As thousands of students across the country embark on their first year of college, I want to offer all incoming students some guidance on navigating race and multiculturalism for their next four years. As a senior at Colgate University and a first-generation Mexican-American, I have experienced both the struggles and difficulties of being a minority on a campus, as well as moments of joy and, ultimately, inclusion.
My first year at Colgate was by far my worst. Admittedly, there were factors other than race that contributed to my unsatisfying first year, but the origin of this dissatisfaction was my confusion with my culture and what role it would play in my life at college.
Once established at Colgate, I realized that the biggest divide was not class year, affluence, or Greek organization, but race. For the most part, white students only hung out with white students and minority students only with minority students. (I understand that it is a huge generalization to classify Colgate's student population into two groups -- whites and non-whites -- and that the makeup is much more complex, but for the purpose of this essay, this is the characterization I will move forward with).
This cleavage produced an intense anger and a feeling of isolation in the students of color, especially the older ones. And as a wide-eyed freshman, it made sense to seek out these students for advice. Unfortunately, I was taught to be angry and blame Colgate, professors, and other students for my hardships. This hatred escalated to a point where I felt guilty for enjoying my college experience. At Colgate, if you weren't mad, you weren't a "real" minority. Of course there are always exceptions, and at Colgate there are many students who don't fit this profile, but the most influential students of color at Colgate tended to be the ones filled with the most animosity. Freshmen would eventually evolve into these jaded seniors and the cycle would perpetuate itself. And once I left this mainstream social group of students of color by branching out to different circles, I was ostracized by the non-white population. My once-good friends called me a sellout and white-washed and I ceased to be a "real" student of color.
If we want a society of true equality, everybody must be willing to change. For whites, this essay will hopefully change how you think, act, and talk about race and your role in constructing an environment of true equality. And for the students of color, I am writing this message to you to offer an alternative to this exasperation, one that doesn't involve hating your college experience. I struggled to find my place in college, but hopefully these tips will mitigate the process for you. And maybe if enough people read this, Colgate -- and colleges across the country -- can become a better place for all students.
1) Stop identifying people solely by their race
I once had a friend who told me that she felt uncomfortable to speak honestly in her classroom because she was one of the few white people in her class. This was absurd to me. Throughout an average day at school, I am surrounded by people of many different races, but I never acknowledge or notice this fact. At times I may be the only person of color in the classroom, gym, or a party, but I never feel out of place. I am able to do this because I don't view my friends as white or black or brown; I see them as different people with different backgrounds, but nonetheless, friends I have chosen based on their character. So whether a person is the only student of color, or in this case, the only white student in a classroom, it shouldn't change how one feels or acts. I expect not to be judged solely by my race, but rather by my personality and the quality of my character, so why would I judge anyone by any other standard?
In 2005, Morgan Freeman was asked by Mike Wallace in an interview about Black History Month, "How are we going to solve racism?" Freeman replied: "Stop talking about it. I'm gonna stop calling you a white man and you stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace and you know me as Morgan Freeman." My contention is basically an elaboration of Freeman's point: in my opinion, we can only begin to fix racism and prejudices if we begin to change our perceptions of how we see each other. Yes, I am a Mexican-American and yes, it is a large part of who I am, but this is not my only characteristic; this is not the only thing that differentiates me from everyone else. And once we see each other through this lens of character, then we will begin to progress.
2) Fight for true equality
I acknowledge that colleges are not perfect when it comes to equality and fully understand that there exist injustice and racism in our institutions, which I have personally experienced. But what students of color must be cognizant about is when we stand up to fight against these injustices, we must start asking for true equality rather than a special status that comes with special treatment. Imagine if I were a white man writing this article. I would be vilified, called a racist, and ostracized from the Colgate community. But because I am not white, I am given more freedom by both whites and non-whites to talk about race with no concerns of being labeled a racist or a bigot. This is not true equality. I do not want this.
If we want to hold people to a certain standard of political correctness or righteousness, I expect to be held by these same principles. True equality is not being given special privilege or treatment, but playing by the same rules as everyone else, no matter what race someone is. I purposely prefaced this article by saying that I am a first-generation Mexican-American to gain credibility. One of the biggest obstacles to racial progress in this country is the apprehension people have to talk about contentious issues like race. People feel restricted from speaking freely in fear of offending anyone. So in order to progress race relations in this country all opinions, no matter race, must have equal weight.
3) Stop using excuses
This last point is directed mostly at students of color...
In a commencement speech at Morehouse, a historically-black college, President Obama told the graduates about his experience growing up black in America. He said:
"Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. Well, we've got no time for excuses. It's just that in today's hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world...nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned. Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you've gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured -- and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too."
Like Obama, it was easy for me to blame an unfair system that seemed to be designed for my failure. But if all you do is complain and blame everyone but yourself, you are left only with anger. And the situation that made you so upset in the first place? It still remains unchanged. I didn't attend one of the country's best prep schools. I didn't receive thousands of dollars worth of SAT tutoring. And I didn't have the luxury of having parents who went to college that could guide me through the process. But I got here. And once I got here, I quickly realized that there was little time to be complacent and revel in any of my past accomplishments. You will struggle -- I certainly did -- and when this happens, there is no time to give yourself excuses. Yes, maybe it is unfair and certain people have been privileged, but at this point in your life, it does not matter. If you feel you are at a disadvantage, you are going to have to work harder than all your classmates. Hold yourself accountable and work hard to bridge the gap so in the future, you will be just as prepared as everyone else.
So for all the incoming students: if you want to make your respective colleges more welcoming and accepting places, treat each other, if not as friends, as classmates and peers. Fight for true equality and don't succumb to excuses to rationalize your disadvantages. Lastly, work hard, have fun, and I sincerely hope you enjoy the next four years of your life because they have been the best of mine.