘too black’ at school,” she explains. “Sometimes that means not trying a new hairstyle that I like. But I also don’t want to be accused of being ‘whitewashed’. So then I feel like I don’t belong anywhere.” Helen often feels the need to code-switch, and “it’s exhausting.”  When she has experienced racism, usually in the form of slurs, comments on social media, or ignorant sentiments expressed in the classroom, Helen says “You can’t even react because if you do, they call you crazy or over-dramatic because that’s how people stereotype black women. You have to learn to hold your tongue. I have to do this to protect myself. It’s hard to be like that all the time. When can I just breathe for a second?”

Helen finds she can let go and be most herself when she is with her family. “My mom is so strong,” she says emphatically. Helen relies on her cousins, aunts, and uncles, almost all of whom lived with her at one point when they arrived in the United States. “I think I’m closer to my cousins than the average person. We are all super close. Maybe it’s a Cameroon thing, I don’t know,” she smiles. “In my family, in our culture, these bonds will never be broken.”

“If I could change one thing in our society, I would make everyone just get along with one another, be a little kinder, and have a little empathy,” she shares. “As for myself, I’m learning to become more confident in my skin and embrace who I am as a black woman, and I want to be an example for younger girls.”

8 comments

  1. Thank you Helen. You said it all. I am very proud to be a black woman. You inspire so many young girls in our society at this time. Keep up your heart desires and God will lead and bless you in all you do to promote our and built our society. Be a Mentor,a true leader. You are blessed with a gift and l see you making use of it.👏👏👏👏🙏🙏🙏🙏

  2. Reading your stories sends chills down my spine, because my daughter faces this everyday. Thanks for being such a role model to her. Love u loads girl. May God keep us strong.

  3. Wow, Helen you have put in words what most of us felt like at some point in our lives here in the US. Your mother and I grew up in Cameroon and hardly ever thought about the color of our skin which is what life should be like. No one should ever be reminded of the color their skin bears and even so there should not be anything negative about our skin tones at all as we are all created equal to the eyes of God. This is so beautiful and courageous of you to be able to express yourself and be a role model for other young girls going through this. If it is okay with you, I will share this with my daughter who is in middle school and has had similar experiences. May the Lord watch and guide your steps as you grow into the woman He has ordained you to be!🙏

  4. You are a true inspiration. As one who grew up in Cameroon, these are issues I did not face at your age, but as a mom it gives me insight as to what my own children experience. Being around family or any one who sees you for who you are and shows you that they value you, makes a huge difference. I see you Helen, Bawak! You are a wonderful young woman, a great example and have always been. God bless you.

  5. Helen Bawak Baweezy, You make me a very proud aunty!!!
    You have summarized your thoughts on paper so very well. I hope and pray that through this medium, other girls your age and younger and all those who are going through such as you have described will know they are not alone.
    We will always be there for you
    Bravo

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