A Love Letter To Black College/University Students in Struggle: Is Ignorant Racism a Distraction?

Young Black students, I wish my generation had taken the time to share with Black students of current times, that unifying and organizing, is a great thing because there is strength in numbers.
11/17/2015 09:42 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
Greece High Resolution University Concept
Greece High Resolution University Concept

Black college/university students who find yourselves in a state of struggle against racism, I want to share with you that I too was a Black student for many years of my life, who attended all predominantly white institutions (PWI's) and subsequently taught at many. I attended a Jesuit Institution, LeMoyne College, in Syracuse New York, as an undergraduate. I had two Black Professors during my time there. One who was unfair to Black students, because she said we needed to work harder than White students and hence she graded us harsher.

We disapproved and reported her behavior. The other became my mentor and role model and helped me to understand that although: 1) the institution did not understand why they needed to diversify, 2) Black students were being called the "n" word while walking to nearby restaurants and 3) one of our Black student peers had been beaten savagely by drunk White students at a predominantly white party, my focus should be the classroom, my books and accessing all that the school had to offer. She, an Adjunct Professor, Lawyer and Hospital Administrator, convinced me that the act of developing my mind and getting what I came there for, my degree, was the only way to win the game over predominantly white institutional racism in the college/university environment. I did that as she had done before me.

I also had some excellent White Professors that helped me achieve my goals and I ignored/diminished/reported other Professors who behaved otherwise towards me. I did this while being an active member of our black student organization on campus. We organized by getting black windbreaker jackets that we proudly wore on campus as a symbol of unity, with the name of our student organization clearly displayed on it, in gold lettering. We held fundraisers and brought in speakers such as Nikki Giovanni, Minister Louis Farrakhan and Julian Bond, as examples, and listened to their words for empowerment and instruction, beyond the classroom, as there were a lot of painful happenings in the Black community during that time. I remember, as one example of many, our candlelight vigil for the children murdered during the Atlanta child murders. We were in Syracuse, but it mattered to us to lend our voices, hearts and tears to the pain this dreadful crisis was causing for black people in Atlanta and at large. At that time, it was felt that the Ku Klux Klan perpetrated those heinous murders.

Throughout the ignorance of racism that existed in varying dosages on campus, I pressed on, trying to focus on the good and the positive. In addition to my Black friends, I came to know very positive White students, who also became my friends on campus and some, such as my first roommate, who had never encountered a Black person before, hence racist ignorance towards me was displayed on her part. Suffice it to say, after much discussion and communication with the housing office, due to her unwarranted fear of my Black friends, and me, she was switched to another dorm room. Furthermore, I studied what was required and desired by me, namely biology as my major, and a great deal of philosophy and religion, as required by this Jesuit institution, as well as other interesting subjects. Biology sustained me and philosophy enlightened me, to think, deeply.

So in my love letter to you, young, Black college/university students, I now understand that we should have, out of love and commitment, shared our insight with you, on how we survived such a lack of diversity and feelings of isolation and distance on campuses that were designed for and to support White students with Black students, and other student of color, as an after thought, so that we could have advised you of our survival skills and techniques that got us through. We should have shared with you that there would be attempts to distract you from your brilliance and quest for knowledge through ignorance by way of racism. We should, as Black Faculty, at PWI's, make it our priority to ensure that you have someone to come to at all times serving as mentors and role models to help you achieve, what we did--survival. Sometimes, trying to do so becomes unsustainable as a Faculty member, although I did so with all of my heart, on many PWI campuses, but the plantation mentality that exists at these institutions in terms of some faculty and administration, offers a work reality that has often been less than palatable. Therefore, writing books about diversity and cultural competency and other relevant topics is my priority, along with teaching, as a lingering passion, to share what I know to be true.

After undergrad, I went on to study at Yale University for my Master's Degree and Columbia University for my doctorate. I knew, before I arrived at these institutions, that they were PWI's and that I would most likely never have a Black professor and I did not. I knew there would be a small number of Black students, relative to the larger population. But my mentor mentioned above suggested Yale to me and getting in would be a challenge, as it is a top tier Ivy League, so I pursued it. I recognized that having a degree from there, would benefit me overall, given its level of national and international notoriety, depending on whether I took advantage of all it had to offer or not. I did. I went there and absorbed every good thing Yale University had to offer and there was a lot. The science labs, museums, architecture, libraries, library holdings, etc., were outstanding. The Professors were extremely knowledgeable although I longed to have a Black person (people) teaching me, so that I could, once again, have a role model to help move me forward.

Nevertheless, I absorbed the knowledge from my Public Health Professors like a sponge. I became a card carrying, participating member of the Afro-American Cultural Center and went to hear speakers, who visited campus, such as James Baldwin, Cornel West, bell hooks and other great thinkers who empowered my mind and helped me to understand the depths of the struggle and that it would not end. I held on to them when they left campus by reading their books and reflecting on their words, incorporating their powerful thoughts into my daily life. I walked around Yale University knowing that I deserved to be there like anyone else and I never felt personally disrespected. I must say that I loved my time there. When there was a cause of concern for unity with Black students, I was there to lend my deeply rooted support while continuing my acquisition of knowledge because I knew that distraction was part of the game of institutionalized racism. How can I learn and absorb all that a PWI is providing, in terms of knowledge, if I am going to be distracted by those who perpetuate ignorant racism? I did the same at Columbia University Teachers College. I went there for my doctorate after working for a couple of years, now proudly holding my Yale Degree, and quickly learned that a Master's Degree was not enough. Institutional racism in the real world was harsher, subtle and disrespectful and at the very least, having Doctor in front of my name, would strengthen my resilience.

