Black Faces in White Spaces
On Nov. 27, 2015, I was in the eye of the storm. Marching, with the bitter wind slapping my face. My boots hitting the ground with a rhythm that couldn’t match my pounding heart. Neighborhood soldiers bounced all around us with guns on their hips. Our voices were hoarse from yelling, our fingers were numb from keeping our white-knuckled fists in the air. Hostile eyes and hostile words surrounded us, but we kept going. We had to keep going.
We needed to break the silence.
On Black Friday, Black Lives Matter activists, Black Young People’s Movement members, many other tired activists and citizens, and I sought to shut down Michigan Avenue. I looked out to the faces of countless hundreds as the sounds of our chants were punctuated with the drumbeats and claps of people in the crowd. Old men with weathered faces and brows set into hard lines strode forward. Mothers with fear-stricken faces held onto exclaiming signs with one hand and somber children with the other. The loudest of all were those under 30: teenagers, college students — many of us off from our winter breaks at schools across the Midwest — we had all grabbed our signs and warmest coats and we headed downtown.
There was something in us: a flame, a spark, a call, we couldn’t say. All we knew how to say was that we were tired. All we knew how to do was raise our voices and be seen. We had spent so much time being invisible and silenced; we didn’t want to go along with it any longer. Not when we had a choice. Young adults and kids just like us would never sing or be seen again. The cable had been ripped out, and their verses ended forever.
Seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald, 18-year-old Michael Brown, 22-year-old Rekia Boyd, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and 28-year-old Sandra Bland.
Being young didn’t save them. Being in cities or small towns didn’t protect them. Being sons and daughters didn’t save them. Being good students didn’t save them.
And those traits wouldn’t save any of us.
On May 24, on DePaul University’s campus, we marginalized spoke out again. I looked out to the faces of the seemingly countless aggressive and apathetic, watching them as their disdain radiated from them. I wondered if were we so repugnant? So many faces and so many words hailed back and forth between our side and their side. They called us crybabies, fascists, sheep, f—s and n—s. Their red faces gaped and spewed red-hot words. Each undulation of a phrase felt like a slap. Each pronunciation felt like a punch. Didn’t they know this was violence? Didn’t they know how much we already suffered?
I can’t forget that day or the week that followed if I wanted to. It has and will always echo in the back of my mind like a sinister chant. So much hatred, so much noise from the crowd, I couldn’t pick out just any one face, and I and so many students walk around campus with fear in our bones. Is it him? Was she there? Again and again from the Student Center, to the DePaul Whole Foods and to class. That fear, like the lessons I have learned, follows me wherever I go.
Such are the burdens for any Black American, particularly an educated one. For to whom much is given, much is expected.
It’s a generational fear. One my mother and father and their mothers and fathers held in their hearts. I can never forget about the folks who came before me, wailing their Negro spirituals, desperate for a better chance, a better life, and a better day; nor can I forget about the generations after me, my children and my children’s children who I must watch navigate the same world that causes me much pain and has given me much joy.
It is within these shadows that we marched and chanted and yelled and sang that day.
We knew we had to do something. The silence was too disappointing, too disheartening and too deafening.
In the silence of the classroom, Jireh L. Drake’s teacher’s words hit her ears with a dissonant echo. Her teacher told Jireh that she should leave the class, not because she did anything wrong, but because everything she said in the lecture would make Jireh uncomfortable. The pianissimo hurt spread within her, familiar and frustrating all at once. After seeing Jireh move to leave, the teacher, whom Jireh refuses to name in fear of reprisal, laughed it off and pronounced, “It was a joke.”
Jireh left, unable to stay quiet in the crescendoing anxiety. Even though her classmates, all white, did.
Her voice is weighed down by something both mysterious and recognizable while she tells her story. Her voice, though airy and light, seems trapped by a familiar darkness that most Black students can hear in their own words, see on their own faces and feel in their own hearts.
