I experienced many firsts when I left home for college. First car, first full-time job, first time being racially profiled and first time being called n—ger. Life comes at you fast if you’re black at a predominantly white institution.
No one prepared me for the multiple assaults on my humanity that I experienced at a PWI. I was consistently the only black student in my class, and in my entire collegiate career (including graduate school), I had only one black professor. I was frequently asked if I was a student-athlete (read: The only way you’d be on a college campus is for your athletic prowess), and my professor laughed in my face when I told him that I wanted to major in philosophy.
“That’s a tall order,” he said with a smug grin. “I rarely see black people at philosophy conferences.” In that moment I knew that this educational institution was not, and maybe would never be, a safe space for me as a black man. Many students of color attending PWIs agree.
Inspired by the Movement for Black Lives and the success of groups like Concerned Student 1950 at the University of Missouri and OU Unheard at the University of Oklahoma, there were over 50 protests during the 2015-2016 academic year, raising awareness of issues like buildings that were named after unapologetic racists and a lack of black representation in positions of power.
“It is important for students of color to remember that predominantly white colleges and universities are still historically white,” says Elon Dancy, professor of education and associate dean for community engagement and academic inclusion at the University of Oklahoma and author of The Brother Code: Manhood and Masculinity Among African American Males in College.
“So while these institutions may ‘admit’ people of color, they still have ways of not accepting them,” he says. “We continue to see this in campus culture and climate data in which whites are overrepresented in university leadership, faculty and in the student body. Furthermore, for every overt racist incident we think of as long gone, there are thousands of contemporary violent acts often referred to as ‘microaggressions’ that seek to keep students of color ‘in their place.’ Until these institutions address these realities with deep, truly culturally responsive policies, the campuses will always be places to be survived.”
So what must one do to circumnavigate the hotbed of white supremacy that is a contemporary college campus populated by white bodies? How can a student of color thrive at an institution that merely tolerates one’s presence? Put simply, what must a black student do to survive at a PWI?
Black Americans are reared in a culture that discounts black brilliance. When we excel, we are exceptional; if we fail, we are proof of inferiority. College campuses oftentimes reinforce these cultural messages. Black contributions to intellectual thought are usually not reflected in the curriculum, and black faculty is sometimes rare. Socially, black students are usually treated like second-class citizens when they try to hold events that express their cultural identity or raise awareness of issues they face on college campuses. To combat these assaults on black humanity, self-love is important.
“They've got to get good at learning and loving themselves and their communities,” says Kiese Laymon, professor of English at the University of Mississippi and author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and the forthcoming memoir Heavy. “I think it would help if they ritualized healthy work and reckoning habits with other students they trust.”
Lauren Whiteman—assistant director of African American Student Life at the University of Oklahoma and adviser to the student group OU Unheard, which made national news when it leaked a video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon students chanting racial slurs—agrees.
“Learn to love yourself in a space that will call everything about you into question,” she said. “Your melanated skin, your kinky and curly hair, your food and your traditions, are all a part of who you are. Embracing them can help you live your truths and be fully yourself.”
And yet, survival should not be the only goal, according to Kevin Powell, a graduate of Rutgers University and the author of The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy's Journey Into Manhood. "I think first-year students of color attending a predominantly white university need to go in with a mindset of winning, not surviving. I wish someone had pushed me to seek counseling throughout my years at Rutgers, to exercise regularly, to have a spiritual foundation consistently. There is simply no way to defeat racism alone, but these things help you to navigate and win.”
Love of self is important, but there is one more thing black students must do to successfully navigate predominantly white institutions of higher education.
Realize that you are not alone. Reflecting on his undergraduate experience, the well-known internet presence Son of Baldwin recounted the pain of being the “only” in a classroom.
“Nonblack students were openly hostile toward me and consistently tried to negate my points of view … and it was rare that nonblack faculty intervened. I wasted a great deal of energy just trying to prove my lived experiences to people who were programmed from the jump to distrust black people. Once I connected with other black students and black faculty, I discovered ways to navigate this hostility and how to direct my energy into better-deserving endeavors.”
Echoing that sentiment, Kimberly Foster, a graduate of Harvard University and the founder of For Harriet, said, “It’s imperative to make black friends. Find a community and invest in it. Being black at a PWI can be very lonely. You’ll need people who understand your lived experience to lean on.”
It’s also important to remember that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are things in place that will help you succeed. Amber Wiley, a Yale University graduate and assistant professor of architecture at Skidmore College, notes, “Black students need to realize that there are resources available to them—cultural, educational, financial—that they should take advantage of. Whether those resources are in the form of an office of multicultural affairs, a chief diversity officer, clubs centered around a cultural identity or a professor's office hours, students should feel like those resources are there for them—because they are.”
I wish someone had prepared me for the racism I would experience during my first year of college. I was able to survive and thrive, but it was not without emotional labor. Life at a PWI can be frustrating for students of color, but learning to love yourself and investing in a community are imperative. Elon Dancy concluded his remarks about how to survive at a PWI by reciting words from Maya Angelou’s poem “Alone”: “Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone.”
Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.