Young Black students, I wish my generation had taken the time to share with Black students of current times, that unifying and organizing, is a great thing because there is strength in numbers, but when someone resigns/gets fired as a result of your doing so, and the system overall is not radically changed, that person will have another job in a matter of days and your reality, in terms of ignorant racism directed towards you may become harsher. We should have shared with you that walkouts from class are a walkout on knowledge that you are paying for. We should have told you that when doing so, organize and march early in the morning before class, waking everybody up, literally, or in the evenings--hence, candlelight/flashlight vigils etc. Get the knowledge, that there may be resistance to you acquiring in class, and organize simultaneously. Also, I wish we had told you all to pull together your groups into one Black student organization on campus. There is no need for the Caribbean, Haitian, Black, African, Black Women's, Black Men's, Fraternal/Sorority organizations, etc. to keep you divided. Get one Center on campus, have one Black unified organization, pool your resources collectively, organize together, strategize and invite the wisest, most capable, active, learned, intense, intellectual/activist Black thinkers in the nation to address and stand with you all as needed. That is what folks like bell hooks and Cornel West, as examples, represented for us. Don't let the media guide you on who has wisdom. Read and listen to their words and then choose.

So at Yale, where there are concerns in the media now about racial tensions, I met my husband who was also a Black student there. We have two children. One attended Yale (undergrad). The other, Harvard and Columbia (graduate schools). They also went to the University of Florida, one for undergrad and one for Law School. Things were no different for them as for me and my husband at the PWI's that they attended, in terms of diversity. In fact, as our daughter is working now on her doctorate at an Ivy League Institution, the Mizzou situation has arisen and she is supporting the cause, expressing her thoughts, wore black in solidarity on the designated day and she is attending related meetings/events as they arise. She has had many discussions about the matter with classmates and me, while trying to stay focused on classes and preparing her doctoral dissertation. I continually remind her that part of the ignorance of racism is distraction while I also advise her to be concerned and involved but to remember why she is there, and to remain simultaneously class and dissertation focused while being concerned, committed to the cause and active.

I do understand that there is psychological trauma associated with constantly dealing with this issue of coping at a PWI involving mental/physical fatigue for Black students because the matter is a constant, whether one is involved or not, as racial injustice is a staple in the media and at a crisis level in society. Black students have to not only stay focused on their academic pursuits but also cope with the notion of being invisible/unheard/undervalued with constant discussion of these issues. College should be one of the best times of Black students lives so within the midst of all of this, joy/fun/relaxation and happiness must be sought too. Black students also need to be cognizant of the fact that strategy to keep Black people from achieving comes in a number of forms. Allowing racism to fester in all walks of life, unchecked, including higher education, has the potential to keep Black students from achieving their academic goals. Black students must be aware of this nefarious form of oppression.

Beloved Black students, I wish my generation would have told you that one of the most egregious aspects of all that one has to deal with in terms of the pursuit of higher education for Black students at PWI's, is that quite often the rules of the ignorant racism game will be changed, just like in the real world, especially when you think you are winning. You must "hold on to your mind" and stay focused, even when you feel there is no hope or you are not truly understanding what or why what is transpiring is happening. My generation should have come up with solutions with/for you rather than just sharing the historical and current racial issues. We should have focused also on helping you find the joy of higher education, no matter the environment, with the social/racial injustice that abounds withstanding, on and off of college/university campuses. You are our future. We should have ensured that there was/is readily available support on college/university campuses, available for you to access whenever you choose/need to.

In conclusion, also note that tuition is a fortune at PWI academic institutions, of all sorts. Black students are paying for their education, whether through loans with interest, scholarships (of which there are few) and other means.

I wish my generation had made it clearer to our cherished Black students that the Faculty and Administration and everyone else that works at PWI's, no matter their race, work for you. You pay them to teach you. The administrators are paid to make sure your needs are met. This is sometimes forgotten. If you buy a pair of shoes at a shoe establishment and the the standards you expected are not met, you take them back and get another pair and if they don't have what you like you go somewhere else to buy them. If enough people take that step, due to dissatisfaction, the shoe company will look at their shoes overall and change them to meet the needs of the consumer or sales will plummet. They may fire or force the President of the company to resign, if he/or she is unresponsive to the consumer concerns, but he/she will get another job. The question is, did the company change the shoes to meet the needs of the paying customers? Always remember that student loans are portable. They are not school specific. This is also the case, sometimes, for other types of aid. Black students, I wish members of my generation had told you that there is no need to be confined to one academic institution, especially if your experience there is wrought with racism and lack of diversity. Express your dismay, organize for change and move if you must, if the ignorance of racism where you are currently being served is hurtful and a repugnant distraction from what you are paying for, namely your education and the level of diversity is not meeting your expectations.

Toni Morrison states, with cogent clarity, that the function of racism is distraction, in a quote shared with me by my enlightened daughter, for consideration. Note that Morrison is referring to distraction in the sense that racism may be considered as a diabolical strategy, which can keep people from focusing on what they intend to achieve. See Morrison's quote below:

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