Most of the time, our pain and stress are shrugged off and ignored. A resounding note on May 24 was freedom of speech. The right to call me a n—r. The freedom to silence me. I’ve felt it before (albeit not that loudly or belligerently) in classrooms, in offices, with my peers and authority.
Microaggression theory was developed and coined by Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970, and he used it to describe the dismissals, insults, and subtle-but-sharp comments and nonverbal cues that he regularly saw hurled at his Black American students and colleagues by non-Black Americans. It’s taken a while for “microaggressions” to become a common refrain on college campuses; it probably seemed too messy to put in one word.
Microaggressions can occur at any time in any place, and they can range from being as simple as an uninvited question about Black hair to as hostile as placing a noose on a doorway. As long as no one is touched, it’s a microaggression; because isn’t that safer?
Tulie Ceriser said she never felt safe at Eastern Illinois University.
The school is nestled in quaint Charleston, Illinois, between the town where the first Burger King opened and Paris, Illinois. Most people don’t know where Charleston is, but Eastern Illinois University is a decent state school that is known for its education programs and Tulie was locked into tuition at only $11,000 an academic year.
To her and her parents, it didn’t matter that Black students made up just over one-eighth of the total student population while the White students made up over two-thirds.
“I knew I was in the middle of nowhere,” Tulie said.
“I was welcomed by the Black community,” she said about her first arrival as a freshman. In time, her Black sorority sisters and classmates became hairdressers with the lack of salons that could do Black hair, matchmakers to the few Black boys on campus, and older sisters that could give out advice and be shoulders to cry on.
“But as far as the Whites, some of them — not all — some were welcoming. Like my freshman year in the dorms, the girls were welcoming [the first week of school],” she said. “But after that, not really. It really felt like segregation within the school.
“They didn’t come to our parties, and we didn’t go to theirs. I talked to people in class, but after we were done, that was it,” she said.
But life on campus was one thing, life in Charleston was another.
On a warm, fall night during Tulie’s sophomore year, she was walking from a friend’s dorm to her own — about five minutes away. The pickup truck sputtered and screeched down the street, and the rowdy White men inside were as hot as the truck’s engine.
It all happened so fast; just one moment and the song was over.
Tulie’s waist-length braids were covered in lukewarm soda, crushed ice pellets whipped across her face and left heat behind, their screams and jeers felt like knives.
“It’s kind of this unspoken thing,” she said. “I thought on campus I’d be okay, but I was wrong.”
Everybody knows about Mississippi, everybody knows about Alabama, fewer people know about downstate Illinois.
It all worked out in the end. Tulie graduated in June 2015, with her bachelor’s in family and consumer sciences. She wants to go on to teach.
But, why did she stay? Why stay where they don’t want you? Where they’ve never wanted you?
“Well, I wanted to transfer,” Columbia College graduate Kelsey Stone said. “It was either transfer and take longer to graduate, or just deal with the discrimination and use the negative energy to become successful.”
Chicago’s Columbia College is known for being an artsy, liberal school where expression and difference are encouraged. Diversity is a point of pride.
But diversity and safety meant something different for Kelsey in a place where he — like so many students who go to predominately White universities — was one of the few, if not only, Black students in any of his classes. Despite being in one of the most diverse cities in the U.S., Kelsey stood out as a Black man, wherever he went. His perspective as a Black man stood out wherever he went.
“A ‘safe space’ to me is a place where one can talk about their opinions and emotions openly without feeling judged,” Kelsey said.
Kelsey explained that he felt safety only came with meeting the right people and having the right friends, or, of course, looking a certain way.
“I had a teacher tell me one time, ‘I hope you washed your hands’ [after shaking hands with me],” Kelsey said.
Eventually, Kelsey learned how to navigate Columbia in stride, but the microaggressions he faced stressed him out. By the time it was all over, Kelsey was over trying to feel accepted.
“You know, it’s funny, at first I didn’t really feel supported there, but [then] I didn’t care if I was,” Kelsey said. “At one point I was like ‘Man, I’m about to graduate so f— it.’
“I just wanted to get my degree and be done.”
