Eden Zekarias
Courtesy of Eden Zekarias

Editor’s note: In honor of the movie Dear White People, a satirical drama about race and culture at a fictional Ivy League college, we decided to ask two black students to explain why they love or hate their experiences at a predominantly white institution of higher learning. Read part 1 here. Dear White People opens Friday.

“The blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” —Thomas Jefferson

It is with this philosophy that the University of Virginia came to fruition in 1819. It was literally on the backs of enslaved blacks that this university was made.

I was first attracted to UVA because of its academic ranking. The idea of having an opportunity to attend such a highly ranked university made me feel as though I was doing it for my family and friends who didn’t have the option to attend a university like this. However, being a black student at a predominantly white institution has presented many challenges for me, both socially and academically.

For example, I am a black-studies major, but I am often the only black student in my black-studies discussion classes. It is to be expected that students of color would be a minority in classes—I understood that would happen, since I decided to go to a PWI. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling isolated when I speak up in my black-studies class and get pushback from other students for whom the black experience is just theory and not a reality. 

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I have experienced many racially charged incidents on campus. Last winter a white next-door neighbor felt entitled enough to cut off our heat from the power box outside. When I confronted him, he initially denied it, but his denial quickly turned into aggression toward me. The next morning, my roommate overheard him attempting to file a police report against me but be unable to do so because he did not know my name.

The discrimination doesn’t stop there. It’s very common to encounter street harassment as a black student. My friends and I have had “nigger” yelled at us so many times, I cannot count them all on two hands.

For me as a black, queer woman, finding safety on campus is not guaranteed. One night my Muslim friend, who wears the hijab, and I had rocks thrown at us from a balcony as we walked by.

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When black students have a party, the police show up. When white students have a party, the police are called, and if they do show up, more often than not, white students are given the benefit of the doubt. These examples are only a fraction of the discrimination that black students have experienced on campus.

The culture of PWIs is just a smaller version of what’s happening outside them—they don’t exist in a vacuum.

My school has provided me with an education, but not the one it set out to.

Eden Zekarias is a senior at the University of Virginia majoring in African and African-American studies.