Everyone experiences college differently.
Better yet, how do individuals experience college differently? A few weeks ago I became interested in learning how women of color experience Ivy League institutions. In "Black Women in the Ivy League: Everything's Not So Pretty at the Top", I explored my own feelings, along with that of other woman, about being a women of color at Princeton and other Ivies like Harvard, Columbia, and University of Pennsylvania. Readers were intrigued, and I was later compelled to post two subsequent pieces about dating and other untold stories. With such an overwhelming positive response to the articles, it dawned on me, "How do Black men in the Ivies feel?" Why not ask my fellow brethren at Princeton to start the discussion?
While I knew these men would have powerful stories, I didn't realize the importance of sharing them until I received one of my first responses to my call for submission via Facebook message.
It started pretty normal.
"Hey Rana! Thanks for reaching out. While being black and male in the Ivy League is no monolithic experience, I do think there exists commonalities among the experiences of black males at these institutions. For one, there is this presumption that black men have matriculated based off things outside of their own merit...
Then he sent me a short "hold on."
A few minutes later, he continued.
"As I was writing this in the depths of Fine Hall basement, I was just approached and prompted by an officer asking whether or not I was a student. He proceeded to ask to me to give my identification ... wow this is so ironic and crazy that this happened just as I was writing you."
I was speechless.
Yes, it is true that being a student at Princeton is not a "monolithic experience" and, as many of the men relayed in their writings to me, can be "highly rewarding." As the I Too Am Princeton campaign showed, it's also true that American institutions have a painful history of racial inequity, discrimination, and prejudice towards people of color. This group's perspectives, sentiments, and realities are often not shared publicly in a setting where a history of elitism, privilege, and power is deeply-rooted.
Below, you will find excerpts from the larger piece I worked on called Unsilencing the Silenced: Black Men at Princeton.
Read and respect.
Editor's Note: The following excerpts contain explicit language that some readers may find objectionable.
ON THE EXPECTATION TO ENDURE IT ALL IN SILENCE
When you're among the first in your family or community to be attending an institution such as Princeton and getting a Bachelor's degree, failure simply isn't even an option with so many eyes looking to you. ...[and then] there's the battle against the mythos of the strong black man which means that expressing emotion beyond anger or happiness, seeking help when needed, when worn out, when feeling overwhelmed by the pressure, is frowned upon or seen as "quitting'" or "admitting defeat." When challenges, struggles, or failures occurred, there's an expectation to endure it all in silence and simply persevere.
When you see anonymous commentators [on Daily Princetonian articles] reducing your classmates and your identity to 'prone to violence,' 'moves in packs,' 'undeserving candidate,' or other such unflattering terms, it's no wonder feelings of being the 'other' among black Princetonians persist. The anonymity means that you begin to question whether your peers in precept, passing acquaintances, friends, or even the very campus community you find yourself in actually harbor those thoughts towards you and those like you or even just view you as some freakish puzzle to be figured out or put in a box.
- Leslie, Class of 2011
"I AM AN ATHLETE. I WAS NOT RECRUITED."
Here, people generalize most black males to be recruited athletes. Although, I am an athlete myself, I was not recruited. Where did the term scholar-athlete go when people begin to generalize black males on this campus? Apparently it's not a fathomable option. This stereotype is one of the things that push to me to do my best -- to disprove the nonbelievers. I want to show people that black males can excel in both academics and athletics.
Would an Ivy League institution where blacks were the majority be viewed as prestigiously as the ones we have today? Unfortunately, I believe not.
[As obvious] minorities at Ivy League institutions, some people view us as out of place, as if we don't belong. And for some black males on this campus, this is the exact sentiment they feel -- out of place.
There is no quitting for me. I don't want your pity.
- Kahdeem, Class of 2017
ON RACISM AND THE "N WORD"
I've had five experiences of racism and I'm only a freshman. One day I was at one of the parties and I happened to be talking to a friend but I was standing next to two white people and one of them was (I'm guessing) drunk and I overheard him say that he wasn't going to try to get into that eating club because it's for niggers. I did respond to him. I reverted back to what I would do if I was in Atlanta and went in. He was like "Oh my gosh! I'm so sorry." He didn't even see me. That's what really irked me. I know that some Caucasian people say the "n word" and some people don't care. He was was genuinely saying the "n word" to talk down on Black people. He didn't know I was behind him. When he saw me, he was like, "Oh shit." An argument ensued and that turned into something else and that escalated and escalated so of course it ended with him trying to apologize but I was angry as hell.
I do think that people need to come in here prepared. Don't come in here with this attitude that you will fit right in. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of [diverse] friends, but I do realize there are a lot of people here that think that minorities are only here because of affirmative action.