For Black students at Predominately White Institutions, improvising can be seen as a professional mistake. Black students are expected to dress, look, sound, speak and work the part, without being political or tired. They are expected to work twice as hard, just for a chance. Just for respect, just a little bit.
“I went through the Gateway program, and so that’s how I was able to get in. And they were definitely welcoming among the Gateway staff,” Tulie said.
The Gateway Program is run through EIU’s Minority Affairs department, and it’s a high school outreach program geared toward first-generation, low-income, and minority students. High school students enrolled in Gateway meet particular ACT/SAT or GPA standards, and in return are transitioned into EIU with a scholarship, transitional freshman classes to deal with intercultural communication and time management, and the chance to experience the school the summer before their freshman year to get acclimated.
The program is meant to accommodate students that tested well at lower-scoring high schools or students that achieved good grades despite lower ACT/SAT scores.
“My freshman year, everything was pretty cool,” Tulie said. “There was a lot of pressure, though.”
But students enrolled in the Gateway program may not, according to Eastern Illinois University’s Gateway requirement documents, “pledge or become a member of any Greek, Little Sister/Little Brother, Sweethearts organization, or dance/modeling groups while in the Gateway Program. They must live in university residence halls. They must participate in weekly 20-minute advising appointments. They must log in four hours a week at laptop-free Study Tables (a kind of study hall), depending on their GPA. Professors turn in five-and 10- week grade reports.”
Students are then phased out of the Gateway program at the end of their first spring semester, to make room for the new Gateway students. The scholarship ends, as do the Study Tables and weekly advising appointments.
From the fall term of Tulie’s freshman year to the fall term of her sophomore year, the total retention rate for Eastern Illinois University was 79 percent.
Tulie went from being one out of 490 Black freshmen to being one out of 317.
Her senior class left behind 276 Black junior year students to take their place.
The graduation rate (accounting for students that graduated within six years of starting their first class at EIU) that year was 58 percent.
In the reality of a world with stress, anxiety and mental illnesses that invoke both like depression, thorough self-care is vital to any kind of academic success.
“I was just going through the motions of just going through this class, without checking in on how I was emotionally,” Jireh said. Jireh’s voice is soft and light. In fact, she rarely raises it. She lets her facial piercings, bright clothing, and short, spiky dreads announce her presence.
“The entire quarter, I did not feel safe in that class,” Jireh remembered. “I just snapped and started yelling at her. I have so many accounts of teachers just coming at me. As a queer, black woman, I will never not be seen.
“But this is all that I know,” she sighed.
“The community that surrounds it is a pretty stable environment, and on campus there’s a lot of intentional policy behind how they take care of their students. As far as what we needed and what what was provided to us, that was all in close proximity, and there were plenty of resources that students could reach out to and get what you need,” said Justin Smith.
Justin attended Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. Oakwood is a historically Black university (HBCU) and is also a Seventh-Day Adventist university. Justin said that he decided to go to this smaller, lesser-known college because he wanted to be around professors and students and administrators that would support him as a Black man.
“As a Black person at an HBCU, there was an intentional presence [of intentional protection] that was felt in the environment that you were in,” Justin said.
But Justin’s choice is controversial. HBCUs have a negative reputation for not being “as good” as predominantly White schools. In fact, when Payscale.com released its annual college and universities rankings in 2014, HBCUs were unsung.
“For several public and private HBCUs in North Carolina and Georgia, Payscale’s figures suggest that a person is likely to have a better return on investment as a high-school graduate, than as an alumnus of certain HBCUs, because their earnings as HBCU graduates over 20 years will not eclipse what they will owe in student debt incurred by attending these schools,” Jarrett L. Carter wrote for Huffington Post.
Justin says he’s confident in moving on to Morehouse medical school, where he started in spring 2016, and forward in life, and there are still students who choose HBCU’s semester after semester over Predominately White Institutions (PWI’s) where microaggressions and blind eyes from the administration are par for the course.
