Being an “Only”

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By Hannah Reed

Paula Diedrich’s story is one that needed to be shared. She was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1966, not knowing that the rug would soon be swept from under her. Many immigrants, like her, share a similar story of leaving their country with the hope of making a better life but are later forced to unpack their identity.

My parents were very young and decided to come to the US to go to college and make a better life for themselves and for myself. For the first 7 years of my life I lived in Jamaica on a really nice property by the ocean.

One could not help but feel sad that her parents left for the United States, but luckily Diedrich did not really miss her parents because she was so close to her grandmother, and felt as though she was her mom and her grandfather was like a father figure. She always felt loved and didn’t remember feeling like she was missing out because her parents were not there.

Diedrich came to America in 1973 to reunite with her parents in Detroit, Michigan.

I flew here on an airplane all by myself, to Florida, with my doll that was dressed just like me.

Once Diedrich’s parents got everything set up, they sent for her. Diedrich’s dad met her in Miami and together they flew to Michigan. Shortly after, it was time for her to enroll for school.

When Diedrich came here she was way already ahead of the game in education. She was first placed in second grade, but after only a couple weeks she was moved into the third. However, her dad said that she was not getting great grades in math per usual, so they met with her teacher and asked what was going on.

Only to have the teacher tell them, “Well, I couldn’t read her writing and I can’t understand her.” Instead of trying to help her student overcome what seemed like a language barrier, because of her accent, the teacher deemed it better to just let Diedrich fail.

Diedrich’s parents were not very happy with this so they decided to move into a new area with hopefully a better school district for fourth grade, Auburn Hills (Heights at the time).

Her experience in Auburn Heights was no better.

I basically integrated Auburn Heights elementary school; I was the only Black person in the entire school.

The people that lived there at the time were not very educated and so she was treated poorly. However, when they came to Bloomfield Hills, “It was a little bit different because everybody, it was just a different echelon of people,” Diedrich said. She explained that while there was still racism, it was not as pronounced. There were three other black people at her middle school (East Hills).

Diedrich also went to high school in Bloomfield Hills and still continues to live there. She shared that during her high school experience she was able to make friends, but she still was not fully accepted.

I made friends but as far as being accepted, it was bizarre; because you know how you have your school dances? I never got asked to a dance, because all the white kids were afraid to ask the Black girl to the dance, and all the Black kids were going out with the white girls; so you’re just in this weird situation.

Paula Diedrich smiles in April 2021 in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., as she remembers her upbringing and journey from Jamaica to the United States. She says she fully embraces her POC / Black identity.

Another factor of this “weird situation” was Diedrich not feeling represented because no one shared her experiences, including her friends and the other Black children in school.

Her experiences as an immigrant are not necessarily better than those of African Americans, but different nonetheless. When she has the opportunity to identity as Jamaican, she does, but the reality is that society has pushed this new identity on her as a Black woman.

I identify myself as a Black woman… a person of color.

Diedrich takes pride in her Jamaican heritage and as a Black woman in America. So much so that she decided to take one of the most important and scary steps for an immigrant, citizenship.

I remember one thing that my father always said to me as a child, ‘When you get a chance, become a US citizen because if anything goes awry, the first people they will want to leave the country are those that are not citizens.’

When Diedrich got pregnant with her son Matthew, she decided that was the perfect time to become a citizen. So she went through the process of becoming a naturalized citizen but also maintained her Jamaican citizenship. This made it possible for her to obtain both a Jamaican and a US passport.

Aside from dual citizenship and her son, one of the best experiences Diedrich had was the blessing of attending Michigan State University. She got to meet people from all walks of life and learn a completely different perspective.

Despite wanting to be a teacher, Diedrich excelled in Accounting. She still does Accounting and shared that she honestly cannot imagine doing anything else. Accounting is all she knows and that’s what she has been doing for years. Diedrich stated that even if she was to go into a different career, it would still be incorporated somehow.

Being a woman of color was never an obstacle Diedrich felt she had to “overcome,” especially in her professional life.

I know that there are many people in my position that would say that they have felt discriminated against when they’ve applied for a job, but I really haven’t experienced that.

Diedrich has been very blessed to achieve every job she has ever gone after. She believes that this may be because of her experiences growing up in Bloomfield Hills, but also because she went to the illustrious Michigan State University.

My perspective is a lot different because I am used to being ‘one of the only’ Black people in a room so that’s not a thing for me.

Being one of the only Black or Brown people in a room is something that a lot of POC face but rarely speak about. This was an experience Diedrich had from a very young age and was forced to become comfortable with.

“It doesn’t really bother me; so I think that’s a plus when I go on job interviews.

She has gotten comfortable with the reality that her supervisor is most likely not going to look like her. The people that she works with, the majority of them are not going to be the same race as her. Diedrich owns her identity and is not hindered by the fact that she might have to be an “only.”

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