Confessions from the Only Black Girl in a Predominantly White Class

by Brittany Dawson

A White peer complained that despite being in a course centered on exploring 19th century literature, we should avoid talking about slavery.

It’s “too much” and “too depressing.” Never mind the fact that it’s unfeasible to understand these literary works without placing them within the context of slavery, race, and class, she stood her ground.

When she realized that her words reached me, the only Black girl in class, her face reddened and she back-peddled. To no avail, I gave a brief history lesson on why it’s important to discuss slavery in context of literature. “Now’s my chance to move from silence to action!” I thought. It didn’t help. Slightly embarrassed, I walked away more enlivened to reclaim my space.
I’ve considered the University of South Carolina my second home for four years. In a few months I’ll officially be an alumni. Riding the shuttle bus in lieu of walking to class in Columbia’s unbearable heat, falling asleep in the library during exam week in a mismatched pajama set from Target, and taking a picture with Cocky (the university mascot) are several memories I hold dearly.

Even the not-so-fuzzy moments. I still bear the bandaged scars I valiantly earned when I fought for my life against depression and social anxiety.

I’ve grown immensely during my undergraduate career and I’m proud.

But as I’ve evolved as an educated, self-aware woman unafraid to slide off the rose-colored lenses I’d (every once in a while) prefer to wear as I engage with the world, I’m forced to reflect on the realities of attending a predominantly white institution. To put it bluntly, my White peers hurl their anxiety towards sharing space with a Black woman on a daily basis.

Yes, attending a predominantly white institution, in a way, asserts solely that: 2-3 people of color in a class of 35 is not an anomaly. All too frequently, however, I am treated as an outsider. Beady eyes greet my blaring Black skin. Fidgety peers shuffle around their desks off-balanced as I enter the room. I flash a smile, reading through their sheepish grins.

I recorded the most displeasing microagressions I encountered last year and this semester in a journal. I tried to understand what caused certain scenarios to hurt in comparison to others, even forming excuses for peers. I shared classes, dinner, and a laugh or two with many of these students. Where were the warning signs? Clearly sharing a burger after school doesn’t delete a caricatured understanding of Black people.

Still, even when isolated contextually, the problem is simple: White students still feel unnerved that yes, Black women can succeed and perform at an academic level equal to, or greater than their purview allows.

Of course, there lacks a socially appropriate vocabulary to blatantly articulate this anxiety. Racial microagressions serve as the only way for some students to reassert their Whiteness. It’s like an ambulance. When wounded by the open success of a Black woman, sirens blare, paramedics arrive, and a dose of a supposedly well-meaning questions or comments reposition Whiteness as the centerfold. What appears innocuous is a tailored, menacing microaggression.

It doesn’t matter if I was awarded an undergraduate research scholarship and department scholarship. Who cares if I have an opportunity to fulfill my passion for education post-graduation? Viewing my emblems of success in relation to their space—and I mean this literally, non-White students remain underrepresented—I am performing at a standard ascribed to whiteness. A standard too unfathomable to recognize coming from a woman of color.

How dare I raise my hand, form relationships with professors, make friends, or enjoy class! Questions and comments like, “Wow, how’d you get into this class?” Uh, I registered just like every other student at the university. Or “Department scholarship? Hmm…that’s interesting!” Nope, nothing absurd about my academic success! Each comment is merely a litmus test, determining whether or not I belong in their space.

I do belong. I will always belong. But I refuse to be subservient to assuage White peers who don’t take Black students seriously, who are so bothered by my ability to “speak well”, “do the most” in class, or “always go beyond the expectation.”

What can we do to improve the dynamics between White and non-White students? Even though I’ve made a commitment to treating the university as a home, an icy embrace is all it can afford.

All my life I’ve learned how to navigate predominantly White spaces. It makes all the difference for many women of color. But I’m growing tired of battling ignorance alone. At the very least, implementing workshops on inclusion or privilege seems like a launching point. Again, I acknowledge this tiresome battle. Sometimes I wonder if I’m exhausting my efforts in the wrong place. Needless to say, I still hold true to doing all I can to improve these conditions.

Perhaps I confided too much in my university. I banked on believing my social justice spirit would somehow subvert the South’s long history of misreading the importance of race and diversity.

Enough is enough.

I want to be the Black woman who feels included at her university, not target practice for peers to unfurl their anxieties on my success as the only Black girl in a predominantly white class.
Photo: Shutterstock

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

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