Racism At Colleges And Universities Is A Problem – I Know Because I Lived It

Movements have sprung up on university campuses nation-wide, inspired by protests at the University of Missouri that lead to the resignation of the school’s president for not addressing the student body’s concerns about racism at the institution.

These protests have been met by much harsh criticism from both white conservatives and liberals alike. Washington Post writer Ruth Marcus wrote a column in response to recent Yale protests titled “College is not for coddling,” claiming that the student protesters were “being bratty” and “having a tantrum.” Calls to “quit whining” and the claim that America now has too much of a “PC” culture seems to be a common refrain among white people of varying political leanings. After all, why should students of color need to feel welcomed and safe in places of higher education? They should simply be happy to be there!

This reaction is sadly unsurprising. Where America’s racism is concerned, there is no real “liberal” or “conservative” – it’s all pretty black and white. I learned this hard to swallow fact while getting my college education at a predominantly white and liberal New York university. I chose this school specifically because it prided itself on diversity and inclusiveness. Sadly, what was supposed to be an oasis for intellectual people of color was merely a mirage. Various experiences at that university taught me that my Blackness was not welcomed: my opinions, history, passion and personhood were not allowed. Many of my white peers and professors had no problem delivering that message with ease.

I wrote for the school newspaper, which also functioned as a for-credit class. I managed to get an interview with author Junot Diaz, after meeting him at one of the school’s events. I beamed with pride and excitement when I made the announcement to the class and professor that I had somehow procured the interview. Everyone was impressed.

“Charles, you can come up with some interview questions,” the professor, who also served as editor-in-chief, advised a fellow student.I balked at having this assistance foisted upon me; I didn’t need any help – I already knew exactly what I wanted to ask. I drew up a list of questions, mostly related to Diaz’s experiences with racism in the education system, the then-popular “Dream Act” and Obama’s presidency, and sent it to the editors above me. Shortly thereafter, I received a reply with a list of alternate questions that would be more suitable. The first jumped off the screen right at me.

“What was it like growing up without a father in your life?” 

I sighed. I was not surprised that such a personal, insensitive subject was suggested as the first question for my interview with this accomplished writer. Obviously, it was far more tragic and interesting for white people to read about the hardships of a fatherless minority man, than those of a man of color entrenched in a battle against white supremacy. One narrative is most certainly more acceptable and digestible: the one of the culturally pathological minority, of course.

I exited the email, made the call, and went ahead with my own line of questioning, to which Diaz responded with a poignancy, unadulterated honesty and frankness that left me slightly bewildered, but also relieved. I was not alone in my experiences; the problem was not me. America had a huge race problem and all people of color — including this successful writer — had to fight against it in order to survive and thrive.

My class of white peers and the professor were, unsurprisingly, less receptive. When I handed in the first draft of the assignment, my professor sat across from me and peered at the sheets of paper upon which the interview was printed. I could feel the discomfort wallowing in the pits of his stomach, his mind churning with unresolved white guilt. He stretched his arms far away from his body, as if attempting to get the pieces of paper as far away from his person as possible.

After a long pause, he rested the pages on his lap, looked me square in the eyes and said, “These pages are not paginated. No editor would accept this work like this.”

My heart sank. The feelings of excitement and accomplishment disappeared.

After another moment, the professor continued, “The way he answered these questions, the entire thing just flowed,” he said. Never mind the fact that I wrote the questions specifically with the intention of providing the reader with a succinct experience. He didn’t acknowledge the part I played in the success of the interview.

After that response, I put minimal effort into finishing or editing the piece and handed in the final draft. I wanted it to all be over. Especially when a student stood up during one pitch session and announced, “I want to write an essay about being the gentrifier!” to the class of mostly White students, who all nodded in approval. “On the day that I was moving into my apartment, the last Puerto Rican family moved out — and it rained on them!”

Sadly, this brand of white racism, dismissal, denial and exclusion was to become a part of my everyday life experiences.

It stalked me like a dark, relentless phantom as I matriculated through the institution — shunned and castigated for every speech on Black female hypersexualization by the media and income inequality or the wealth gap. When I sought the support of my white friends or professors, they ignored my pleas for conversation about America’s race problem. I was the one who had the problem

“Stop living in the past,” they told me.

