Note: This blog details the experiences of women students of color at a predominantly white institution (PWI) in Virginia; due to the nature of these experiences, this blog is being published anonymously in order to prevent any targeted comments to the courageous women who were willing to share their stories.
I remember the first campaign that I took part in at college. It was a “words can hurt” campaign, reminding students that language can be used as a tool of oppression. The campaign was simple: students held signs with hurtful things that have been said to or about them and a photographer took pictures. The campaign was a success and empowered many students. I remember the feeling of empowerment as I posed for two photos, one of me holding a sign that read “What are you?” and the other, me with an “angry Black woman” sign.
A few days after the photos were taken we printed the images and posted them around campus. The campaign received a lot of negative reactions from other students and they proudly ridiculed our photographs. Specifically, I remember overhearing one student proclaim, “Wow, they really are all angry,” as he looked at an “angry Black woman” campaign poster. Instead of learning from the campaign, students continued to make ignorant comments.
Unfortunately this reaction and behavior was extremely common at my school, a PWI in Virginia that embodied misogyny and espoused “color blind” principles. As a student, it wasn’t unusual for me to be the only woman of color in all of my classes and I began noticing how I was treated differently than my peers. I saw how administrators, school boards, faculty, and students often refused to “see color” and viewed racial and gendered topics as uncomfortable to the point of being taboo. They didn’t understand why a mural of the confederate flag was a source of fear and anger for students of color. They didn’t understand why it was offensive when fraternities hosted a “hands up, don’t shoot” themed party. They didn’t understand why it was problematic for faculty to allow men to dominate class conversations and silence or mansplain to women students.
They didn’t understand, they didn’t care, and they didn’t want to listen.
During my final year of college, I conducted research on what it feels like to be a woman student of color attending a predominantly white institution. In my research, I interviewed over 25 women; we talked about our experiences and shared stories. I found that although the experiences and stories differed among the women I talked to, every single woman talked about being completely silenced. Every day, women of color students at PWIs live and breathe in environments where we feel we don’t belong.
So what is it really like being a woman student of color at a PWI? Read a few of our experiences and stories below:
Our experiences are “a downer” and make people uncomfortable
Peers, faculty, and staff made me feel like my life, my experiences, and my culture didn’t matter. Not only did I not matter, but my experiences and struggles made them uncomfortable. Many of my friends, classmates, professors, and administrators refused to talk about or even acknowledge race or gender. Each time I would bring up race or gender in conversation, I received negative reactions: people frequently said “we’re just having a good time,” and that there was no need to “bring race or gender into it.” Many of the women that I spoke with agreed that racial and gender issues were taboo topics even among close friends, ultimately making it harder to trust peers, form strong relationships, and feel like a part of the community. One student shared her frustration with me after attending a president’s forum:
Our president forums are only an hour long and we spend about 25 minutes talking about the crappy food and 25 minutes talking about the crappy Wi-Fi. So that leaves what, ten minutes, to talk about other important issues? I went once so I could ask the board of trustees and the president himself why the only Black women we can look up to are the people they pay to clean our rooms and take out trash. When I asked the question during the last ten minutes, they told me that we ran out of time but I should schedule a meeting with them so we could discuss this important topic. I tried to schedule a meeting and never got a response.”
“You chose to come here”
When we express our concerns to peers or mentors, we often hear, “but you chose to come here anyway.” Rather than focusing on changing the school environment to make campus spaces more diverse and inclusive, individuals would blame us for our own discomfort. Once, in a class discussing the importance of diversity on college campuses, I voiced my concerns on how women students of color aren’t always heard or included in conversations and about what it was like to be the only woman of color in a sea of white men. My professor said “jokingly”, “well why didn’t you go to an HBCU?” and moved on with the conversation without acknowledging the problems with his question or the concerns that I raised. Another time, I discussed race and gender issues with my peers and one student raised his voice and said, “well if you don’t like it here, why don’t you transfer?”
Lots of stereotypes, lots of othering
As soon as I step in a room and introduce myself, I know that my peers have already made an assumption of me based on stereotypes. One extremely prevalent stereotype is the angry Black woman. Women students of color constantly have to be careful and make sure that we don’t show passion about a topic, we don’t act bossy, and we don’t raise our voices, because as soon as we do we will forever be labeled as an angry Black woman. One student told me during her interview:
I get a lot of looks now. There’s a perception that I’m very aggressive, dramatic, and I’m going to fight somebody, but that’s not really the case. I went to this party once and someone got into a fight; I don’t even know who it was – I was just dancing. The hosts shut down the party because they didn’t want to get in trouble and asked everyone to leave. The next day, I get texts from my friends asking why I beat someone up at the party, but I was just dancing. The next day, I was walking around campus and people actually avoided me – it’s like they were scared of me. Since that day, I started feeling like I always have to walk on eggshells.”
Besides stereotypes, Black women also felt othered and devalued at PWIs. People would constantly touch our hair without our permission, as if we were pets or on display. This happened on campus, in classes, at parties, etc. I recall an instance during orientation ice breakers when one woman in my group touched my hair before even introducing herself. When I jumped up, she quickly said, “I’m so sorry, it just really looks like real hair,” as she continued to touch my hair.
Every student that I interviewed had at least one story in which strangers touched their hair without permission. One even told me that someone touched her hair with Cheeto dust on their fingers.
While my friends and I have had many horrific experiences at our various PWIs, it wasn’t all bad. In many ways, the daily struggles and discomfort united us and we created our own safe spaces: we knew that campus spaces weren’t designed for us, so we created our own. When we were together, we didn’t have to walk on eggshells or worry about raising our voices or people touching our hair. When we felt frustrated, isolated, or fed up we always had a place to go or someone to talk to. We also met various allies who were willing to listen to our stories and concerns and had our backs when we voiced our concerns to administration, faculty, or our peers.
Despite the struggles, microaggressions, and the lack of belonging, none of us regretted attending a PWI. Although we were constantly shut down, we didn’t stop using every opportunity to bring up women of color – our issues and our experiences – in conversations. We will continue to create campaigns to show that our experiences matter; we will continue to fight to be heard by our peers, faculty, and staff. I’m also confident that the many women students of color that will enroll at PWIs will continue the fight so that one day, we will achieve racial and gender equity on every college campus.
I really enjoyed this article and it makes me think of my own experience at the PWI I attend now. I don’t hate it, but I don’t necessarily like it either. And the big factor is the lack of diversity. I have had an experience where people have touched my hair that I had spoken to before, but not formed a close relationship with or gave them permission to do so! Anyways, I also had another experience where a girl was imitating what I had just done. Which were just a few snaps of my finger and head movement joking about something and she told me she like that. I just didn’t understand why she said it. It was just an expression and I had never had anyone say they liked the way I snapped my fingers as I spoke about something! lol, it was kind of weird and made me realize even more how I was one out of the second only black person around.