"Hometowns" is a (remote) quarter-long project by NBN Opinion in which individual writers explore the different issues that pertain to or tie them to their hometowns.
Even three and a half years after my own Wildcat Welcome, it still surprises me that culture shock was not thoroughly discussed in the context of a college campus during the True Northwestern Dialogues of the fall of freshman year.
Diversity, or a lack thereof, comes with a particular kind of culture shock. People from predominantly white areas tend to go to predominantly white institutions (PWIs), and they find themselves right at home. This only perpetuates a system of pervasive racism at both Northwestern University and other PWIs, which is itself indicated by various hateful events on campus in just my time here.
Coming from Sacramento, Calif., the third most diverse city in the United States according to FiveThirtyEight, Northwestern’s white predominance was a shock. As a Black person, that shock was often accompanied with deeply uncomfortable and angry feelings about the attitudes expressed and actions undertaken by my white peers. I did not – and sometimes still do not – feel at home. From the invitation of Jeff Sessions to racist op-eds, NU students have managed to express overt and covert racism.
Sacramento was not immune to racism. I was teased about my dark skin and desensitized to racist jokes and non-Black use of the n-word. The vital difference between the places is the diversity. In Sacramento, it was easy to keep away from white shenanigans. I didn’t have to look for friends of color, they were just there — in my classes, on the street, at parties. It is true that Sacramento is still about 50% white, but the ratio of white people to people of color has always felt right in my home city.
While the Black community at Northwestern tries incredibly hard to stay connected, I find the search to be exhausting.
Black people — often POC in general — will give each other a look when white people say something questionable. It is just a look, an exhausted here-they-go-again.
Sophomore year, I sat in one of my favorite classes ever, U.S. Intellectual History. During lectures covering the debate around slavery in context of the Civil War, I had to listen to my white peers struggle with tactfulness and empathy. It was painful to talk about the act of owning humans as anything but evil. Given that I was the only Black person in the class, there was no one to share that look or pain with.
So I put my head down. I disengaged.
To my professor’s credit, she handled it tactfully. After that class, she made a point to reach out to me and check in on my emotional well-being. I expressed to her how I felt, and she apologized on behalf of Northwestern for the lack of diversity.
This lack of diversity, at Northwestern and other high-ranking universities, is a known problem. It is why Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) are so important. It is why affirmative action exists, which, despite the debate around its shortcomings, is absolutely a necessary policy in a world with systematic racism.
The same way some white people have learned that they have to deal with and understand people of color, I too have discovered that dealing with white people — especially the upper class ones — is a discipline in and of itself.
The world is full of white people; the world is full of different cultures of white people with their own ideas about Black women and people of color. With each new interaction, I must navigate a new attitude, but the same set of tools usually come in handy. I missed out on developing these tools, such as code-switching, in Sacramento.
For those who attend a PWI and would argue this type of socialization with white peers is not valuable, I would only ask why you decided to attend.
I came to Northwestern for the resources, and learning how to deal with white people who have never dealt with Black people in a meaningful way is indeed a resource.
I suspect that more people of color share my reasoning than are willing to say, because we all need to be well-rounded people that have interacted with the world as is. Attending a PWI gave me this power, which may have taken longer to develop had I never left my home city.
Editor's Note: The views presented in this story belong to the writer and are not necessarily reflective of North by Northwestern as a whole.
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