The Culture of Race in the University System in the Southern USA: The Professor and the student view.
Invisible Black Female Bodies at Universities in the Southern USA
By Andrea Baldwin
For the last two weeks I have been ranting about race discrimination in the South. I have received a lot of feedback from those who understand the inner and outer workings of race and social capital in dedicating who belongs and who does not, and from those who vehemently oppose suggestions that black people/ people of color should have to verbally assert their professional identity so that racist society will respect us and our achievements.
The majority of the feedback though seemed to center around a position of “this is just how it is”, “we encounter isms everyday”, “we just need to deal with it by rising above it.” And while I agree that we have to rise above, I believe that dealing with it also means confronting it, not just working on your black self but agitating within a system of racism as a forms of deliberate resistance. But maybe I am too conscious of racism as a black professional, teaching at a majority white school, as an immigrant living in the land of the “free and the brave”, as a mother of a black son in the era of the “stand your ground” south, and as the wife of a black professional man who still needs to know his place as a nigger.
This reality check forces me to think of the vibrant, intelligent, young, black women I teach every semester and the effects I can already see from the pressure of attending a majority white (85%) upper to upper middle class university in the south. The pressure of being invisible and irrelevant as black women. When you walk around campus you notice a handful of students of color on a campus of over 25,000 students. My classes are capped at 35 students and of these I have on average 10 students of color, including black students take my class every semester. Without fail, I have students lament “this is such a diverse class,” or “wow I have never had so many people of color in my classes before.” They also reveal that “I have never had a black professor”, or, “you are the first black female I have had since I have been here.” Some of these students are seniors, getting ready to graduate.
The good things is that teaching Women’s Studies allows me the opportunity to get to know my students on a personal level, to know more about who they are and their goals. While this is good it is at the same time vexing in a setting where you are one of few black female professors on campus and black female students, some work their way through college, some athletes, some first generation college goers,find themselves confiding in you because you are the only one “who understands”, who gets what they are saying. I am not upset because these women come to me, I want them to, I am vexed because they can find no one else. By the time they meet me, they had been looking for someone to help, financial, emotional, psychological, just someone to listen to lighten the load of having to cope with being a black woman, invisible, in a majority white institution.
I have seen tears, heard descriptions of inequality and injustice, of ignorance and intolerance, stereotypes, insensitivity, racism overt and covert. “I have to work to afford to be here, my mother can’t afford these professional fees for my classes,” “skinny is out but I am an athlete and I can’t help my body type, plus the black guys on campus don’t want black women anyway.They go for the white girls, especially the athletes.” “I don’t know if I will be able to come back next semester, I need to keep my GPA up but I have to work to afford to stay here and I am so tired after working all night and studying all day. I try, I really do and I don’t want to let down my mom.”“My mom had to cash in her insurance policy for me to keep going here.” These are just a few of the issues that our black women have to deal with. In the last year I have cried tears with so many of my black female students who have keep these feelings bottled up inside for so long, kept them hidden, sucked it up, tried to fit in as best they can.
So I asked one of my former African American students to describe her experience, her messy relationship with an institution she is proud to attend. Raven is a senior at Auburn University majoring in Mass Communications with a minor in Spanish. She enjoys movies, celebrities, writing, reading urban fiction novels and spending time with close friends and family. She loves all things fashion and can be found giving people makeovers in her free time. When she is not giving someone a makeover or reading and writing, she can be found working hard for the Black Student Union as the Executive Vice President. Here is her take on live at Auburn as a black woman.
“Welcome to Auburn Family!”: The Voice of a Black Female Student
“Welcome to the Auburn Family!” Well, what happens when you sometimes feel as though you don’t belong to a family? What happens when you and a majority of your family members are not similar in any capacity? Many people called this the “black sheep” effect and for me as a minority on Auburn University’s campus, that is sometimes exactly how I feel. Do not misunderstand me; I love all things Auburn with every fiber of my being. I also love being a black woman. Yes, I said a black woman. The cards that I were dealt makes me a double minority and quite frankly places me at the bottom of the totem pole in America’s eyes. Auburn’s eyes too. But, that never deterred me and is honestly one of the reasons I came to Auburn in the first place and stayed at Auburn. The minority population at my school sits at about 12 percent. The black population you ask? Somewhere around 7. These numbers certainly startled me when I was researching the institution before attending especially, when schools of the same caliber in the same state have a minority percentage of about 20 percent. 20 percent is not a magnificent representation of minorities either, but it is better than the 12 percent at my PWI.
