Race, Race and Education, Racism and Higher Education

Racism 099: The Big (White) Man on Campus

“In the decades before the American Revolution, merchants and planters became not just the benefactors of colonial society but its new masters.  Slaveholders became college presidents.  The wealth of the traders determined the locations and decided the fates of colonial schools.  Profits from the sale and purchase of human beings paid for campuses and swelled college trusts.  And the politics of the campus conformed to the presence and demands of slaveholding students as colleges aggressively cultivated a social environment attractive to the sons of wealthy families.”

| Craig Steven Wilder,

Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities

I applied for college admission and financial aid.  I registered for classes, which included an introductory course aimed to prepare freshmen for college- level expectations.  I chose a meal plan and decided against pledging for a sorority.  I moved into the dorms.  I met my roommate and a few cute guys.  I also experienced overt racism for the first time.

Recently, college campuses have garnered media attention due to the use of racist graffiti like at Syracuse University and signs like “It’s okay to be white” at East Tennessee State University.  According to an article written today by Faith Karimi, there have been at least 5 hate incidents reported on college campuses this week.  This news made me think about my college experience and one that I had not considered before: my introduction to racism and the so- called big white man on campus.

I had moved to upstate New York at sixteen and was convinced that education was the great equalizer.  It was going to change my life and it would change how others saw me.  So this course would be remedial.  It was Racism 099.

College is said to prepare us for the “real world”: loans, housing, employment, newfound freedom and responsibility.  While not the first to attend college, I would be the first to stay on campus and to graduate.  Born in the South, reared in a family where post- secondary education was not considered a priority or a necessity and indoctrinated by a faith that saw it as worldly knowledge for worldly gain that “would soon pass away.”  A high school diploma and a certificate of baptism were all I needed in my family.

When my grandmother would call me, her first question was not, “How are your classes?” but “Are you yet holding on?”  She wanted to make sure that I still possessed the faith that she had passed on to me, perhaps believing that college offered not only a leg up but also a slippery slope downward and into the darkness of debauchery.  Cut loose, she wanted to know if “I was letting it all hang out.”  In fact, it was always her first question.  Once I had given her a satisfactory answer, then she was ready to hear more.

But she had nothing to worry about.  I took my faith seriously.  I seriously became president of Campus Crusade for Christ, now CRU, led weekly Bible studies in the Student Union and was called “Rev” on campus.  Seriously.  Nineteen years old, I was definitely “set apart,” a marked woman, untouchable and by this, I mean undatable.  Jesus wasn’t my boyfriend as was common for girls to say at the time but he might as well have been.  No guy would get close to me unless he was serious about the Bible or needed me to tutor him.

And I suppose there was not much that my grandmother or mother could have told me about college, that this is why our conversations centered around life at home.  It was all new to them.  When I did share what books I was reading or the papers I had written in response, theirs was always the same: “That’s good.”  That’s all and it was all so disappointing, making me feel all the more alone and unheard, all while trying to find my voice.

They couldn’t stress out with me during finals week or fan out with me when I met Maya Angelou for the first time during her visit to the campus years later.  Highs or lows, this was not a place that they would go with me.  Neither helped me choose my major or an internship.  Both women would confess that they didn’t know much about me to suggest which would be a likely fit.

They couldn’t help me.  No highlight reels of their own to share, no similar experiences to compare.  But my mother would tell me what and who to fear.  She didn’t need a degree to prove it.  She touted life experience and assured me that if I lived long enough, I would experience the same.

Not many days passed before her words came to fruition.

The first and only time I was called the N- word was on a college campus.  It was Buffalo State College in Buffalo, New York.  I was getting off the city bus and was promptly followed by a group of six or more European American males.  I wasn’t going to look back to get a final count.  Just trust me on this one.

I knew the moment they got off the bus with me that I was in trouble.  I had read and heard stories of lynching and other forms of mob violence.  I had seen images of the Little Rock Nine and Ruby Bridges.  But that day, I would experience the pounding heart, the sweaty palms, the racing thoughts, the shortness of breath and soon dizziness if I didn’t come up with a plan.

“Hey, N—-!”

He said it once and once was enough for me.  My feet hadn’t hit the pavement twice before the slur came from behind.  I put my hands in my pockets and picked up the pace all the while looking around for a familiar face.  I was completely alone.  Save this anonymous group, there was not a soul in sight.

I didn’t want to run.  It would only escalate the situation.  Outnumbered and unsure of their intentions, I focused on getting to my dorm.  Just get to the dorm.

It became my meditation.  I locked eyes on the path and kept my eyes on the prize– the resident hall.  Porter Hall.  I was about halfway there when I saw another student and breathed a sigh of relief.  I could hear the men behind me still but not as close.

I would not look back, would not engage them, would not attempt to gauge the distance between us.  Instead, I kept walking.  I didn’t sign up for this.  But, when I got to my dorm room and called my mother, she assured me that I did.

She was angry with me and mad at my decision to go to college.  She said as a matter of fact, “I told you those white folks don’t want you there!”  Whether they wanted me there or not, I had applied for college and been accepted.  I had secured financial aid.  I had registered for classes.  I had chosen a meal plan and decided not to pledge for a sorority.  I had moved into my dorm room, met my roommate and a few cute guys.

I was already there.  I wasn’t going to look back– not at those guys who followed me from the bus stop or where I’d come from.  I wasn’t going to take back any of the decisions I had made that had brought me to the bus stop that day, that enabled me to step on campus.  Still, I wonder where those men are now and what they will say to their children when they send them to college.

2 thoughts on “Racism 099: The Big (White) Man on Campus”

  1. OMG! I am just reading this. Although I am studying for finals, I wanted a reprieve, only to find this searing account of a college kid just wanting to study and get a degree. I know of what you speak. I pray you never have to endure another such lonely and scary experience. However, we know with the world as it is, it may happen. Thankfully, our Savior was then and will always be right there with you.

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