Being a woman of color at a PWI (predominately white institution) is like…well, it’s like being an outsider within. It’s like being the elephant in the room. It’s like being the red-headed step child. I remember my first day of undergrad. Here I was, away from home, excited about learning, and most of all, ready to meet new people. So, after I unpacked, I thought I’d venture off, out into this new world and do just that – meet some new people. Once I got outside, I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore Toto. No one looked like me. When I say no one, I mean NO ONE. Here were all of these new people whom I wanted to meet, but I couldn’t. They were being dropped off in BMWs, Mercedes, and minivans. They were being dropped off by mom and dad and they were nothing like me. I thought to myself, “How are we supposed to relate?” “How could I spark up a convo?” BLANK STARE. Then, I decided to just wait on my roommate, because we’d have to talk. Well, when she finally moved in, she went on an on about how here mom was pissed because she maxed out her credit card for the month. After all, is $2,500 that big of a deal? Come on! THOUGHT BUBBLE: Give me a break, you spoiled rich brat! It didn’t stop there though. On the first day of classes, I remember getting to class super early. I was ‘xcited! Here I was, sitting in a classroom that could hold 500 people. What will happen? Who will I meet? What will I learn? I can’t wait! Then…as my fellow classmates began to file in, I realized that the two seats on either side of me were empty. There were literally people sitting on the stairs, but there were free seats sitting next to me. When I scanned the room, I saw similar things happening with other students of color. WTF? This is when I had my “ah ha” moment. Over the next four years of undergrad and two years of grad school, I noticed time and time again, people wouldn’t sit next to me. They’d lap up before taking a seat next to me. (Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it sure did seem like they’d rather hang from the ceilings than sit next to me). When I’d answer questions, instructors would act like my answer was wrong or incomplete. Then, another – lighter – student would say something that made no sense on any planet, and that answer would be…yep, you guessed it – correct. WTF? Then, once the instructor realized I knew what the heck I was talking about, he or she would just stop calling on me.
This longwinded story isn’t meant to scare you off. My goal is to prepare you for some alienation, some loneliness, and some flat out bull. Let’s be completely Frank, Francine, and honest with each other. We are an anomaly. We are not supposed to make it to college. However, in some people’s minds, because of Affirmative Action, a few of us are allowed to slip in to fill a certain, small quota (I’m throwing up in my mouth as I type this – but it is our reality). However, even if you are allowed in to a college classroom, you are expected to be seen and not heard. You sure as heck are not supposed to come in, participate, smile, nod, take notes, stay attentive, and above all else, KNOW WHAT THE HECK YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT! When you do these things, they don’t know what to do with themselves. All that they’ve heard, watched, read, believed, learned, and created in their minds about students of color is thrown out the window when you answer a question correctly, when you challenge the bologna that comes out of the ethnocentric instructor’s mouth, when you prove that you deserve to be there (probably more than the very people who give you dirty looks). HA! When people look at you crazy because you’re on top of your game, well, smile, nod and keep doing what you’re doing, because regardless how out of place you may look (and sometimes feel) you deserve to be there, you deserve to learn, and you deserve to succeed!
Oh, and one last thing…that feeling of being an outsider on the inside, yeah, that won’t stop once you graduate. Unless you go into business for yourself, you will probably be one of the only, if not THE only, person of color in your respective organization as you climb the proverbial ladder to success. Yeah, so, you’ll be proving yourself for a very long time. People will continue to be surprised that you “speak properly,” that “you’re so bright,” and that you “have a degree from (insert college or graduate program here).” Hey, I don’t write the rules, I just share ‘em with you. Peace.