My love for this university stems back way before I was even able to think of attending college. Being from the football centered south, the sport definitely played a part in my love for this institution, but also seeing relatives come to the school, succeed, and be prosperous played a role in it as well. But as soon as I stepped foot on this campus as an incoming freshman at Camp War Eagle, it was not long before I predicted how my experience at Auburn would be.
First off, let me say that I have had the time of my life while being enrolled at Auburn University and football season is the absolute best (especially the one I just experienced last fall). Auburn is not only beautiful on the outside, but inwardly it is a great institution and I will never try to take that away from it. Simple trips to different WalMarts in different cities and even different states with an Auburn T-shirt on turn into all-out War Eagle yell battles. Telling someone you attend Auburn University, while being black turns into more congrats than I ever received graduating from high school. All of that stuff is great, but where are my people on this campus? Why are we so scarce? These are the questions I have had since day one. Every time I ask these questions, I am told, “Welcome to the real world.” The “real world?” White people are not the “real world,” the real world is filled with different races and ethnicities. People tell me such things and it baffles me because this is America, a melting pot of races. None of us are natives of this land, besides the Native Americans, but Auburn is the “real world” with its 12% minority numbers? I refuse to believe this is what the real world consists of. Yes, I know that Caucasians are the majority in this country, but I do not believe that the minority in this nation accounts for less than 15%. The administration at Auburn is not even representative of the “real world.” In my time at Auburn, it was not until the fall of my junior year that I had a black professor. You do the math. That’s 5 classes every semester since freshman year. There are 2 semesters in a year, plus I took one summer class somewhere in there so that means I had to take 21 classes at Auburn before I even had someone who looks like me to teach me. Crazy, I know.
Not only am I different racially from many of the people around me on a daily basis, but my economic status is different from a number of my peers at Auburn. Even some of the black kids can compete financially, but I am not one of them. In my experience, there have been so many people that believe just because I am here, I am supposed to be able to afford the things that they can afford and that is not true. I can’t afford to be enrolled honestly, but my mother makes daily sacrifices for me to be here to make a better life for myself. I knew that Auburn was a Predominantly White Institution when I applied. It was not until I got there that I realized Auburn is a white institution. There is one black SAP (Student Activities Project.) SAP’s are SGA funded groups at the university geared for students to utilize at their own leisure. There are numerous SAPs on the campus, but only one black group. It is things like this that have shaped my views toward the black experience at Auburn and the white experience because they are different experiences. I remember when President Barack Obama was re-elected, a lot of minority students went out to roll Toomer’s corner. That was the most hatred I’ve ever felt from a “family member” in my life. We were called everything from niggers to wetbacks to terrorists on that corner. All because we chose to roll Toomer’s corner in celebration of our president being re-elected. In my mind, the white people were finally vocalizing their real thoughts of minority students that night. I’ll never forget that day. I was so hurt that I was ready to withdraw and go to an HBCU where I belonged. But instead, it was that day that I made the decision to stand out at Auburn and no longer blend in. All of those words became fuel to my fire. Within a year’s time, I had been selected to attend Leadershape, chosen to be an i-Lead facilitator, and won the position of the Black Student Union’s Activities’ Director. I also gained an anchor position at Eagle Eye and I was a force to be reckoned with. So many times I heard “are you a transfer? You sprouted out of nowhere.” I would smile and say no, but in my head I would be thinking “No, I’m not transfer, but if I’m going to be classified as a nigger by these people I’m gonna show them what one is capable of. And that’s greatness!” Now I am the Executive Vice President of the Black Student Union. No one could have paid me to believe that I would the Vice President of the Black Student Union my freshman year.
I am definitely not the freshman I was when I arrived at Auburn. I could have stayed isolated and been miserable about the fact that I was so different from everyone else around me, but instead I embraced my differences which helped my peers to embrace me. I cannot walk down the concourse now without someone taking the time out to speak to me. My experience at Auburn started out rough, but life is what you make it. Yes, I have experienced discrimination on my campus, but moping about it wasn’t going to change it. Instead I got involved and saw how things could be changed from the inside. Now when someone like me asks me about Auburn, I have something positive to say about the school, rather than something negative that may deter them from applying or enrolling here at Auburn. I let them know that Auburn is a great place and like any institution it is what you make it. I believe our minority numbers are so low because 1) the school does not recruit us and 2) the minorities who are present have nothing good to say about the institution to other minorities who may inquire. Like I stated earlier, I love Auburn dearly, but when they say Welcome to the Auburn Family, they should mention that if you’re not in the majority, you may feel like or be treated like the red-headed stepchild from time to time, you just have to be strong enough not to let it phase you.