BLACK IN JMC

The James Madison College of Michigan State University prides itself on its ability to “address and examine” the major issues that impact our world. In fact, this promise is what attracts many of its current and future students to the college. In my experience, I have been fortunate enough to learn about important issues both within the United States and abroad. However, the societal issues we discuss within our classes often find a way to manifest themselves within the classroom. 

This month, I interviewed six black women in their second year at the college to hear about their experiences. When reading their stories, you will find yourself seeing several common themes emerging. Be sure to pause for a moment and truly listen. 

To begin the interviews, I asked each of these women what drew them to college in the first place. While each identified the more common reasons, such as smaller class sizes, an interest in social and political issues, and meaningful class discussions, a particular point made by student Raven Nelson highlighted a unique reason that resonated with me. When deciding on which major to pick, she “went with Social Relations and Policy because of its specific focus on race and the white supremacist ideologies that created the racial hierarchy that persists in the U.S. today.” For many in JMC, which, like the larger university, is predominantly white, the things we learn about are just stories. But for us, these are our experiences, our existences. When our classes learn about the ways in which slavery continues to impact black people, we are not thinking of a distant other, but are rather transported to our past experiences shared by friends and family members. In a way, it has allowed me to learn more about myself and my identity. It is deeply, deeply, personal. 

The college experience is different for everyone. Yet in each of their interviews, these women identified several challenges that they all shared. 

 

Yasmin Bangura, International Relations 

“Every class that I've taken so far in JMC has been 90% white and I'm usually one of two Black people. It gets very stressful and makes me question certain aspects of the school only because when the topic of minoritized groups comes up, you feel all eyes on you. It makes me feel like I’m forced to be a spokesperson for all Black women.”

 

Madison Gladney, Social Relations and Policy, Comparative Cultures and Politics 

“I do enjoy engaging in discussion and hearing different ideas, but it is inevitable as a Black woman at a PWI that I will hear a comment that comes from a privileged point of view. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to challenge this person’s comment, but I feel like I have to or else they will continue. I’m starting to realize that it is not my responsibility to educate everyone on the privileges that they have because of their identity.”

 

Lenise Freeman, International Relations 

“In almost all JMC classes, I've been the only black person and, on top of that, the only black woman in the room. One of the worst parts will probably have to be always feeling like I have to prove that I belong in JMC. I have to go above and beyond to ensure that the professors know that I am there to work just as hard as my white peers. Another downside to being in JMC is having to hear classmates say borderline offensive remarks, especially regarding race relations. There were countless times I would leave class being enraged that anyone could confidently say that systemic racism is not a real issue or how white people can be just as oppressed as black people and other minority groups.” 

 

Safiya Webster, Social Relations and Policy

“The most challenging part of being a black woman in JMC for me has been being looked upon to share my views on behalf of my whole community, especially in class discussions where I was the only black person in the room. All black voices and experiences are not universal, and different aspects of life intersect in different ways for everyone. So, being expected to voice my opinions based on a stereotypical class perspective and other stereotypical based origins of thinking and behaving has been something annoying to deal with in my social interactions within JMC.”

 

Raven Nelson, Social Relations and Policy, Comparative Cultures and Politics 

“Our voice, especially mine, can feel overlooked and not heard. White peers often take what I’ve said and reword it trying to sound more intellectual when all they’ve done is stolen my intellect. It can be extremely frustrating especially in SRP classes where the conversations are centered around race, and minority voices are crucial in those conversations.”

 

Bayan Farah, Comparative Cultures and Politics 

“The most challenging part of being a black woman and JMC has been breaking the narrative of the angry black woman. Throughout my JMC classes there are obviously topics that hit close home and regardless of whether I have an emotional connection to a topic, at times I feel somewhat insecure of being labeled as the angry black woman or being misunderstood.”

 

In their courses, black women are looked to as the spokesperson of the entire black community and still find that our voices are being ignored. It is almost as if we are looked at to fill a specific narrative and if we don’t, our blackness is stripped from us. It is exhausting and often discouraging. Yet there are small joys of being a black woman in JMC, namely the sense of community that is felt with one another. Madison Gladney said it best: “although there are not very many Black women in JMC, being able to meet and talk with others who may share similar experiences as you is comforting in a space where we are the minority.”

This is what it’s like to be black at a predominately white school. This is what it’s like to be black in JMC. It feels like a burden. It feels like a never-ending struggle of having to prove you belong. But it also feels like a blessing to learn more about the issues facing our communities and search for solutions. It feels like a community. In my Social Relations and Policy class, every time a black woman speaks, you will be sure to find the rest of us in the class nodding with approval or openly agreeing with their point. It truly is an experience like no other. 

There is work that needs to be done. When asked about the failures of the college, many of these women highlighted the lack of diversity within the school’s demographics. In our classes centered on race and social justice, many of us are one of two, one of three black people in the course. In our classes centered on race and social justice, we are being taught by white professors who have never actually had to experience the issues they are teaching on. Though I truly do love the college, its flaws can no longer be ignored. It is time for change.