Today, the class of 2016 moves into the dorms. My school is proud to have successfully recruited and admitted around 20 African American freshmen. This may not sound like a lot, but let me contextualize it for you. The undergraduate student body contains roughly 2000 students. Of that 2000 last year, about 10-15 were self-identified African American (not ‘Black’. Black is a race; African American is an ethnicity. International students from Africa and the Caribbean for example may check Black as their race, but they do not identify as African American). I know for a fact that we graduated at least 2 of those 10-15 students. To bring in 20 is basically doubling the African American population on campus. Great! Well done! Hats off to you!
Now, what are you going to do for them?
I am gravely concerned for these students. So much so, that at the end of last academic year, I met individually with African American students to gain their perspective on the lack of diversity and segregated sense of community on campus. I wanted to know how they were faring. What I found was a gender difference. The guys are doing just fine for the most part. They’ve each found their niche—be it in academics, sports, music, whatever. They are dating, going to parties, going out of town with classmates, and having a great college experience. They are in effect, enjoying many of the advantages of male privilege.
The women are struggling. They are bonding with one another out of necessity, not always out of desire. They find themselves left off emails inviting floor mates to eat lunch together. They find themselves navigating social scenarios wherein other women say things like ‘you got a ghetto booty!’ They feel like objects on display for white women who’ve never had a ‘black friend’. These women want to touch their hair, ask them about their eating habits, and try on their ‘urban’ clothes. My African American female students know their classmates do not intend to be offensive. But that does not make the abuse easier to bear.
Interactions with white male students are worse. The ladies shared many stories about things their white male classmates say at parties once they’ve had too much alcohol. I won’t be crass and repeat them here, but I will say that no woman, regardless of ethnicity, should have to suffer the verbal and sometimes physical assaults these women endure. They are not viewed by these men as friends, and certainly not as possible girlfriends. They are an anomaly only seen on TV or from across the cafeteria. They are merely tolerated, never accepted.
So the African American women retreat. They hang out together in someone’s dorm room. They go out of their way to befriend students at other colleges. They join clubs and sports teams in the community. They travel to another city to get their hair done. In essence, they’ve created their own college within the college. We’ve pushed them away by not offering any support. By not creating a community in which they are a member, not a neighbor. We have not offered them the same opportunities for a college experience as we’ve offered their more privileged classmates. We have displaced them. Yet we are doing nothing about it. Instead, we place the burden on them.
And they carry it well.
I commend my students for still trying. For not responding to their peers in anger. For having the courage to speak with me about sensitive issues. For not letting their social experiences affect their academic experience. For still being extremely excited—despite their personal experiences—that a new generation of African American students are coming to campus.
It is only youth who can endure such hardship and still be smiling and enthusiastic. Still want to mentor and befriend a new generation. Still want to develop organizations and clubs and make them open to the entire campus. Still find the strength to not shut down, but to be even more open to new people and new opportunities. I admire their fortitude. I admire their determination. I admire their positivity.
But for how much longer can we expect them to silently bear the burden of creating community?
Yes, we have a new class, but an old classroom. Things haven’t changed all that much.