I’ve known Tyler Ivester’s dad, Kevin, since we went to the same elementary school, and then on to high school together in Waterbury, Connecticut. Wilby High, in the late 1970’s had a student body that was 40% black, about 10% Hispanic, and 50% white. Kevin and I shared a few classes together over the years, and when we’d see each other dashing through the hallways in between class, it never failed that Kevin would shout out, “hey white girl!”, and I’d return back with, “hey, black boy!” and if we were running up three sets of stairs together to get to English class, we’d repeat our greetings over and over until we reached our destination. It was our thing, our casual term of endearment for one another.
At our 20th high school reunion, Kevin and his wife, April Ivester and I reconnected. Kevin wore a photo button of his then toddler son, Tyler on his lapel, and all he could do was share about how much he loved him. It was evident in his and April’s faces how much they did, and through the magic of social media I’ve kept in touch with Kevin, and he’s kept me informed of all of Tyler’s achievements over the years. He’s sent me cd’s of Tyler’s school jazz band performances and even a DVD of Tyler performing in his high school’s theater rendition of Beauty and the Beast. Through photos and postings, I’ve also learned about Tyler’s enormous academic successes. And it never feels like bragging–it’s simply clear that Kevin and April continually nurture Tyler’s growth, and are proud of all that he is doing with his life when he is still so young. Of course, they also share about what a mensch Tyler is (Yiddish word for honor and integrity), because academic and artistic success isn’t worth much if you’re not a good person.
The latest piece of work of Tyler’s that Kevin sent me a few weeks ago, was a speech titled, More Than What Society Expects, which Tyler wrote for a Senior Speech class requirement at Maloney High School in Meriden, CT. When I read it, I was blown away by Tyler’s self-awareness and insights into how we all pre-judge, label and set our expectations on people based on appearances that I knew I had to share it here. I’ve been wanting to share younger voices who speak on race and race relations, instead of simply seeing it through my and others closer to my age who lived through the civil rights era.
Tyler will be attending Boston University this fall with a double major in Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering. He was generous enough to allow me to publish his speech, and to answer a few questions I had for him after reading it. Please enjoy reading, More Than What Society Expects, and then be sure to read the Q and A that follows.
More Than What Society Expects
by Tyler Ivester
Labels. And just in case you didn’t quite hear me the first time, yes I did say labels. I’m not talking about the labels that you can find on every food product sold at the local supermarket, or the labels found on furniture and décor to let you know the brand and where it was made. The labels I speak of are the labels that we place on people to decide who they are and what they will become from nothing more than a glance; from assumptions based on how they look. How would you feel if I went up to you and said, “Hey, there’s a chance that you could turn out to be the world’s smartest, kindest, and funniest person. But you’re white, you’re blonde, and you have blue eyes,” or “You’re a tall, African-American man, and that’s all society will ever see you as. Society sees you as a ditzy, dumb, typical blonde white girl or it’s assumed that because you’re a tall African-American, you’re a basketball player who probably doesn’t dress well and who speaks poorly.” Think about that, and think about how often society uses stereotypes to label us and group every person into a different category. Think about how often these labels prohibit us from growing as individuals and as a society.
I want to elaborate on something I mentioned earlier; every food product has a label. These labels tell us what the product is, whether it be fat free Oreos, reduced fat Wheat Thins, sugar-free gum, and so on. All of these labels are displayed clearly so that we know what we’re buying without thinking too much about it, but that’s the problem. We only read what we can clearly see and we base our judgments on what to buy based on the obvious things. We never read the fine print, that long list of ingredients located by (or near) the nutrition facts. It’s too much work. Why bother when we can make all of our decisions based on what’s obvious? The same concept holds true for our interactions with others.As with food products, we make our decisions based on the packing, the superficial qualities of a person: skin color, hair color, eye color, height, weight, and much more. We don’t take the time to examine the “ingredients” that make up each person. Everything we see with just one glance is part of the label that we apply to a person. We label them as African-American or white, tall or short, skinny or fat, blonde or ginger, handsome or ugly, pretty or sexy, and from those few details alone we envision everything we expect them to be. It’s easy for any one of us to see a pretty, white, teenage girl and assume that she’s preppy, popular, and rich. And it’s easy to assume that the African-American man whom we met while walking to school is a star athlete who loves rap music and cannot speak proper English. Likewise, t’s easy to assume that any Asian we meet is a super genius whose parents only care about grades and work. And it’s easy to assume that the guy who hangs out with a bunch of girls and acts a tad feminine is gay. My point here is that assumptions are all too easy to make; it’s easy to label people without knowing them.
