Being a black girl in the current state of this country is already hard. It becomes even harder when you find yourself attending a school where more than 75% of the student body looks nothing like you. The shock of a new school experience, mixed with feeling that you don’t belong there can be heavy. Many times, we see girls of color not being comfortable at these institutions because of the feeling of being alone. According to late University of Georgia researcher Larry G. Jones and his article, Black Students Enrolled in White Colleges and Universities:Their Attitudes and Perceptions, “Respondents felt that white students did not necessarily take an active role in helping black students adjust to campus life.” They feel like they have no one to relate to. As a result of that, they proceed to assimilate into the culture of the school. They start to feel as if they aren’t good enough in the skin that they were born in so they start changing themselves to fit what society deems as beautiful. When you feel as if your melanin is not good enough or that your skin is not black enough, here are six things to remember when attending a Predominantly White Institution.
Don’t lose sight of who you are. When attending a PWI, girls of color tend to start changing themselves to fit into the culture of their school. Some examples of assimilation can range from straightening their hair because of ridicule about the texture to make it more “presentable” to hiding their accents because they are afraid of sounding “too black.” Ramaya Thomas, 15, a member of the VOX ATL Staff, admitted to not being comfortable wearing braids to her school freshman year because she felt that she would be deemed as “ghetto.” “When I went to school with braids for the first time, I felt so uncomfortable and I decided to not wear them back to school.” Remember that no one should be able to change who you are except for you. Lexi Rogers, 16, a member of the VOX Media Cafe, brought up an interesting point about the topic of sounding a certain color and says that, “A voice should not determine your race.” Take this to mean that you shouldn’t let anyone say that you sound a certain way or should tone yourself down because they may not be able to handle you.
It’s OK to be angry sometimes. It’s no surprise that there are many stereotypes about black people and one of them is the “Angry Black Girl.” Black women tend to be overlooked in many areas and not speak up because we won’t be heard. Therefore, when we hear something that we don’t like or that is important to us, we become more passionate and bring out a side of us that nobody has seen before. Because we never speak out because of the fear of not being heard, when we do retaliate, people become afraid and then we get labeled as angry. Being a black girl at a PWI, don’t hide your emotions because you feel that you will be labeled. Express yourself as loudly as you want to and if they have a problem with it, take it up with them.
Find your people. Having a support system is very important, especially in an environment where you feel alone most of the time. Lexi makes an amazing point that being at a PWI “takes an emotional toll” on girls of color. Because you’ve been pulled away from the predominantly black schools, the black girls outside of school don’t want to be your friend and they call you out and start questioning whether you’re “black enough.” They call you out for attending the school because they think you’re better than them when, in reality, the curriculum is just different. It may be hard to talk these issues out with someone at first because you may feel as if no one else understands, but it will definitely work out in the end. Find people you can talk to, whether it be a teacher or a friend group. Lexi stated, “There’s no place for black girls at a PWI.”, so you need to find your people. You can join a Black Student Union, join clubs and teams, and even start your own if you need a safe space to be unapologetically black.
Make sure people value who you are. You know your name is unique when you can never find your name on a Coke bottle or a keychain. Also, you know your name is unique when people all of a sudden don’t know how to pronounce it. You think that since they can pronounce Daenerys Targaryen, they wouldn’t find it hard to pronounce a name like “Kynnedi” or “Kiara.” If someone mispronounces your name, it might feel unnatural to correct them at first because this might be a new experience for you. It may not feel like it at first, but every time your name is mispronounced, they are devaluing the uniqueness that your name was given at birth. Don’t be afraid of retaliation. If they don’t care enough to try to pronounce your name correctly, they don’t deserve your time.
Educate yourself and others. Some people always want what they can’t have. Whether it’s a raise that’s not meant for them, cookies they are trying not to eat, or the permission to use a word they just can’t use. Some people will straight up say “the N word” to your face and not see why you have a problem with it even though that word alone has put your people through 400 years of oppression. They wear cornrows and hoops, use our slang, and say our word and don’t understand why we’re so upset. If any of this happens to you, make sure that you know the facts about your culture so that you don’t seem ignorant. This quote from the TV show Grown-ish is perfect to educate them on the reasons why we feel so strongly towards our culture: “This is a culture that we’ve been forced to create because the first one was robbed from us and now it feels like we’re at risk of losing it again.” Don’t mistake straight disrespect for not knowing because that’s not always the case. Some people don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. But, some people just don’t know. Things that are common knowledge to you aren’t common to everyone. It may not be your responsibility to educate them, but don’t get mad when they do it again and you had the opportunity to drop some knowledge.
You’re pretty, and not just for a black girl. The standard of beauty in America has never been meant to include members of the African American community. In a world where your people are frequently portrayed as drug dealers, gang members, or harmful and dangerous, it can be easy to forget the amount of beauty and strength that is present in a black woman’s soul. Now, there are many positive, female, black influences in the media, but when attending a PWI, some black girls just don’t feel pretty. The white boys don’t like you because you’re too dark for their taste and, when they do like you, they say things like, “I’ve always wanted to try a black girl.”, “Wanna be my dark chocolate?”, or just straight up, “You’re pretty…..for a black girl.” Saying undermining things like this aren’t compliments and if anyone tries to say any of these things to you, politely walk away because you’re too good for that, sis. On top of all that, the black guys, who you’d feel like would want to be our allies because they get treated with the same amount of disrespect as we do and sometimes things much worse, act the same as the white boys. They act like everyone who has raised them and the woman that they came out of isn’t black. They treat black girls like they’re less than just because they’re black. Colorism in the black community is real and everyone disguises it by calling it a “preference”, but no one is ready for that conversation. Needless to say, your beauty is not defined by what any boy or girl says to put you down. Your beauty is defined by what you think about yourself. It doesn’t matter what they say unless you make it matter.
You matter. Speaking from two years of experience at a PWI, it is very easy to forget about yourself. You tone down your slang from your home to make your voice more acceptable to the people there. Some girls change their hair to prevent the questions about how you get it like that. You aren’t vocal when something bothers you because you would rather let ignorance slide than be labeled as the “Angry Black Girl.” You don’t have the obligation to be acceptable for anyone but yourself. You don’t have to hide your true self because of fear of being judged from where you come from. Don’t be ashamed of who you are. Creating a whole new persona just to feel accepted will feel like it worked at first, but later you will have an identity crisis like you never expected. If you need time to yourself, take it. Being at a PWI can be emotionally draining, especially when you’re not sure of yourself either. Ramaya shares that, “If I didn’t have the self-confidence that I have, I would be drowning in a place where I don’t feel safe.” This means to me that if you tell yourself that no one else’s opinion matters except your own, then you will feel secure in a place that always makes you feel inferior. You matter, even when no one tells you that you do.
Kyra Rogers,16, attends Chatham Hall in Chatham, Virginia but resides in Atlanta, Georgia. She enjoys basketball, poetry, soccer, and learning more about black culture.