“I think it’s the same formula for how one would select any school. I think it differs in where one would place their priorities,” Justin said about his choice. “So for me, of course I’d want an institution that an education. You’d want something that provides for the field that you’re pursuing. But, I wanted to provide for my mental needs, spiritual needs, as well. I didn’t want to go to college just for an education. I was able to do what I wanted, I was never put into a box.”
HBCUs can seem like a utopia for Black college students, but when faced with the choice of a recognizable school with a positive reputation, a PWI can be hard to say no to. So, universities have attempted in recent years to bridge the gap for their students of color by adding diversity initiatives, programs and scholarships, as well as ethnic studies departments.
“My experience has been that students do find it a relief,” Dr. Amor Kohli, an associate professor and the department chair for DePaul University’s African and Black Diasporic Studies department. He started at DePaul in 2003, during the debut year of the program. “It is a space where Black students understand that their experience and their positions will be valued as valid, but not above debate. I do think that [Black] students appreciate that, and they appreciate not having to explain themselves all the time.
“I do think they respond to the sense of validity and value. They’re not so much being spoken about, as being spoken to,” Kohli riffed. “Sometimes students are also very happy to be in a space in which they are not the minority, numerically or experientially speaking.”
“I know, when I go into a classroom, there is going to be someone that says something. There’s going to be something problematic,” Jireh said.
When asked about whether he felt microaggressions at school, Kelsey paused. “At a PWI, who hasn’t?” he said with a laugh.
“I think Chicago is strange this way because Chicago, as we know, is very segregated, and so, for some of the Black students coming from Chicago, they’re moving into a space that is much more white than they may have been used to. I think there are a lot of things going on there,” Dr. Kohli said.
“Obviously, this depends on the student, but I think that there is a general sense of destabilization [for white students in his classes]. They are not used to being in the minority, and had not realized that, until that moment,” he punctuated with a meaningful nod. “But, that having been said, there are a number of those students that accept that destabilization as a part of the process of finding out something other than themselves.
“But you also have students who are resistant,” he said.
Resistant. That was one word for it. Marginalized students got tired of the violence, tired of the silence, and privileged students were resistant to our voices. Resistant to our assertion. Resistant to our democracy. And as that week in May progressed, things got scarier and scarier. The death threats came, student after student and even faculty and alums became targets. Then the noose was found.
The Department of Justice’s information on hate crime reports on college campuses is only available through 1999, and in that year 802 were reported. The National Center for Education Statistics found that in 2012 there were 791 reported hate crime incidents that occurred on the campuses of surveyed public and private two-year and four-year institutions.
According to their findings, the three most common types of hate crimes reported in 2012 were vandalism, simple assault and intimidation.
“There a lot of ways you can be in danger: mentally, physically, socially,” said Justin. “So, when you’re in an environment where you’re protected that [idea of a safe space] solidifies.”
But during a time when Black Lives Matter is added to syllabi and deaths and beatings of students just like them are flashed on the nightly news, Black students, just like anti-Vietnam students at Kent State and pro-feminist students at Berkeley or any college student in the history of American turmoil, respond to campus microaggressions politically and proactively.
Jireh volunteers with Assata’s Daughters, a mentoring programs and activism group that helped with organizing protests against Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former Illinois State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, and the death of Rekia Boyd.
Kelsey uses his creative chops from Columbia to write articles for Ebony magazine and his own blog, “Made In Stone,” about his experience as a millennial Black man.
Tulie joined Sigma Gamma Rho — a historically Black sorority that was founded by educators — that promises community outreach through kids’ education programs.
From the boisterous claps of protests to the subtle riffs of volunteering, these and other Black college students leave their marks on their institutions. After going from statistic to statistic, Black students are walking onto these college campuses like heroes, unaware that the fight has just begun, but as college students chanted when they protested Donald Trump’s rally at UIC, as Kendrick Lamar rapped in his Grammy-winning album “To Pimp a Butterfly,”
“We gon’ be alright/We gon’ be alright/We gon’ be alright.
“Do you hear me, do you feel me? We gon’ be alright.”