By: Maya Hughley
Being a black woman has never been easy, but growing into a black woman without a black experience does not make it easier to be in a predominately white world. In fact, being a black girl at a predominately white college whose peers only interact within the same ethnic group requires you to be okay with being the odd one out.
Being the child of a Marine has always been a very large part of my identity. When you grow up on military bases diversity is not a buzzword- it is just a way of life. There is no sense of majority or minority, no difference between any of us kids except where and when we were moving. Even after my father retired and we moved to the outskirts of Houston there was no lack of cultures to be experienced.
I spent my time in grade school with a couple of people that looked like me and a lot of people that didn’t. At home I had my mother, father, and brother who may have looked like me, but didn’t always understand me. Growing up we didn’t see much of our extended family. They never traveled and we always did so visits were annual. For a while visiting made me uncomfortable because I was always the odd one out. Literally odd. I was a weird kid that listened to rock music and had no natural fluency in Ebonics that would always be out of place in Alabama.
A black person’s extended family is meant to be their introduction to the black community. As a black child, particularly as a black girl, being with your family is how you figure out your place in the world: how you speak, how you dress, how you do your hair. I had been separated at birth from this community and had therefore carved out a distinct lifestyle that was nothing like my extended family, my parents, even my brother. I was excited for college because it seemed to be the place where individuality thrived. It was made for a black girl like me, a girl who seemed to defy the gravity of black culture, for better or for worse.
It took me my entire first year of college to learn that college diversity is not real diversity. College diversity is quotas and less-than-inclusive clubs. I came in with the expectation that I would form a group of multiethnic friends and we’d spend our time discussing our varied interests in coffee shops all over Austin. I arrived to find nothing was really multiethnic; you were with your ethnic group or you were an outsider.
I had spent much of high school content with being an exception to the rules of blackness. I did not like my hair curly, I thought “not like the other black people” was a compliment, and I was probably excited to hear people describe themselves as colorblind. As I became more political I started to understand more about myself and more about race relations. I wanted to join the black community, but I didn’t want to let go all that could be learned taking in other cultures.
Despite my personal wishes and desires, my first year in college was the closest I’d ever felt to being segregated. People hung out with people that looked like them and enjoyed it. They didn’t feel like they were missing out by rushing frats and sororities that were nearly all-white or only participating in the Filipino Students Association and no other organizations. This was not how I had grown up and I had no idea how to break into such tight circles.
I tried to stick to making friends in my major and even that was a bust- Business Honors majors were too interested in the stock market and real estate to worry about making a friend. The summer after my freshman year when I decided to leave the program I was asked if being the only black person factored into the decision. I responded that no, it hadn’t, but the question stuck with me. It felt as though if I had answered yes it would have been my fault that I was offended for the lack of representation, rather than it reflecting poorly on them. It seemed an expectation that I should be uncomfortable without other black people.
After a year of seeing the collegiate black girls on twitter getting dolled up and going to parties and the black boys on twitter carrying on about “the move” I decided I’d devote my current year to getting involved in the black community- they seemed tight-knit and a lot of fun which is exactly what I needed after an emotionally rough first year. But as the year started I just wasn’t sure how to reach out. It felt like I needed some sort of invitation to gain entry. It seemed diversity had done me a disservice because I did not know how to be black.
Maybe I would have had an invitation to the black community had I been around my own black family, or had black neighbors. Even on social media I felt left out of the conversations. I listened to some of the music they discussed but hadn’t heard of a lot of it, I didn’t know the black celebrities, and I always felt like the open social media invites to off-campus parties weren’t really meant for me. But I persevere…sometimes.
The more months that go by with me having 4 or 5 friends total, the more I begin to wonder if it’s just me. Maybe it’s because I never wear makeup, or because I wear a lot of men’s clothes and sweatpants, or I don’t look approachable regardless of race. Maybe I’m just boring. Maybe I should have asked the black girl in the elevator that complimented my hair if she’d like to hang out, but that would be weird wouldn’t it? Or maybe I should stop smiling at the black boys as they walk past me? Or maybe I should smile more?
Whatever it is about me that puts me in the outskirts, whether it’s being black or not being black enough, I can’t really change. Instead I change my actions. I go to black business student meetings and mostly sit quietly. I go to poetry open mics where I sometimes read and sometimes just take in everyone else’s pains and joys. I don’t run with any specific circles. I spend most of my time with an event planning group on campus that plans events for all students.
I am currently the only black member and I love it, but not despite being black or because of it. I have found a few friends that are interested in what I’m interested in which at the moment is Hamilton, the musical, and the presidential race. I haven’t found my black community: my black girls to discuss natural hair with and the wonders of coconut oil, or the black boys to tease me or try to date me. I haven’t found my multiethnic community that has people of every color and creed. But if there’s one thing I learned from my childhood it’s how to carve a place of my own so I will keep chipping away until I find a space, or spaces, both black and diverse.