Unless you are actually a minority who has attended a predominantly White institution (PWI), I would imagine that it's pretty difficult to truly understand just how much of a culture shock that experience can be. When you step onto that campus, wherever it may be, you aren't just a minority anymore. Oh, no. You instantly transform into SU-per minority! Da da da da daaaaaa!
The position comes with a cape and everything.
In this role, your interests will be gravely underrepresented. You will likely make up an unbelievably minuscule percentage of the student population. And unintentionally, you will often be called upon as the de facto voice for [insert minority here] people everywhere.
Oh, and there's a pretty decent chance you'll have a close personal encounter with racism—perhaps even your first. And it won't be one of those "reasonable doubt" incidents where there's room for you to question whether or not it was really racism. It will be so blatant, so unashamed, so bold that it'll be impossible to deny. And when it happens to you, you'll feel like a bucket of ice-cold water was thrown in your face. It'll be confusing, unexpected and make you totally uncomfortable.
It happened to me during my very first drive to Indiana University. After passing through Indianapolis about 2 ½ hours into the trip, my mom and I got lost with the directions I’d printed from MapQuest. This was well before everyone walked around with Google Maps in their pocket, so we had no choice but to stop and ask for help. When we came to the next gas station, we went in to get directions.
“Hi. We’re trying to get to Indiana University, but I think we made a wrong turn somewhere,” my mom said to the clerk. “Can you tell us how to get to 37?”
The clerk looked up at us, and then down at the pen and crumpled paper I held in my hand.
With a country drawl, she said, “Okay, I’m going to tell y’all how to get out of here, but I need to let you know, they don’t like Blacks around here, so be careful.”
I stood there — baffled. I couldn’t believe it. In 2005, this woman told me outright that I wasn’t safe in her town solely because of the color of my skin.
The whole scene felt like we’d stepped back into the 50s, and I wanted desperately to get back to 2005. Back to that blissfully ignorant state of mind that allowed me to believe for 18 years that this brand of racism was dead, that it wouldn’t be something that people of my generation would have to deal with.
I looked at my mom. I could tell she was startled — and a little hurt — by what the clerk said. She nodded in the clerk’s direction and let out a soft, “Okay.”
After the clerk ran down the directions, we quickly left the station and made it to IU that day without further incident.
Today, super-minorities at my alma mater are likely experiencing their own awakenings akin to my gas station encounter — thanks to several racial controversies that have rocked the campus in recent months.
The first, and most alarming, is the presence of the Traditionalist Youth Network (TYN), a university-recognized student group that promotes White supremacy and homophobia — “traditional” values.
“Racist, fascist, anti-gay, Trad Youth Network is here to stay!” goes their protest chant.
Pretty catchy, right?
The group’s 30-year-old leader, a former Ku Klux Klan member, would like to see “another white ethno-state emerge — a state comprised of and build for exclusively white people.”
Welp, there goes diversity.
Then there’s this debacle. [Blank stare]
This lovely display was developed as part of IU's CommUnity Education program. Each dorm has one student representative responsible for helping to raise awareness in the community about diversity issues. This is a result of that initiative.
As a student leader, I was responsible for developing displays like this. And although open-response questions like, "If Santa Claus were Black, would he only visit the ghetto?" and “If Santa Claus were Black, wouldn’t all the presents be stolen?” come off as silly and offensive in this context, I understand what the goal was: This student wanted to spark a much-needed open dialogue about race at Indiana University. But leveraging negative racial stereotypes in an attempt to shock was definitely not the way — and a bulletin board was not the place — to start such a complex conversation.
Despite my “no coloreds allowed” moment at the gas station, which stuck with me throughout my time at Indiana, I went on to have an incredible experience. I studied abroad three times and saw parts of the world that I'd only dreamed about prior. I led student organizations that made the transition from the classroom to the conference room easy for me. I grew exponentially.
And other super-minorities at PWIs will grow as well. In addition to academics, they’ll get a firsthand lesson in American race relations — and will be a lot more adept at navigating the homogenous hallways of corporate America than someone who didn’t share that experience.
The presence of the Traditionalist Youth Network and the “Black Santa” bulletin board at Indiana illustrate why some minorities never really feel at home at predominantly white institutions. There are always reminders — some subtle, others blatant — that you are the "other" — that this place, historically, wasn't established for your benefit. And although the university will constantly point to you and say, "Oh, look at how diverse we are!", from your standpoint, the idea of diversity will forever be a lofty aspiration — never a reality.
Brannon Smith is an ad copywriter and blogger from Chicago. Read more of his thoughts at theletterbag.com and follow him on Twitter: @brannon_smith