The danger here is that the moment that you label someone, you’ve already set your expectations for them. You’ve created an image in your mind of what they must be like, and everything that’s in store for them in the future. My guess is that there are plenty of people in this room who were told they couldn’t do something because of their race,their gender identification, their financial situation, or whatever else they may be, but rarely because of who they are. For example, before I was even born, I know for a fact that there were people in my family who said I wouldn’t amount to much, that I would be ugly and stupid and many other negative things, and what was the reason? I was going to be a biracial child.Similarly, Rosa Parks was told she couldn’t sit in the front of the bus because she was black. Women were told they had no place in the military; their place was at home, and they belonged to their husbands. However, women are now active members of the military, independent, and working in many places outside of the home; Rosa Parks sat where she wanted and never gave up that seat; and I myself am rising above the expectations that some of my family members had of me. Expectations are meant to be met and surpassed, and this should especially be the case in a society where others’ expectations do not accurately reflect our actual potential.However, the reality is quite different.
In part, this is because even when we are aware of the expectations that come with our labels, this awareness is never enough. For instance, I try my hardest to excel at everything I do, and always go above and beyond. But for some people, it’s still funny to crack jokes about my race. I’ve been told countless times that I’m not the “average black man.” Translation: I don’t know how to swim; I love watermelon, Kool-Aid, and fried chicken; and I speak substandard English, Black English vernacular, or what some might call “ghetto.” I would like to take this opportunity to point out that I hate watermelon, I love to swim, Kool-Aid and fried chicken aren’t my favorite meals—I prefer ham and scalloped potatoes, thank you!—and I speak proper English with correct grammar and sentence structure and, yes, I’m still African-American. I would also like to point out that there are plenty of other people like me, people who don’t fit the “African-American” label. People like these “average black men”: Martin Luther King, President Obama, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Steve Harvey, and Morgan Freeman.
Aside from my preferences, there are other reasons why I am not considered the “average black man.” Someone once said to me in an argument about white chocolate, “You’re not real chocolate either, but you don’t see any of us complaining about that.” Now at first I wasn’t offended, for I’m used to the racial jokes. In fact, I was never offended because I just laughed,because it’s ridiculous to imagine that being two different races means that I’m not allowed to take pride in being either one.No one expects me to be me; instead, they expect me to be a mix of white and black, in order to come up with—I don’t know—gray? But that’s ridiculous, because there is no “mix” involved. I am half-white and half-African-American, and I’m proud of my double heritage. I feel no need to “mix” my cultures or to choose one over the other. And if I don’t need to label myself, I surely don’t need anyone else to do it for me, especially because labels hold all of us back, labeler and labeled alike.
I know this from a personal standpoint but I urge you to think about it from a societal standpoint.. All of the racial jokes, all of the stereotypes, all of the labels, impede our progress. We live in a society where we think it’s permissible to tell someone what they’re allowed to become based on what we can see about them. We tell our students to try their hardest and follow their dreams, but as we tell them to do that we also tell them what their dreams have to be. Not all African-American students should be expected to be star athletes or “gangstas.” Not all Asian students should be expected to become the world’s next leading scientist or a take-out deliverer. Not all white students should be expected to be the next CEO of a company.Not all Hispanic students should be expected to be minimum-wage workers. Every student, every person should be expected to be whatever he or she wants to be. No labels. It’s not fair to all of us to hold back any one of us simply because society expects us to be what we’re not. Actress Raven Symone—of That’s so Raven and The Cheetah Girls fame— once said that she doesn’t like labels.She considers herself to be a human being who loves other human beings; she’s not African-American and she’s not lesbian—she’s simply Raven Symone. Following her lead, I encourage you to be a human being who sees others as human beings.Change the expectations that society has for you. Strive to be the next Sonia Sotomayor, the next Ella Fitzgerald, the next Jackie Robinson, the next anyone. Rip off the labels so that a person has to learn through firsthand experience that long list of ingredients that, uniquely combined, make up the product that is you. Thank you.
Q & A WITH TYLER IVESTER
Wendy Jane: Your parents have always taken so much pride in both your academic and artistic achievements, and you as a person. What impact did they have on you and your motivation to shine and succeed in academics and the arts? What attracted you to music and acting?
Tyler: My parents are my biggest motivators. Though they never helped me with any of my academics or music abilities, their support was enough. They have attended nearly every event I’ve been a part of and they consistently tell me how proud they are. So I try my hardest to improve and do my best to consistently give them more to talk about because I know that that’s what makes them the happiest. Without their love and support, and yes that includes finances, I would definitely not be the person I am today. My mother has taught be so many things that I cannot not enumerate the amount and my dad has always be a rock in my life, a sort of anchor that holds me steady when I begin to stray away from who I am. Together, they have managed to help me to develop into the being I consider myself to be: intelligent, passionate, compassionate, sincere, and thoroughly genuine.
