McConico: Outside in to Inside Out

Confessions of a muzzled Black girl

Kendall McConico, Contributing Columnist

In the midst of the grueling, pandemic-ridden summer of 2020, I set out on a journey to re-discover my inner child. Just before coronavirus took hold of the country, I found myself stuck in a cycle of temporary happiness and overwhelming emptiness and realized that I felt disposable; my sense of self-worth was defined completely by the way others perceived me to be. With the cessation of my journey as a Case Western Reserve University women’s basketball player, I quickly found myself void of a sense of stability. I had never truly been at peace and had been engaged in a battle with my thoughts, constantly conflicted by my mind’s principal objective of remaining in my bubble of comfortability and my heart’s core message that I was so much more than the false identity I spent so much time meticulously crafting. 

I embarked on a quest to reach within, discover my antidote for the poison that was my self-destructive thoughts, and am compelled to share my story of triumph with you. My ability to survive my path of evolution and transformation instilled a sense of faith within me; we can all ascend to the version of ourselves that we are meant to be and fight to revolutionize the institutions that have silenced us for so long.

As a little girl, I was obsessed with the animated movie “Osmosis Jones.” The idea of there being little people inside of me, each with their own job to make sure that my body stayed healthy, just felt like the most likely explanation to me. So, years later, when 17-year-old me saw the trailer for Pixar’s “Inside Out,” there was no way I was going to miss it. My mom and I loved seeing a good PG movie every now and then, so this was right up our alley. Though the loss of the beloved imaginary friend Bing Bong was heart-wrenching, this kids’ movie has maintained its status as one of our favorites to watch together. 

It wasn’t until a few months ago that I realized that although the film tells the emotional tale of an 11-year-old girl losing her happiness and finding it again, it does not tell the full story. Riley was stripped of what she perceived to be an integral portion of her identity, deprived of the community she had developed with her closest friends and the natural habitat she successfully adapted to—her teammates on her hockey team. Moreover, Riley was never given the chance to offer her input on this sudden and disorienting shift. 

Riley’s story held up a mirror to the ugly truth of my own: a little girl who never felt that her opinion and thoughts were needed or valued. I had unknowingly been conditioned to exist in what would come to be known as the “real world”—a distorted view of what it means to live the life we deserve and the path to fulfilling our true destinies, and there was no turning back. 

As a Black woman at a predominantly white institution, I was often made to feel like the other. And being the only Black person on my team during my first year, the silent exclusion became even more evident. The reminders of my dissimilarity to the mass population were inescapable. 

For example, one time I was watching a movie with my teammates and was told that I had become invisible in the darkness after turning the lights out. Or a couple of years later, a commentator for one of my games publicly assumed that I “must have played a pickup game or two in the streets,” taking my origin from the city with the highest percentage of African Americans as a cue. “You know she’s tough!” he said with enthusiasm, ignorant to the harm the “strong Black woman” narrative has caused. 

In my reality, one in which I was continuously expected to be the tough one, all I felt was numbness. I had already undergone a desensitization of my attachment to my Blackness. I cycled through thoughts like “they were just kidding” or “they don’t understand why that was hurtful” as an excuse for their ignorance. I thought that to retain a sense of sanity, I was forced to smile through the discomfort.

Near the conclusion of “Inside Out,” Riley found her voice and shared her unhappiness with her parents. It made me ask myself, “why didn’t I think of that?” Even as a kid, I knew it would never be that simple. As children, we are taught to “suck it up.” We are told to “be grateful” or that “life isn’t fair” during a time when we are just beginning to learn who we are and who we want to be. 

We are tasked with the mission of learning how to love ourselves in a world that doesn’t grant us the true freedom to be ourselves. 

Because of this, I allowed my cries to remain muted. I used to define myself as a silent sufferer. I allowed my mind to manipulate me into believing that the real me wasn’t enough as I instead set out to be the perfect person: smart, easygoing, respectful, obedient, quiet. But I never stopped and asked myself, who was I striving to be perfect for? 

Generation after generation, Black people have been forced to conform to the identity that America decided for us. We are constantly asked to work within a system that was not built to include us and are encouraged to hide anything about ourselves that might make us stand out. We have been forced to sacrifice our comfort in order to protect the comfort of our oppressors. When we speak, we should make sure to only use “proper” English; we wouldn’t want others to think we are “ghetto.” We should not attend any job interview with our natural hair on display or with designs on our nails; we wouldn’t want them to think we are “unprofessional.” We shouldn’t be too loud, we don’t want others to perceive us as angry. 

The society we were forced into has never failed to consistently remind us that any identity we possess as a people is inappropriate, unimportant and inferior to Eurocentric ideals that allow us no choice but to dim our light and sacrifice our inherent freedoms for the acceptance of those who have continuously deemed us as second-class citizens. Unfortunately for them, we have outgrown our cages.

As a college student, I found myself searching for my joy in the comfort of others. My sense of validation resided in the words and actions of someone else, and never within me. Accessing my true self meant having the courage to reclaim the power I always had, but never was able to reach. It meant detaching myself from the image others had crafted for me, without the lingering fear of disappointing those I loved the most. It meant leaning into the sensitivity I was so ashamed of as a child. But, above all, it meant understanding that there is no true love more crucial than the love I must have for myself. 

The quest to personal acceptance is far from an enjoyable experience. I had to completely isolate myself from the world’s definition of who I should be and force myself to dismiss the beautiful lies I told myself. Life is not meant to be miserable. We don’t have to pursue careers in medicine and engineering in order to be deemed successful. We don’t have to get degree after degree after degree in order to be deemed intelligent. We don’t have to sacrifice our dreams in order to pacify our families and follow the conventional pathways to abundance. 

Instead, we have the ability to construct our own unique realities. After all, why should we conform to the identities that others project onto us in order to appease their own egos?

I spent a lot of my life feeling this inward guilt that I couldn’t truly be who my parents wanted me to be. My biggest fear was letting them down, but in the process, I was letting myself down. Eventually I had to harness the confidence to reveal my true ambitions. I didn’t want to be a doctor, I wanted to be a creative, a storyteller. And everyone else was just going to have to accept the new me. It was time to embrace my newly-found freedom. And that was okay! Along the way, I learned that emotions aren’t something to run away from, but to embrace. 

The journey towards your personal definition of happiness is meant to be uncomfortable. It takes courage, durability and a whole lot of faith. I released my tears, I confronted my insecurities, I acknowledged my wounds and I gave myself permission to truly feel. But most importantly, I allowed myself the space to heal. In order for me to wholeheartedly accept myself and all the flaws and imperfections that came with it, I had to come to peace with my past, be brave enough to commit to my true passion and claim positivity for my future. I’m proud to say now that I am never looking back.

When you’re on the path you create for yourself, and yourself alone, your inner child will get the chance to come out and play. Then and only then will you exude true happiness, and you can finally allow your true self to shine from the inside out.