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What It’s Like Being the Only Black Woman in the Room: College Edition

When I wrote an article on traumatic depictions in Hollywood a few weeks back, I made a personal vow to myself that I’d give up writing about Black issues, as I usually would’ve. I made this vow to myself not because I no longer cared about these topics, but because I no longer wanted to subject myself to consuming material that was unsettling all for the sake of an article. I also began to slightly worry that I was wasting my time writing about these things as I’m sure many of our readers come from a different racial background than me. If I’m being candid, I felt like I was always caught between the lesser of two evils, so to speak; in other words, I felt like I was being faced with this constant dichotomy in which I had to decide between how much explanation I ought to divulge in my Black culture related articles. Afterall, I spent a lot of time talking about the social currency of Black culture as a major site of cultural appropriation so it just felt…wrong to have to explain why certain things had codified meanings within the diaspora. 

Five Women Laughing
Photo by Nappy from Pexels

Black culture is largely—if not entirely—contextual. So either you understand or you don’t. Therefore, one of my chief concerns in the past was trying to figure how I could talk about things that mattered to me as a Black woman, but also how I could do so in a way that wasn’t just a lexiconical tell-all for non-Black readers to expropriate my intellectual property and further infiltrate the culture. Paranoia? Possibly but I think given our tense social climate I have good reason to be. It may sound odd but in a way, it’d be a fair introspection to say or acknowledge that I try to gate-keep aspects of my culture because it’s so often misinterpreted and commodified. I can’t help but feel overprotective about trying to preserve our languages and dialects, our entertainment and academic contributions, and all our other crazy beautiful nuances when such misinterpretations of who we are always comes at our expense as wanton disregard for the actual Black lives that embody and create this culture. But sometimes you have to stick with what you know. Sure, this is a women’s magazine and these articles are published online for anyone to read, but for me, it’s more personal than that. Putting aside the fact that my articles may not reach the intended audience, ultimately I have to write for myself. I can only hope that whoever may come across my published work can learn something but what remains most important to me is that I learn something about myself in the process. Writing about these issues helps me reconnect to my people and to myself, allowing me to better understand emotions that I sometimes don’t even realize that I have. Thus, today I want to share what it’s like—from my point of view—to be the only Black woman in the room and what this specific experience is like in a collegiate setting. 

Growing up, I’ve never been in a scholastic environment that contained more than two or three Black students at a time (if any at all). I never felt any bitterness about this because I knew it had to do with both the city I lived in and the specific neighborhood where I attended school. With that being said, I did long for an experience where I’d be surrounded by a bunch of other kids who looked like me and who would understand the way I spoke about things. They’d just get it. Actually, when I was initially researching colleges to attend after I graduate high school, I had set sights on attending an HBCU because I knew how important an achievement that would’ve been for my parents (and of course what a great opportunity it would’ve been for myself as well). Obviously, I didn’t end up going for reasons relating to distance and finances but nevertheless I made it here at UCR. I began to notice freshman year that the Black student population was small in comparison to the rest of the student body but it was close-knit enough that we have our own cultural housing located in Pentland. Truthfully I was apprehensive about being around other Black students because it was so foreign to me, hence why I opted to stay in Pentland, just not in PATH housing—which ultimately didn’t matter because I made friends with a solid group that lived in that building and spent a large majority of my first year in their dorm. As great as it was back then to have made some Black girlfriends, things within the classrooms and lecture halls weren’t as welcoming. As I said, there weren’t that many of us, to begin with and we all had different majors so we would only have classes together on occasion, otherwise, I was by myself. I noticed that whenever I was in the UNLH, students would avoid sitting next to me. Now, this wouldn’t have felt hurtful had it been a small lecture hall with few seats available. But the fact of the matter was that every lecture, a particular type of student (whom I won’t specify) that make up a large population on-campus would always avoid sitting next to me or any other Black student. They’d rather sit in the back of the hall on the floor or multiple (and I mean a good six or seven spots away within the row) seats away than sit next to me or someone like me. I thought maybe this was all in my own head until I had a class years later during my junior year with a bunch of other Black students who shared the same experience during a class discussion with our professor. It was shocking but not surprising. People often act like they’re scared of us. Why? I couldn’t tell you why this happens exactly but I promise you, we notice. 

Multiracial cheerful women browsing laptop together
Photo by Alexander Suhorucov from Pexels

Beyond that, whenever conversations turned down a racial aspect, I felt like a sore thumb that stood out. I could practically feel the eyes on me whenever things got into the slavery/police brutality/BLM territory. And even more noticeably, the same seat debacle occurred in smaller discussion classrooms. I’ll just say I spent a lot of class time over the years without a seat partner in comparison to everyone else. It’s these sort of small but impactful actions that make people feel bad about themselves, wondering “Well is something wrong with me? Do I smell? Do I look mean?” These thoughts ran through my mind a lot the first two years before I stopped giving a damn, but it wouldn’t be honest of me if I said I wasn’t affected. Another thing that happened often was having someone (usually another girl) tell me that they were surprised I was so nice because they thought I would be mean. And while that may sound like a compliment, it’s actually quite back-handed. I couldn’t help but wonder if these young women were imposing a racist stereotype on me about how Black women have an attitude and are unapproachable. Perhaps if this had only occurred once then I could dispel this theory but after ten times, it gets a bit annoying. Out of all my uncomfortable experiences like these, throughout all of my time here, I feel like my thoughts or opinions are minimized or ignored. That bothers me the most because I pride myself on being an engaged, active participant in the classroom. But yet, I’ve had a good number of professors and many students give me the feeling that they didn’t really care what I had to say. It’s hard to explain but my gut always let me know when I was being marginalized. They’d skip over my hand or ask someone else to share—even if no else did—or respond to everyone’s thoughts except mine or debate every opinion that I had, especially in classes whereupon we dealt with racial material and I gave an opinionated perspective as a Black woman. It’s been worse over Zoom because it’s easy for people to breeze over you with the mute button. Somedays I get frustrated and figure that I’ll just quit participating. But I always tell myself to share anyway because I’ll be damned if I silence myself for anyone. 

woman student doing homework
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

What I’m trying to convey is that being a minority, especially a minority woman like myself, has its own mountain of challenges for the simple fact that being a Black woman has its own specific social meanings in society. Being a Black woman means something and it isn’t good. And because these ideals are enforced and sustained by the dominant white majority, non-Black minorities follow suit and give us the same treatment. It’s constant ostracization. But if I call this out, I’m the bad guy? So be it, I’ll always speak on what I see when another Black woman or queer Black person is being mistreated. If we don’t speak up for ourselves or each other, then no one will. I don’t have anything grand to conclude with, I’ll just say that if we ever get to be around each other in an academic setting again, check some subconscious prejudices of yours that you may have about certain groups of people because more often than not, they can tell and it hurts their feelings. 

Ayanté Hardy

UC Riverside '21

How would I describe myself as a creator, as an individual? I don’t know I just love cynicism and chaos and villainy, color, texture, tenacity and audaciousness, just exhausting every facet of life, nauseating grandeur. I think my strength is that I know how to play it up but also reel that in when needed. I’d like to think I’m quite good at containing this dichotomy within myself and really letting that free in my creative or intellectual expressions. My articles are my interpretation of this notion.
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