As a senior in high school I visited Tulane on a Multicultural Preview weekend, where I found the community of students of color, though small, to be extremely welcoming and encouraging. Preview students were shown around campus, attended different student organization meetings, and explored the city of New Orleans with incumbent students and members of the faculty and staff at the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
I was shown a space lovingly called The O, which students of color considered a safe space on campus to relax and feel at home. Students of color interacted with one another as if they were family members, close friends, even neighbors.
So imagine my surprise when I arrived for orientation and the close-knit family I recalled from preview weekend was nowhere to be found. Yep, orientation made that multicultural preview weekend seem like an HBCU (Historically Black College and University). I was not only the sole black woman, but the only black person in the entire orientation class.
Now, I know that being at Tulane does not change the fact that I am in a minority. I realize that I will find invariably myself in demographics where I will be the only representative of my ethnicity. So the fact that I was the only black person in my orientation did not deter me from moving in for the fall semester. I chose Tulane because of its rigorous academic programs and nationally recognized departments — not its lack of ethnic diversity.
I thought to myself, Lack of ethnic diversity does not automatically mean racial issues or tensions are prevalent on campus, and therefore should not correlate to a lack of inclusion or fair treatment.
Three years later, after reflecting on my experience as a black woman on campus, that viewpoint seems naïve.
Being black at a mostly white university is like being an invisible target. Invisible because I am normally seen as everything but a student. As when I am asked, over and over, in the most sincere way, “How do you like Loyola?” (Do you not see the Tulane splash card in my hand?) Or the query, even more often, “Hey, do you work here?” (“Here” being the university cafeteria.)
The attempts at guessing what I do or how I came to be on this campus get more and more irritating each time they occur. But I do have a sense of humor, and recognize the comedic nature of this series of unfortunate events. It can be hard to crack a smile, though, when a fellow co-ed asks me if black women like their men to have jobs. Imagine the look on my face as I turned the question around: “Well, Susan, would you like your man to have a job, or would you like to be the only breadwinner”?
Sometimes being black makes you feel a sort of visible invisibility – as when a teacher or student voices surprise at how “articulate” you are when you speak up in class.
However, I learned that this kind of insensitivity and ignorance is not the worst that can happen to a black woman on a predominantly white campus. Because being black on a college campus is the same as being black anywhere else in America: You are not exempt from the racial violence and harassment generated by the current political and social climate.
A friend and I were walking back to our dorms one recent Friday night. A car spewing loud rap music pulled up in front of us, stopping us in our tracks. We looked at each other, wondering what this car full of white men could possibly want with us. Then the guy in the passenger seat screamed out in the ugliest tone imaginable, “NIGGAS”! The car continued to block our pathway; there was nowhere to go. The men sat staring at the two of us, waiting to see how we were going to react.
At this point, I was thinking of all of the scenarios that wouldn’t put me in harm’s way or involve visiting county jail. A car full of men against two women and a frat party going on next door. What would you have done?
We retreated. My friend and I jetted back to our dorms, upset and disturbed at how comfortable these guys must have felt to do that to us in a public setting. It quickly set in that we were targets. We were walking while black, which made us no longer invisible.
I believe we were visible solely because of our race and gender.
That’s not the kind of visible I want to be. Instead of being visible only in my appearance, I want to be visible because of my character, and what I bring to the table. I want to be visible because I have purpose and promise that should be accepted and allowed to flourish. Not be reduced to my color, because I am one of the few if not the only black voice in the classroom.
I still go to The O, which is still a safe haven for students of color. I still feel like I am a member of a loving family there. But why do I need a “safe” place on campus?
What happened to me and my friend is not something that would happen to white students. The challenge for universities today is to encourage and facilitate conversations about race, and to really look at the issues surrounding race relations on campus. Education should not be confined to books, but be broad enough to encompass culture and social behavior, too.
Every student deserves the same protection and the same quality of experience as every other student, on any campus. And if not, I want a discount.
Zharia Jeffries is a Junior student from Atlanta Georgia majoring in English and Communications. She enjoys creative writing and watching films and plans to pursue a career and journalism and filmmaking.