Music came to me out of nowhere. At Thomas Hooker Elementary in Meriden, they offered the opportunity to take music classes. I thought that the Flute sounded cool and from their my music career took off. Since then, there has never been a time where I’ve regretted making that decision. Music has always been a part of me, and because of that I have been a member of Regional and All-State Choirs and bands, I can play Flute, Tenor/Alto Saxophone, Clarinet, Piano (somewhat), and Marimba-type instruments (again somewhat). In addition, I am Vice President of Choir, Flute Section Leader, Lead Saxophone in Jazz Band, Leader of Flute Choir, Head of Spartan’s Sound (Men’s A Capella), and a member of the Tri-M Music Honor Society. As for acting, it all began in 8th grade when I decided to audition for the drama club’s musical because the middle school hadn’t had a drama club in years. I auditioned for a very small part because I thought it sounded cool, but I somehow managed to be casted as the lead and from there I loved the feeling of being in the spotlight on stage. Because of my love for theater, I am now a member of the International Thespian Society, the honor society for theater students, and I am both a Scholar Thespian and an Honor Thespian.
Wendy Jane: When someone cracks a racial joke in your presence now, what is your usual response?
Tyler: As for racial jokes, they at first didn’t bother me. I would laugh simply because I knew my friends were only kidding and meant no harm by it. However, they have grown rather old and they annoy me now because they are becoming increasingly offensive. So when those jokes are made around me, I do bring it up with my friends and I happily correct them and they don’t mind at all. They in fact like that I’m honest.
Wendy Jane: When you feel like someone, whether a peer, teacher, store clerk, etc. is labeling or pre-judging you and your potential, even if they don’t say anything directly to you, how does that make you feel? Does it fuel your desire to show them you’re not who they think you are, or do you not change your behavior, or care what others think?
Tyler: In a situation where I feel as though someone is judging, I will admit that I feel smaller. Racism and labels do exist, and they are not going away any time soon, unfortunately. But when I am in this situation, I do indeed feel small. I feel as though I have to monitor my actions just to keep off their radar. However, as I’ve grown, that smallness is beginning to fade. Instead, when someone judges me for who I am without first knowing me, it only makes me, what my friend’s call, sassier. Instead of accommodating to their image of me, I just show off who I am even more because I do not let anyone decide the kind of person I am. However, I am not rude or invasive when I do so, I am respectful. If the problem were to continue then I simply bring it up with the person and try to understand why they feel the way they do, because it doesn’t benefit me to judge them either, it only makes the problem worse. However, I hope that by being myself, I can show that person that I’m not who they thought I was, I am my own person.
Wendy Jane: I see your posts on Facebook, and they always seem optimistic in their tone. What is your outlook on life? What defines success to you?
Tyler: Life is short. This year in Environmental Science I’ve learned that life isn’t as expansive and grand as we think it is. In the grand scheme of things, our lifetimes are like individual letters in a 5-page essay, or a grain of sand at the beach. 100 years is nothing compared to billions. However, I do not let this make me a pessimistic person. Instead, I’ve made it my goal to make my life as meaningful as possible, so that even if my life is as short as the letter ‘n’ in an essay, it sticks out because it’s different and looks like this: ñ. I aim to make my life meaningful by changing other people’s lives. I’ve made so many friends, and I’ve helped a lot of people and nothing brings me greater joy than to see smiles on their faces and the relief that they feel when they know they have someone they can depend on.
Success/Excellence: “Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” – Aristotle
Success is the result of hard-work.
Wendy Jane: What is your dream for your future? What are some things you want to accomplish?
Tyler: My dream for the future is to first graduate with my degree in Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering, however I am unsure of Graduate School. I am interested law, because I could do Engineering Law. I’m also interested in medicine, and Biomedical Engineering helps with a pre-med track. However, I also want to get a degree in Acoustical Engineering so that I can work in and design buildings with great acoustics as well as studios and theaters, this way I can continue with my music. However, one dream I really want to achieve is a dream that three of my closest friends and I came up with. Our dream is to live together in New York City (In a Penthouse), and live out our dreams together, being in the city of opportunities and our beloved Broadway. We want to be close by to Broadway so that we can go to shows or audition when we want while still living out our dreams and being the best of friends. That’s one dream I am determined to accomplish.
Wendy Jane: I like how you say we are all part of the human race, and I don’t think you mean it in a “let’s all be color blind” kind of way because you say how you are proud of both of your heritages. Are you optimistic about the future and our ability to do away with labelling one another?
I am indeed optimistic about the future. I do not believe that we should be “color blind” and treat everyone the same in that aspect. I believe the key to achieving a society without labels is simply acceptance that though we may be of different cultures, religions, backgrounds etc, we are all born from the same roots. We are all connected. No race or religion is superior to another and everyone deserves the right to be the person they want to be so long as they are alive on this planet. The best way to start is small, so if each person were to try and change the outlooks in their community or their friend group, then those people would continue that trend. I believe another important factor is influencing small children to be accepting from a young age. We already see children get along so well without even realizing it, so adults could easily learn from this. But otherwise, I am very optimistic.