A Grade 12 student encouraged her peers to use their voices by sharing how she found hers, during her speech at this year’s annual Harmony Day.
Keneisha Charles, a Grade 12 student at Rutland Senior Secondary, spoke about her journey to feeling confident with her identity as a black LGBTQ+ woman during the annual event, held Wednesday at Hollywood Road Educational Services centre. This year’s theme centred around identity.
When Charles was in Grade 9, she was asked “what are you?” by a classmate and was unable to answer, feeling she didn’t have a voice.
“My silence was largest due to the fact of the influences in my life mainly movies, TV shows, media, books,” she said.
She said only a small portion of women fill speaking roles in movies, and ethnic minorities make up even less of lead roles.
“How many times have you seen something where a high school character was definitely too old to be in high school?” she asked her audience of middle school students.
She said white, male privilege is the reason why diversity is limited.
“Inequality because of privilege happens every day, just think of the #MeToo movement,” she said.
It puts minority groups at a disadvantage, she said, and creates a gap in understanding other diversities.
“That gap is why when I was growing up, I was once asked what country me I was brought from when me and my dark-skinned sister were out with my white mom. That gap is why I was asked why I was adopted so often as a kid that I actually believed that I was.”
“That gap is why I thought to be a woman, I had to be feminine and like boys, but to be respected I had to emulate men,” Charles said.
She asked Central Okanagan Public Schools students and teachers how they can increase representation in their schools.
Charles said finding both an online and offline communities were important for her in finding her own identity.
“Another resource I had in high school was the diversity club (where) I learned to love my voice and my story.”
“Before I was just regarded as something different, but when we educate and share our stories and discuss, we are able to be seen, we’re able to be heard and be able to respected and valued because we are different, and unapologetically so,” she said.
Gathering around a small group of Dr Knox Middle school students, Charles explained that her parents were divorced, and she and her sister grew up with her mom and step-father, who are white.
There were only a few black students are her school, and growing up she didn’t notice the difference until she was asked if she was adopted.
Moving to Kelowna from Prince George in Grade 6, she began to face stereotypes.
“Everyone kind of had this stereotype for me, and they thought I was kinda the sassy angry black girl,” she said.
High school was better, as she began to learn about her family history, and there were other people like her.
But she never took an interest in boys, something that she assumed was expected of her.
“It felt lonely because everyone around me was so focused on relationships,” she said, adding that by seeing other people’s confidence in who they are allowed her to confident identifying as a lesbian.
“It took me a really long time to think, maybe I just like girls.”
“She’s so open about herself,” said Grade 9 student Jenna Gilbert, after speaking with Charles. “I want to be like that. She’s so confident in herself and that’s a really good role model for lots of people.”
“I was also inspired by what she said… I am shy, so I want to get out of that,” said Grade 9 student Heather Ikesaka.
If she had any advice to give her Grade 9 self, Charles said would tell herself to trust in her feelings and give herself permission to explore.