A Spartan’s experience as a black student at a PWI
What it’s like to walk into a 200-student lecture hall and only see 20 that look like you
My first week at Michigan State University was stressful and had me feeling like a fish out of water, but it wasn’t until my first day of class that I realized that uneasy feeling would not be going away anytime soon.
Going to a PWI (Predominantly White Institution) as a black student was never something that I weighed in my decision to attend Michigan State. All I knew was that my mom went there, the journalism program is one of the best, and I knew that the school offered a wide range of majors and experiences to explore. There was a brief moment where I thought maybe going to a HBCU (Historically Black College or University) would be best for me because I come from a primarily black town, and I knew I would be comfortable there – but I didn’t want to be comfortable. I wanted to step out of the box and meet new people and interact with those from all walks of life.
Back then, I didn’t know that stepping out of the box would lead me to want to seal that box back up and stick it on the shelf for good.
My math class was my largest class during my first semester, but I was up for the challenge. Yet, when I walked into the lecture hall of over 200 people, I saw that only about 20 of them were black. My face instantly felt red hot with embarrassment, as if I was ashamed to be only one of a few black kids in the class. After the initial shock, I looked around to find that there weren’t many other minorities represented in the massive lecture hall either.
So many questions ran through my mind. Would it be weird if I went and sat next to that other black girl a couple of rows up? Do any other black students notice how few of us there are in here? Do the white students notice any of this?
I felt silly when I realized how hard I was overthinking the situation. This is a predominantly white school, I thought. I knew what I was getting myself into. But when I heard a group of white boys cackling behind me and immediately assumed they were laughing at my blackness, I became so aware of my existence as a minority that I felt like sinking into my chair.
The unease got worse during the 2016 election season. There was so much racial tension on campus that I was constantly on edge. The sight of a Trump sticker on a laptop or “Make America Great Again” on a dad hat made me angry. These people that openly supported this man didn’t seem to care about my rights or my humanity, but I was surrounded by them everyday in class, on the bus, or in the dining hall – so what could I do? Racist incidents on campus were on the rise, and I felt at any time I could be attacked, physically or verbally. My morale was at an all-time low and I felt hopeless.
My breaking point was the day Trump was elected president, Nov. 8. I didn’t go to class. I didn’t go to work. From what I heard on social media, a lot of other minority students didn’t either. I couldn’t leave my room – not out of fear, but because I knew the white students around me would go about life as if nothing had happened. This misogynist, racist bigot is really our president, and the majority of my fellow students don’t care because it doesn’t affect them, I thought. These are really the people I’ll be surrounded with at school for the next four years.
One thing I’ve learned from attending a PWI is that the university preaches about diversity, only to shove racism under the rug until the next public controversy. They love having black faces on the posters in the dining hall, but where are they when those same black faces are being discriminated against on campus?
I’ve written about some of the worst acts of discrimination to cross MSU’s campus since I first came to the school in the fall: when an MSU freshman’s racist post went viral, the consequences that she suffered as a result, and the infamous whiteboard ban MSU is trying to implement in the fall. All three instances showed insensitivity on the university’s part, because it revealed that discrimination at MSU is only addressed when it goes public enough for them to start getting heat for it. Even then, they only give the minimum amount of effort to make sure the problem is solved. Newsflash, PWI, I’m not your token black student to show off, then proceed to ignore when convenient.
Black student-led organizations on campus such as the Black Student Alliance and African Student Union make it much easier to navigate through the culture shock many black students experience at PWIs. I don’t think I would have made it through my first year without the home away from home they’ve given to me. Finding a place to belong is one of the most important things I’ve learned from going to a PWI like Michigan State as a black student, and I have them to thank for it.
My advice to black students in high school wanting to attend a PWI is to go with your gut. Although the feeling of being an outcast can be overwhelming if you don’t already have a support system in place, you’ll be able to persevere and have a great time regardless if it’s a school you truly love.