What I’ve Learned as a Black Student At a PWI

What is a PWI, you ask? A PWI, or a predominantly white institution, is defined pretty much by its name; an institution that has a population made up of mostly white students. As a black student who currently attends a PWI, I’ve had my share of good and bad experiences during my time at my university. I’ve also learned a great deal about how to openly embrace my culture despite being surrounded by people who do not look like me. In a way, by being a part of the minority on campus, I’ve grown much closer to people of my own race than I thought I would have before entering college.

However, everything is not always rainbows and sunshine when the complexion of your skin is not the same as the majority of students.

Aside from obvious racial tensions and passive aggressive acts on campus I and others like me have encountered, I have also received criticism from people who do not even attend my university. 

“You go to a PWI, so you must hate being black!” is the most popular comment I've received. Along with, “a PWI can’t teach you how to love your people," “why didn’t you go to Spelman instead?”, and the holy grail of ignorant assumptions, “they only accepted you to meet their quota!” 

Yeah, I’ve heard it all and then some. The best way that I ignore this type of ignorance is to just remember that people will believe what they want to believe about you and what you’re doing regardless of how successful you are. Letting other people’s negative comments about the type of school you attend get into your head will only hinder you. Besides, they have no idea what it is like to walk in your shoes so they really shouldn’t have a say in how bumpy or smooth your path is.

As if outsider comments aren’t frustrating enough, the treatment from some of the white students (and sometimes faculty) on campus is a whole different factor.

Picture this: You are casually sitting on a packed bus with an empty seat next to you, wondering why no one has taken advantage of the free space. Instead, you look around and see several people standing near you, leaving the one seat next to you purposely empty.

Being treated as if I have the plague -- even on a crowded bus -- is pretty much a weekly occurrence for me. Rain, snow, wind, sunshine, no matter what the weather is like outside, there are some students on campus who would rather stand and be squished by everyone else than sit comfortably next to me. 

There are other times when the passive aggression isn’t so passive. A specific instance that comes to mind is when I had to work in a group to complete a class assignment. Both of the members in my group were white, which wasn’t a surprise because this just so happened to be a class where I was the only black student –- another common occurrence.

My group members seemed to only be focused on talking to each other, rather than asking for my input on anything. Whenever I would say something, they would either brush it off as if I hadn’t said anything or subtly disagree and go back to conversing amongst themselves. It was like I was invisible to them. What I thought and what I knew wasn’t valuable to them.

This incident has been one of the most pivotal moments in my college career because it showed me that some people truly do not believe that my voice matters due to the color of my skin. It is as if because I am black, I am somehow less intelligent and incapable of contributing anything useful to discussions. It wasn’t until the end of my first semester of freshman year that I finally learned to assert myself and make people listen to me, regardless of their prejudice against me.

Another crucial moment that impacted me was my experience during a peaceful march held on my campus shortly after a grand jury decided not to indict the officer that shot and killed Michael Brown. After the march was over, the popular Yik Yak was filled with numerous racial insults targeted at those of us who were marching. Everything from calling us “monkeys” to “ni**ers”,- If it had anything to do with being black, it was used as an insult, and all because we were marching for an injustice we were passionate about.

While the other students on campus can be cruel, the ignorance doesn’t end with just them – even professors can be ignorant.  Let me emphasize that this does not account for all professors.

However, whether people want to admit it or not, black students are commonly viewed differently than white students at a PWI.

During my freshman year, I took an English class that only had about 15 to 20 students in it compared to a normal 300-person lecture. I was the only black student in the class, and because it was a smaller class, the professor-student interaction was the main characteristic of the class.

It was impossible for the professor not to know who you were.

One day, we were analyzing a passage in a book we were reading and everyone in the class was stumped on what the author was trying to say. Except me. Literally, it was clear as day. So eventually I grew bored of watching everyone sigh in confusion and I raised my hand to give my input. The look on my professor’s face was utter disbelief.

What did my professor finally say to me when I finally got the answer right?

“I hope you didn’t use SparkNotes,” he said.  “That site is strictly forbidden in this class!”

Not a “great job!” or “finally someone gets it!”. Everyone else had been given a “nice try, but try again.” However, my natural intelligence was received with an assumption that I used an outside resource because there was no way I was just that smart.

At the end of class, the professor pulled me aside and told me it was only a joke as if he had realized how insulting his comment was. Long story short? I ended up getting an A in the class, proving that I didn’t need SparkNotes or any other website to tell me how to read.

Through the obstacles I've faced as a minority at a PWI, I've gotten a chance to truly embrace my ethnicity and bond with other people of my race who have gone through similar experiences. Becoming involved with organizations on campus that cater to minority students has definitely provided a sense of inclusion that I would have otherwise struggled to feel. Being a part of the small percentage of African-Americans in my university's student body has allowed me to not only form genuine friendships, but has also helped me learn more about myself.

Every year my college hosts multicultural events such as Africa Night, Caribbean Night, Unity Ball, and other programs that celebrate the diversity students of color bring to campus. These events serve as a reminder that even though I don't attend a university that is full of students who look like me, my identity is not compromised. 

While my experiences at my school are not meant to serve as discouragements to black students who wish to attend a PWI, it is important to know what you are getting yourself into. You will come into contact with genuinely nice people and blatantly rude people and it’ll be up to you to discern between the two.

You must remember you are there to earn your degree and prove that you are in fact valuable and worthy of where you are. Despite the few bad experiences I have had at my PWI, I would not have picked any other type of school to attend. Knowing that there are people out there that wish for me to fail solely because of the color of my skin has encouraged me to retaliate with my success.