I am getting my master's later today. As I begin reflecting on that journey to my MA degree, it made me think about my experience. Earlier this week I saw someone's tweet about diversity in college, and it made me think about my own experience.
When I went to college I knew I would see less black people. I came from a school with about a 60/40 mix between white and black people so it was honestly pretty mixed compared to other Arkansas cities.
Going to college was a whole other ball game though, and this was further seen when I went to get my Master's degree.
Let's chat about my personal experience being the only black student in class:
If I could describe this experience in one word, it would probably be isolating.
It's really hard to get through class when you are the only black person in the room.
Specifically because of my major. I honestly don't think I would have noticed as much if it wasn't for my major.
In case you didn't know, I went to undergrad and graduate school to get my degree in Sociology. Along with that I often took Criminology courses because they interested me, but that meant that race came up, like a lot.
We would often read articles, books, and have classroom discussions about race. It was difficult for me because I often didn't have another person of color to bounce my thoughts off. I didn't want to be seen as the sole representative of my race, and it felt like I was that way most of the time when we discussed race.
Having another person with skin like you is helpful, especially when people start spouting racist stereotypes and troupes. You can stare at them and they can stare back at you, and you know, your feelings weren't just in your head.
I often wondered, what would this situation be like if I weren't around?
There were classroom experiences that happened that made me wonder…
Would the professor care this much if one of the department's only minority students weren't in the classroom right now?
Once a classroom discussion broke out in my class where we talked essentially about theories of the difference between races and whether there were actual differences between the races besides skin color.
It quickly got awkward and the professor made it more awkward (or maybe less awkward, I honestly can't tell to be honest) by cutting the conversation short and even addressing the conversation at a later date and making the whole conversation feel strange by sending out extra nonmandatory research about race and how it really doesn't affect health.
While I agreed with the professor's thought process, I also felt weird about their stance on the issue. It felt like they went out of their way to shut the conversation down and provide the research to debunk the conversation.
I then began to question the entire experience.
What if I had skipped class and didn't attend that day?
Would that professor still have done all that they did to shut the conversation down?
Did my very existence shut down that learning experience with an awkward, abrupt conversation transition?
Going Home & Talking With My Family About All The Semi-Racist Things I Heard
One evening I remember clearly being ticked off by a classmate discussion. It was in a criminology course I was taking.
My white male classmate told a story of once when he feared for his life when he was driving home with another white male friend. He had gotten pulled over my a black police officer and a white police officer had recently gotten acquitted of killing a black person. He feared for his life because he and his friend thought the police officer was going to seek revenge by killing them that night.
This was spoken during a class.
I don't think I could have rolled my eyes hard enough.
But, what do you say to that? What do you say to something so stupid without going completely off the rails?
If I remember correctly the professor did call him out for something he said that day, but I still couldn't believe what I heard that night.
That night my parents and sister heard ALL the thoughts I had about this person as I went back to my apartment after class.
Trying Not To Be The Angry Black Woman
Sometimes, I get angry.
One of the hardest parts of being a minority student was trying not to become a stereotype.
I didn't want to raise my voice, get too loud, or argue too much. I didn't want to be labeled just another angry black woman.
That stereotype stings. I get emotional, when you say something blatantly racist, I think I have every right to be. Alas, I can't.
I want to be taken seriously.
So, I bit my tongue. I tried my hardest to roll my eyes less. I made sure that I was soft-spoken when I disagreed. It wasn't me, but I also avoided being a stereotype.
You Can't Dock Someone Points For Their Opinions
For a large part of my graduate school experience, I helped professors grade papers. One of my jobs as a research assistant was grading discussion questions for a couple of Criminology courses both semesters of my research assistantship.
I remember that I often had to stop grading in the middle of these assignments because of the blatantly racist and often coded language people were using to talk about criminals and minorities.
I wasn't a professor so I didn't take the time to correct people. These were their opinions, it was an opinion question. I couldn't dock someone points because I didn't agree with their opinion, no matter how problematic it was. At the end of the day, I didn't feel comfortable calling these students out on their awful thoughts.
So alas, more students with awful thoughts about who criminals are, getting As and pats on the back for their opinions.
Not only that, I didn't feel comfortable letting them know how their words personally affected me.
I couldn't let them know about the times their words made me fear for the future of the relationships they would forge with the public in their jobs as police officers, military personnel, and government workers.
I wasn't able to let them know about the times their responses literally made me break down in tears while grading their opinions.
Not all opinions are valid.
I am not going to lie to you. Part of the reason that I am considering not going on to get my Ph.D. is because of the lack of diversity in my discipline, but also in other disciplines.
Why would I want to further put myself in debt if there is no real showcase of women of color in the discipline? Sure there are a couple of really cool examples of women of color in sociology, but they are few and far between. Becoming a professor, in general, is already difficult, throwing my minority status on top of that makes it next to impossible.
