The recent events at the University of Missouri, Yale University, and Ithaca College along with the subsequent show of support on various campuses across the nation, remind us of yet another way black parents have had to prepare their young adults differently from their white peers. When it’s time to go “back to school,” we have to be sure that our students understand what it means to go “black to school.”
I will confess my generation actually dropped the ball. I am a Baby Boomer and Generation X didn’t do much better. Thus, we have Millennials facing some harsh realities about race and racism in higher education. When I set off for college, even though I chose a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), my parents (Depression Era, Greatest Generation folks) made it clear that white people would not be pleased. They told me that although I might find myself in the safety of a black space, leaving that campus and interacting with white folks would provoke some negative responses. And, they were right. My first encounter at Read’s Drug Store in Baltimore resulted in my being ignored by a white waitress with a high school diploma or less. She took it upon herself to ignore the fact that three college students were sitting at the lunch counter. She had no intention of serving black people.
Fortunately, my friends and I had received similar lessons. My roommate got up, walked to the wall, copied the information about the store’s license to serve food and before long a manager showed up to begrudgingly serve us. Some 10 years earlier, Read’s had been the sight of one of the nation’s first lunch counter sit-ins. We sat in that restaurant not expecting to be greeted with open arms. We knew they resented us not only because we were black, but also because we were black collegians!
A generation later, I prepared to send my own children to college. Of course, I gave them the standard lines about “no drugs, no alcohol, and no sex” (knowing they would probably ignore me on all three) but I didn’t tell them much about the likelihood of racist encounters. As a college professor, I know enough about subtle racism and discrimination to avoid fighting certain battles for my children. Faculty and staff have a wealth of tools with which to exact punishment (e.g. lower grades, stalling, ignoring contributions, etc.) and I wanted my children to be good problem solvers. I must admit that I also felt, as an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, that we had already confronted some of the major demons. We had passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and we were moving ahead … yeah, right!!
When my niece entered a top university she had an experience where a white student called her the “N-word!” She was devastated almost to the point where she wanted to leave school. My brother (her father) and I thought this was absurd. But, we also realized that we had done little to prepare her (or my own children) for these kinds of encounters.
Writer Jane Smiley, in her university set novel “Moo” wrote of a similar encounter with a black female student. The student, who was from Chicago, found herself on a Midwestern university campus where a white male student calls her the N-word. Her white housemates respond quickly to the young man and in their minds the insult has been handled. However, the young black woman is traumatized. She cannot sleep; she has trouble concentrating, and lives in fear. She tells her sister, who lives in a Chicago Housing Project, that she intends to drop out of school. Her sister, a struggling single mother, replies, “Drop outta school because some cracker calls you a ni**a? Are you outta your mind?”
This young woman continues to struggle until she finds a sympathetic black faculty person who provides her with some support.
Today, we are watching African American and other students across the country take up the cause of civil rights to fight against racism on our college and university campuses. What we are responding to are the obvious and visible manifestations at places like the University of Missouri, Yale University, and Ithaca College, but these places are not home to “isolated incidents.” Racism is alive and well in the “halls of ivy.” They reside in the White Greek-letter system (see the numerous blackface and “Illegal Immigrant” Halloween costumes). They reside in admissions offices (you could not make these campuses this white without deliberately ignoring diversity). They reside in administration offices where issues of race and racism are lumped in with discussions of “diversity” and trivialized. They reside in college and university classrooms where faculty members remain skeptical about the ability of black students. They reside in campus housing where black students live in fear of anonymous threats and overt discrimination. They reside in athletic programs where black bodies earn all the money on the field or court for the entertainment of students, alumni, and the wider community. They reside at every level of decision-making and privilege that college and university affiliation offers. In 1988, PBS aired a documentary called “Racism 101” to reveal some of the deep-seated racism that is a part of American college life. Those conditions have not changed much in almost 30 years!
I am so proud of this generation of black (and other) collegians who have mobilized to force the issue. Yes, the “Black Lives Matter” movement has helped people along the social class spectrum recognize the plight of black people and law enforcement. But many of us had mistakenly believed that college was the “safe space” we have worked hard to send our children to. They are reminding us that not only do we send them “back to school,” we also send them “black to school!”