JONES: Minorities on campus experience daily discomfort at primarily Caucasian UNL
by Dillon Jones
Originally published at Daily Nebraskan
Every day before class, three rules run through my head: “You can’t wear sweat pants,” “you have to sit in the front row,” “you can’t be late.” If I fail to do any of these things, there’s a chance that my professor will assume I’m lazy or uninterested in their class, not because I’m actually lazy or uninterested in the class, but because of what he expects of me as a black student. This may seem irrational, but that doesn’t matter. I have to make sure that I never come across as lazy or uninterested. It’s a reality for me.
When I came to college, these are the things I was instructed to always keep in mind. Most students never hear that, but as one of few black men on campus, this is something that runs through my mind repeatedly. All so I don’t reinforce negative stereotypes that people might apply to me. Every day – in the classroom, in the clubs I’m involved in and in my social life – I’m constantly battling expectations and stereotypes applied to me because of the color of my skin.
I’m often the only black person – or even the only obvious person of color – in my class. Thus, I’m often designated the spokesperson for the black community. When race, prejudice or oppression comes up (I’m an English major, so we talk about this stuff a lot) I can feel everyone in the room, even the instructor, fighting not to look my way. You see, when you’re the only black person in the class, you become the authority on all things non-white. You can shirk the duty of course, but then the perspective that only you’re in a position to give goes unvoiced. I spend much of the class period hoping race never comes up. When it does, I struggle to determine what to say, how to say it, and above all else, how to remain calm when doing so.
I’ve been involved in several extracurricular activities during my time here, and I’ve had to walk a similar, ambiguous line. Again I’ve often been the lone black person (or person of color) in the group. I can’t help but wonder: What’s my function here? Who am I supposed to be to this group? Am I purely symbolic? Does my presence produce the illusion of inclusion? Am I just the token? Do I really belong here? Sure, it’s possible that I’m there because I’m intelligent, resourceful and creative. But it might not be. There’s always a strain of doubt lurking. There’s always a kernel of uncertainty as to what my value is. This isn’t a question white people have to entertain.
In social interactions, white people don’t know what to do with me. Of my appearance, the way I speak and my interests, I defy just about all of the conventional stereotypes. I can’t be placed easily into a box, so I’m often perceived as a novelty. Whether I want to be or not, my shoes are always cool or my “black guy mustache” is impressive. I’m also told I speak well. White people don’t tell other white people these things. Here’s the subtext: I’m a sharp dresser because the expectation is that my ass will be hanging out of my pants. I’m articulate because I don’t speak exclusively in slang.
Typically, I avoid talking about race with white people. It’s a messy, complex web of messy socially-constructed bullshit. And it’s risky. I’ve seen white people walk on eggshells around me because they’re paralyzed by the fear of being called racist. But race comes up all the time. It’s often the subtext of an off-hand comment, complaint or joke.
White people say the “N-word” around me because they “forget that I’m black.” I can’t count how often I’ve been told I’m “the whitest black guy” or “not like other black people.” White people think these are compliments. They’re not. They’re saying that I don’t make them uncomfortable. I was taught that this was the key to navigating a primarily white community/institution while black. Sadly, I’m really good at this.
But I can’t afford not to be. I don’t have the privilege of not caring what everyone thinks of me. I can’t break any of the aforementioned rules to academic success. I can’t show frustration or express rage about an experience that more than 80 percent of students here don’t understand. The whole thing is exhausting, but it’s inescapable — I don’t have a choice, I can’t change my reality.
I’m not trying to make white people on campus feel guilty or ashamed. I’m not concerned with how you feel. How you feel doesn’t change my experience. But what you do matters. If you have friends who aren’t white, remember that it’s likely they’re thinking about the same things I write about here.
I want you to understand that people of color on this campus don’t experience everyday things the same way you do.