My colleges didn't give me shining examples of this either, to be honest.
There was only one black sociology professor at my undergraduate institution. At my graduate school institution, there were zero black sociology professors.
In fact, I only took a class with one black professor throughout my 6 years of higher education, and that professor taught an African American History class.
To be honest, my entire life as a student I can probably count on one hand the number of black teachers and professors that I have had growing up.
Last year I decided to do research about this for a research proposal in one of my classes. I wanted to see how minority professors and students faced in the world of academia, and there are many scholarly articles that say that they face a lot of scrutiny.
One of the most interesting articles I read about this was a short journal article titled “The Institutional Cost of Being a Professor of Color: Unveiling Micro-Aggression, Racial [In]visibility, and Racial Profiling through the Lens of Critical Race Theory.” This article was by a professor named Pierre Wilbert Orelus and it came out in Current Issues In Education's August 2013 journal. What the author found is the minority professors they interviewed faced a lot of issues. They had to deal with students questioning their authority on their subject matter, not feeling like they fit in well with their colleagues, and just, in general, had to deal with a lot of issues in the workplace.
I'm not saying that I couldn't make it as a professor, I loved being in the classroom when I TA'd for a semester. I just don't think I have the strength to handle all the baggage that comes along with being a minority professor for too long. I am almost certain I would burn out pretty easily after dealing with that for a while.
What Can Students & Professors Who Are In The Majority Do To Help?
I am not speaking for the entire black community, but there are a few things that I think will help:
Academically Calling People Out
Many black students don't want to be seen as a stereotype, so they simply won't do it themselves. If you hear someone say something in class that is blatantly racist, don't sit idly by. Academically confront them about it.
This is a dicey subject for many professors. You want to promote a healthy dialogue between students, but in my opinion, this has to stop somewhere. You simply cannot allow students to get away with everything.
Understanding You Are In A Different World
There are SO many issues that you don't feel or see on a daily basis. Just because everything is peachy for you, doesn't mean that everything is peachy for everyone. Many black students are dealing with an extra set of issues on top of the day-to-day grind of going to class every day. Respect that your experience is a lot different from mine.
When Race Comes Up, Don't Stare At Minority Students
This is the MOST obvious piece of advice, but people still don't understand this. Please stop staring at minority students when their race comes up.
Some students just don't feel comfortable discussing race in class. I used to be one of those people who would avoid talking about issues related to my race in class. Eventually, I got more comfortable with my major and those around me. That took a ton of time, though.
This is not your chance to get information about black people or any other race of people straight from the mouth of one of those people. I cannot speak for my entire race.
When you stare at me when the topic of black people comes up, it makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me feel like I am somehow a representative of my race when I am simply not. My race is dynamic, just like every other race, and I don't want to feel like my word is given too much weight. When you stare, it makes me feel like you are giving my thoughts way too much weight in the grand scheme of things.
Understand That Affirmative Action Is Still Helpful
A lot of people talk about how much affirmative action is messing up colleges and universities, but I honestly can't tell. Many colleges are not up to par when it comes to the amount of African American students that they have on their college campuses, and they have very small amounts of faculty who are black.
For example, my alma mater UCA only has 29 faculty members who are black in the entire university. They employ over 700 faculty members. All this information was pulled from their own Minority Recruitment and Retention Report that was submitted in June, found here.
While black students can attend college more, we still have a long way to go before we are taking our rightful place as students of higher education. You can even see this in the workplace, where we need to make some serious strides.
Rolling back Affirmative Action will not help minority students in any way.
We need to keep those plans in place so that organizations are forced to consider a wide range of applicants. On top of that, we must meet students of color halfway. Make sure that they get the resources that they need to succeed and apply to higher education institutions and various jobs in academia.
I read this blog post to my mom the other day, and after she asked if I felt discriminated against. So, I thought I would clear this up here, just in case other people thought the same thing.
I don't think I felt discriminated against as much as I felt really awkward in most of these situations. Most of these comments weren't specifically aimed at me as a person, just minorities in general or black people in particular. It felt removed, but I knew that that's because I was in the classroom. In some ways it felt like I was “different” but the other minorities they didn't know were different as well. In some instances, it felt more damaging though, like while grading papers, because I was grading papers for an online course and no one had ever met me personally.
So, I don't think I feel discriminated against. Just v. awkward about all the situations that I mentioned.
I want to conclude this article by saying that these are my personal experiences. I'm hopeful that after reading this blog post, you will understand my experiences more. I hope that you will look at your classmates differently and try to understand their potential perspective.
If you have faced a similar experience I would love to hear your stories in the comments below. If you have learned something from this article, I would love to know your thoughts in the comments below.
Thank you for taking the time to listen to my experiences today!