“But Barack Obama is the president,” they noted.

“Stop pulling the race card,” they insisted.

The racism followed me into my adult life and into my writing career. Just take a quick peek at any comments section of any piece that I have ever written about race, to get an idea of what I LIVED through during college. And like those students at Mizzou or Yale or any of the other colleges where POC are demanding accountability, my frustration was written off as “oversensitivity” and “whininess.” Obviously, this little Black girl was asking for far too much; expecting to be coddled!

Let me tell you a bit about myself to better contextualize how fallacious and absurd such assumptions are. The very reason I am alive today, educated and not in jail, is because neither I, nor my family, has ever had the time to stand by idly and complain or be “too sensitive.”

Black people are constantly priced out of safe neighborhoods with good schools — disallowed access to what most would consider basic necessities. We are too busy fighting to be sensitive. Here is an example of what is required of Black people, if they want their children to be safe and receive a decent education.

My mother traversed the entirety of the East Coast and a majority of the south — between New Jersey/New York, Florida and Texas — with her three kids packed and squealing in the car, often with very little sleep, determined to find and live in a neighborhood where we did not constantly fear for our lives. I sat aboard Greyhound buses for two to three days at a time all throughout my childhood, visiting different states while my mom looked for good neighborhoods and employment. Every time we were priced out of a good neighborhood, my mother packed her three children up in search of another. Did I mention she worked, two, three and sometimes four jobs at a time without a single complaint?

It is her and our perseverance and steadfastness that ensured our survival.

And what was required of me to be an “educated” person in America?

I studiously endured years of schooling that barely skimmed the surface of the history of my ancestors and played spokeswoman to the white race when questions arose about Blackness. I watched as my closest friends of color were tracked into failure by America’s education system: Black kids remedial, White kids exemplary. I comforted my mother when she was upset because a teacher claimed she was “intimidated” by my brother. I sat in classes with 40-50 students in a room, attended schools with poor funding and mismanagement. I did not complain. I kept my head in my books.

My entire life has been a test of patience and resilience.

I have been sucking it up. Smiling. Laughing. I have been self-motivated for the entirety of my existence. Laughing through the constant invasion of my personal space, because my hair is infrequently represented — and thus a spectacle. Smiling through “you’re pretty for a Black girl” and “too many niggers!”

“Russian girls twerk better.”

Smiling.

“There’s nothing wrong with Blackface.”

Laughing.

“There’s no such thing as appropriation.” “I would never date a Black girl.” “Why are you so angry?” “You think you’re smart, don’t you?”

I have motivated myself to succeed when every financial, social and political obstacle seems to be in my way. Laughing through my pain, because acknowledging it makes me “too sensitive.”

As Black folk do and just as my fore parents did, I smiled. Oh, trust, I grinned and beared. Just as my mother did while she fought tooth and nail to provide the best for her children.

However, it is America’s promises of equality and first-class citizenry that forced me to stop smiling. If I have been educated to believe that America is indeed a place of “justice and freedom for all,” why should I feign ignorance and pretend that the mass incarceration of a million plus Black people is not unequal and unjust? That the blood of young Black men, women and children running through the streets of Ferguson, Staten Island, Detroit, Beaver Creek, Sanford and Baltimore do not stain my soul and the country’s history? That Black women being constantly degraded by American media and society is not detrimental to my very being? That the discomfort, ridicule, blatant dismissal and racism I experienced attending university is not dehumanizing?

White America — I don’t care if you call yourself liberal or conservative — what you do not and will never understand is what it means to have to sacrifice your freedom, liberty and equality to make those around you feel comfortable. You think this fight is about insensitive Halloween costumes? Or swastika symbols? The Black population has endured far more, and the battles and wars being waged against us are far greater. Such oversimplifications reflect nothing but the white privilege to remain proudly ignorant.

Young Black people are taking a stand to fight for their dignity. We are demanding respect. It is time for America to make good on those promises you littered throughout the books from which we learned the meaning of the word “equality.” We have the right to speak about our experiences without constant ridicule or castigation. Our thoughts, opinions and feelings will not be made secondary to appease the contentment of others. We will be judged for our intellect and character, not our skin color.

We will settle for nothing but first class citizenry. And don’t expect any smiles until you are ready for us to claim that much.