How race consciousness, multiculturalism, and international travel shaped a young gifted Black girl

Nicole M. Monteiro, Ph.D.

“No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.” - Paulo Freire

As a child, I always had a sense of myself—a way of understanding who I was/am, in a very concrete and tangible way. When I was a young girl others would often comment that I appeared very grounded and steady. At the time I didn't quite know what they meant because I was usually in my own internal world and not really aware of how others viewed me. But I do remember as a child feeling connected to my familial roots and having a deep perception of and sensitivity to my physical, mental, and spiritual existence. That is what knowledge of self meant to me. And that knowledge—expanded in a decidedly global way—would eventually become my foundation for navigating the world as a gifted child and young woman.

Reflecting on my childhood and upbringing, I can see clearly that my parents already had their own plans to make sure I received an extraordinary education at school and at home. They were committed to having me educated in the public schools, but they certainly did not intend to leave the trajectory of my education and fate of my future to others. They were active in shaping how my schools and teachers would interact with me, starting with advocating for me to be placed in the gifted program—called the Mentally Gifted (MG) program in our school district.

Everything we did in MG seemed to dovetail seamlessly with my parents' vision and efforts to educate me. I frequently took weekend trips with my mom or dad to art exhibitions or the local horticultural center. I helped my grandmother in her community garden and with her homemade soap-making business. I attended graduate classes individually with both of my parents. I took piano music lessons with my uncle who was a trained music teacher and drove with family friends to New York where I saw ballets (including the famed Cuban ballet) and Broadway plays and sampled different cuisines such as Japanese tempura and Indian daal. I was beginning to see myself as truly of and in the world at large. In Beloved, Toni Morrison once wrote, regarding the character Baby Sugg:

And no matter, for the sadness was at her center, the desolated center where the self that was no self made its home…fact was she know more about them than she knew about herself, having never had the map to discover what she was like.

This passage has resonated with me for years. It is as if my parents once said to each other, “No. Our Nicole is going to know herself. She has to have a map to discover what she is like.”

Young, Gifted, and Black – Developing Race Consciousness

Self-identifying as a smart and gifted Black girl was beginning to be etched into my psyche and internalized as part of my core identity. That was a good thing—because very soon I would face what seems to be a rite of passage for smart Black kids—bullying and teasing for being different or "acting white.” I did not get teased as badly as a few other students, but I was targeted enough to know I didn’t want or enjoy this kind of attention. Taking public transportation to and from school exposed me to some of the ills from which my parents were trying to shield me. Sexualized cat calls from grown men who viewed young girls as fair game for their lustful desires and incessant teasing from other neighborhood children who didn’t know what to make of a shy girl walking alone from the bus stop carrying a large backpack and violin case were part of my indoctrination into the harsh realities of an urban America shaped by persistent structural racism and sexism.

Part of my buffer was a firm sense of self and race consciousness—an understanding of myself as a young Black girl from a legacy of rich history and beauty and knowledge of the social realities of racial inequality. Race consciousness helped to inoculate me from others’ overt bigotry and internalized self-hatred. My ideas about the world were bigger and more complex. Sneers from racists and taunts from peers were not erased, but those incidents took a backseat to my own evolving map of myself.

Going Global

In the same way that Venus and Serena Williams's parents devised and carried out a plan to raise tennis stars, my parents and family were very strategic about raising a gifted child who would be engaged and immersed in the world at large. Instead of weekly sports lessons, my parents exposed me to constant critical analysis of current events, community activism, global citizenship, and multicultural appreciation.

My family always talked to and about me through an international lens—as a citizen of the world. I remember my dad telling me about his travels throughout Africa and South America as part of his political organizing work. I remember my mom recounting stories of traveling to the World Youth Festival in Germany while she was seven months pregnant with me. When I was still a small girl, my grandmother had long-term visitors from Zimbabwe and London (a “Black Brit” as our guest called herself) staying at her house, exposing me to diversity in a way that no books or school curricula could come close to doing.

The height of this emphasis on internationalism came when my dad announced that he and my mom had signed me up for an international children’s camp in Russia. “Russia! Why?” I thought. I was afraid when they told me I was going to take a plane from New York to Moscow with a group of children who also had activist parents. I worried that the plane would be hijacked or, worse, that my friends would think I was a weirdo for having parents that would send me to such a far-off place that either they had never heard of or had heard of only as the heart of “evil communism.” But off I went. I stayed for five weeks and traveled throughout the country interacting with children literally from all over the world.

As scary as the trip was initially, it ended up being one of the formative and most influential experiences of my young life. I learned in firsthand detail about Apartheid in South Africa and the civil war in Nicaragua. I encountered the vast diversity of African peoples and cultures when I met kids from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Algeria, and Guinea. I was also confronted with the nasty underbelly of racial stereotyping by a couple of fellow American camp goers. Through that unfortunate incident I learned a valuable lesson in how to exude confidence and navigate others’ ignorance and arrogance. I returned home right before I started high school. I transitioned easily into honors and eventually AP classes at my prestigious all-girls high school. My understated confidence and self-awareness also helped me to flourish socially and emotionally (as much as could be expected for a teen girl!).

I knew early on that I would eventually pursue and attain a Ph.D. in psychology. I also had an unconscious understanding that international travel and living would play an important role in my career development. To that end, I traveled to Cuba while I was in graduate school and gained invaluable insights into race, racism, and anti-racism; I was part of the first group of students in my clinical psychology Ph.D. program that participated in an international internship in Grenada, West Indies; and I even carved out a little time during graduate school to travel to Guinea, West Africa, and Japan to study and perform with different African dance groups.

Then, to no one’s surprise, but many people’s confusion, I applied for a prestigious fellowship to conduct my dissertation research in Ethiopia. While living in Ethiopia, I traveled all over the country and to neighboring Sudan and nearby Egypt by myself. Everyone at home thought I was nuts and worried that I was going alone to chaotic and possibly terrorist states. I laughed at the idea, thinking how they were missing out on the elaborate weddings and tea parties I was enjoying in North Africa. Later, as a professional psychologist, I became involved in clinical and advocacy work with marginalized and underserved urban populations and refugees and asylum-seekers from different countries. I was creating a bridge to my earlier educational and social roots. I ended up doing work in Peru, Liberia, Italy, Haiti, and Senegal and presenting at international conferences in Asia, South America, and Europe. Eventually, I took the plunge to work abroad full-time as a psychologist—first in Bahrain and then in Botswana.

Unwittingly, I had been storing accounts of my international adventures over the years and recently had them published in what I call the ultimate travel guide: Global Insights - The Zen of Travel and BEING in the World. In it, I explore the personal-development value of travel and give tips—for parents, students, young, and old—on how to maximize their travel experience.

My advice to parents: Travel can be one of the best educational enrichment opportunities for your gifted child because it crystalizes so much classroom and life experience. The good news is that, despite financial barriers, it can still be accessible to families from all socioeconomic backgrounds. While my parents were certainly educationally advantaged and able to get me involved in a variety of cultural and travel activities, they were by no means wealthy. Funding is available for travel, especially for high-achieving children. Parents can search private and government sources to help support study abroad and cultural immersion trips so that lack of money does not have to translate into missed opportunities. Help your gifted child see the world, and your child will better understand her or his place in it!

Nicole M. Monteiro, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Department of Professional Psychology at Chestnut Hill College. Find out more about her work at www.nicolemonteirophd.com and her book at www.zenwanderlust.com.