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A Message to the Invisible: Being Black at a PWI

By: Kayla McKinney

What happens when students attend a large PWI in the mid-west whose pride is directly connected with athletics? They go to football games, even more fun they go tailgating. I remember my first tailgating experience as an overall fun time. It was my first college football game and I was very excited. I had slept in the previous game days and made a quick buck off of my tickets, but this time I was ready to enjoy the most amazing part of being a student at a large school whose pride was their football team.

I don’t remember what game it was, possibly homecoming, but that Saturday morning a few friends and I drove into campus from out of town. One of them, who today remains my best guy friend, invited us to go tailgating with him. As the only one without any obligations that morning I decided to go. It was fun, crowded, and very hazy if I’m being honest. Walking from frat-house to frat-house my friend suddenly blurted out “I’m done moving out the way for white people!” At first I stared at him, then laughed.

“White people don’t move!” He said with conviction and I laughed some more.

“No really, have you ever notice that they don’t move out the way, it’s always us.”

He was referring to the act of stepping to the side slightly while crossing paths with someone to make room. I thought him ridiculous. Everyone moved out the way, it was just polite. The conversation ceased as we approached the stadium’s packing lot, but his claim stayed in my mind. Especial since in that exact moment I noticed that I moved, or was really pushed over, all the way to the grass to get out of a group of white students way while walking.

As our perspective of life became clear once again we decided to head back to our dorms. I can’t tell you if I started homework or took a nap, probably the latter, but what my friend said would not fade from my mind. And so the following school day I decided to test his theory out. I walked everywhere in a straight line, not moving out the way for anyone. Time after time I was bumped into; most of the time in the shoulder, and sometimes someone rammed into half of my body.

Twice I nearly escaped from full on collision and twice someone did collide into me fully. I received one apology that entire day. What I understood from this experiment was that in order to survive in a white society we have to go out of our way to do things for their comfort that goes beyond dressing and talking a certain why to make sure they don’t feel like they are in danger. We also have to do little acts of inferiority, such as moving to the end of the sidewalk.

Now before you think this is just one black kid taking something small out of proportion, I’ve asked multiple black students on campus and they all agreed that this was extremely normal. Recently a friend of mine came up to me and told me she had been testing out my theory for about a week. The way she said it made it seem as if she finally found a loophole in the cycle, but she only exclaimed in frustration, “They really don’t move!” One senior laughed when I asked her and told me that this school doesn’t see us.

It was there that I finally understood what others of my kind tried to convey to me my whole life but never out right said. White people do not see me. Us. They see athletes, entertainers, criminals, and deadbeats. Maybe if I were pregnant or wearing inappropriate clothing they would see me, because then I would fit their idea of a black women, but not as a successful University student. Nah, they don’t see that.

We laugh about it because it is something so ridiculous. It’s common for a black student to be the only student of color in class and a semester later go unremembered by their classmates. It’s bad enough the black community at my school is only four percent of the student population, but that four percent is invisible to everyone but ourselves. Privilege and entitlement are the primary reasons why.

White people are entitled to not have to move out the way, no that’s our job. They think there are entitled to scholarships without applying and then get mad at us when our tuition is paid for after months of applications. They are entitled to an acceptance letter and if they don’t get it then we took their spot. They are entitled to speak their mind as their first amendment right even if it makes an entire group of students uncomfortable because they belong here, we don’t. This entitled way of thinking is socially constructed and usually involuntary, but that doesn’t make it ok.

The invisible factor is even worse in black women. At least black men can prove themselves to a certain extend. They even receive admiration for being well mannered. The same friend I mentioned earlier once gave up his seat to an elder white women and the look of surprise on her face was priceless. She spent the entire bus ride praising how well he was raised. In that moment he proved to her that black boys in hoodies can have manners.

If black male students are athletes then they are praised for bringing glory to the school. This is possible because at the end of the day black men are seen as men, but black women aren’t seen as the hegemonic ideal of feminine. Black women are seen as exotic, animalistic, and scary, not as ladies. Our hyper-sexualization and the idea that we are strong removes the need to treat us like ladies.

In my women studies discussion, to which I am the only black student, girls began complaining that if they dressed more feminine then boys would hold open the door for them more. To which I responded no matter what I was wearing, doors slammed in my face, unless it was a black boy. Sometimes other students held open doors for me, to which I was surprised every time.

So how do black students survive at a large PWI? We band together and see each other. We join black organizations and clubs on campus in order to honor ourselves and give ourselves leadership roles. We accept our mistreatment on campus to an extent and have the mutual understanding that we will receive that college degree, and use to better ourselves and our people with or without the school’s support. So to all the PWI black students, just know even if the school doesn’t see you, I do. Slay on.

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3 years 11 months ago

Look up side stepping from the civil rights time and before. That is what was required of black people when a white person was coming in their direction, you were required to move. Great article!