-Asanni, Class of 2017
ON NOT FEELING "GOOD ENOUGH"
Being a man of color at Princeton was probably the most psychologically/mentally challenging experiences I have ever had. From an intellectual standpoint, Princeton is difficult for everyone, but being African American and male made it even harder. When I first came to Princeton, I did not feel like I belonged. I did not feel like I was intelligent enough to actually study at such an elite institution. Most of my peers did not help me overcome that self-doubt. While not always explicitly stated, I constantly felt like people thought I was at Princeton for a reason other than my intelligence. I cannot tell you how many times I was asked if I was on the basketball team.
This really ate at me during my first years at Princeton, as I always felt like I had to defend my right to attend the University, which served as a distraction from focusing on my school work. When working on a project in group settings, my opinion and contributions were frequently ignored by the rest of the group, only to be acknowledged or accepted when someone else brought up the same point a few minutes later in the discussion. This really drove me crazy because the mind games (intentional or not) made me feel insane, as the lines between what I thought occurred and what I could have imagined were blurred. I do not think that I every really learned to deal with the constant subtle attacks. Instead, I just brushed them off and focused on my ultimate goal - graduating.
-Jason, Class of 2013
"ONE OF THE MOST VALUABLE AND HUMBLING EXPERIENCES OF MY LIFE"
My experience at Princeton was one of the most valuable and humbling experiences of my life. Coming from an urban area as a man of color and going to an Ivy League school I was conditioned by my community to be told that my shit didn't stink. Princeton proved this to be VERY wrong. Not only was my intelligence a non-factor, my skin color and socioeconomic background both served as factors that made me feel inadequate.
The challenges that I faced at Princeton due to the color of my skin and my background forced me out of my comfort zone and made me stay there. While it is true that the Ivy League experience was not catered to people who look like me, I do believe that it molded me into a more understanding and overall better person who understands and knows how to deal with such discrepancies and properly lead the way for those behind me.
- Anonymous, Class of 2013
"IT'S AN IVY LEAGUE SCHOOL, NOT AN HBCU. WHAT DO PEOPLE EXPECT?"
I'm going to sound like an outlier, but I felt thoroughly fulfilled socially at Princeton. My Blackness was never a problem. Most black folk I've talked with always have something negative to say about the Princeton experience -- in fact, everything they say is negative. They often claim to have been depressed by the environment, and in particular, by the social scene, including the "nonexistent" dating scene.
When it came to the racial and ethnic makeup, I felt the numbers weren't so bad. I'd done my research, and there seemed to be plenty enough blacks. It's an Ivy League school, not an HBCU. What do people expect?
- Jared, Class of 2013
"I FEEL LIKE I'M NOT 'BLACK ENOUGH' FOR BLACK WOMEN TO FIND ME ATTRACTIVE"
I'm frustratingly shy when it comes to girls, I don't drink and casual hookups personally aren't for me so I actually haven't had any relationships or hookups at Princeton. However I think my status as a black man also holds me back from being more social around girls. I tend to think compared to the athletes, I'm "not black enough" or impressive enough for black women to find me attractive. I have also heard non-black girls expressing how their parents wouldn't want them to get involved with a black man so that makes me more hesitant to approach them as well. While every guy has a fear of being rejected, I'm jealous that my white friends will rarely ever wonder "I wonder if she likes white guys" when talking to a girl. Also I feel the quiet pressure from my parents to date a black woman while I know my sisters are under no such expectation. While I know they will happily accept a relationship with a non-black person if that woman loved me, I'm also well aware of the stereotype of academically accomplished black men marrying white women.
- Anonymous, Class of 2015
ONE OF THE "MOST DRASTIC SOCIAL CHANGES I'VE EVER EXPERIENCED"
I made the transition to a graduate program at Princeton from Morehouse College, an HBCU. It was one of the most drastic social changes I've ever experienced. I expected that Princeton would have a different social environment, but I didn't realize the extent of alienation and isolation I would experience. At Morehouse I was a part of a supportive community with culturally and socially similar individuals, but I found that these factors were not present in Princeton.
I feel responsible for proving that minorities deserve opportunities at elite research institutions. I feel constant pressure to justify my existence with every research talk, seminar, or one on one interaction. As one of the only black men in my program my opinions and interactions can often be perceived as the thoughts, skills, and abilities of other minorities. Even with success, I find it hard to change people's preconceived notions. However, I have no regrets, and I do feel fortunate to attend and learn from some of the best scholars in the world.
- Colin, PhD Candidate 2016
Surely, there are many other silenced groups who don't speak out about their daily experiences at such institutions. Let's start the dialogue. Share yours.
To read these men's stories in their entirety (and more that were not shared in this article), visit:
Follow Rana Campbell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rainshineluv