Twitter is seeing hundreds of current and former students of color sharing stories and thoughts about racial discrimination experienced while working toward a degree. The #NotJustUVA feed was started in response to the brutal beating and arrest of University of Virginia student, Martese Johnson, and it is helping to widen the lens allowing us all to see how common it is for students from diverse backgrounds to be harassed by white peers, faculty/staff, and community members. I attended a private liberal arts college in McMinnville, Ore., and at no time, before or since, have I felt more aware of the fact that my skin is brown. While trying to balance being a full-time student with two jobs, I also had to learn to navigate being one of few Black students on a campus where I often encountered people who would readily, sometimes giddily, admit to having never attended school with a Black person before. This made for many awkward, hurtful, and occasionally scary situations. While looking at the available public data, I learned, for the whole of my time at Linfield College (2005-2010), there was never more than 30 Black students on campus–and I often felt like there weren’t even that many of us considering I could easily go a week (or longer) without passing another Black student on campus. Reading the #NotJustUVA tweets brought back a lot of memories, and I decided to tweet an experience of my own:
Unfortunately, that was neither the first nor last time I was reminded of my skin color. Here are five memorable encounters I want to share.
1. Mistaken Identity
For the first few months of my freshman year I was constantly mistaken for a student named Lisa. It was not a simple, “Oh, gee, I though you were my friend. You two look alike!” There were multiple times I faked my way through conversations with Lisa’s classmates and friends, worried all the time that I would offend them if I interrupted their obliviousness to tell them I’m not the “Lisa” they’re looking for.
I felt worse for Lisa than myself. After all, these were her friends. These were the people she’d gone to school with for the past two or so years. During the course of these conversations, not one realized they were not addressing a young woman they considered their friend.
2. Black History Month
Also in my freshman year, I was contacted by a student who wrote for the campus newspaper. She’d gotten my name from some (well-meaning) person who thought I could help her with her story. I wanted to say no, but I thought I’d give it a chance.
As I listened to this budding Fox News anchor ask me about my Black History Month traditions, as if BHM is some extraordinarily special time in a Black person’s world, I (admittedly) lied and gave her a couple fluff stories about visiting an annual museum exhibit with my mom and watching movies related to Black life with my family. Again, it was less confrontational to just go along with it.
Before I switched to a writing major, I was planning to be an elementary school teacher. One requirement was to volunteer at the pre-K program on campus.
One afternoon, as I doled out milk and Goldfish crackers, I noticed the eyes of a 4-year-old, Joey, following me. A little confused since I’d already given him snack, I circled back around to him and asked if he needed anything else.
He was quiet for a moment before asking, “Why are you so tan?”
Joey now had the attention of all adults in the room. Getting my cue to explain he continued, “My mom said if I stay in the sun too long I’d burn. Is that what happened to you?”
I could feel myself being emotional as I explained to him that I am a different color because people come in all colors. I explained to him that just as his mommy and daddy have the same color skin as him, I have the same color skin as my parents.
He quickly accepted my explanation, and went on with snack. Meanwhile, I was left slightly reeling from the realization I was probably the first Black person that child had been around.
4. Black People Can’t Float
I was sitting in a friend’s room when girl from down the hall sought me out.
“Jamika, can you swim?”
Apparently, a few of the girls were discussing whether or not Black people were physically able to swim, and though I explained I was a fairly decent swimmer because I took swim lessons as a child, I was given all kinds of “science” to explain how the darkness and weight of a Black person’s pigment makes it impossible for us to swim, or even float.
I excused myself from the conversation quickly, but not soon enough.
5. Because of Kanye West
I was in a sticky fraternity basement playing beer pong. I was partnered up with one of the brothers, while my friend was partnered with one of her sorority sisters, Laura. The ball flew through the air and bounced off a cup. I ran to scoop up the ball, but Laura reached it just before me.
To celebrate, she looked me in the face and said, “Nigga, please!”
From the audible gasp of our friends at the table and the, no doubt, incensed look on my face, she knew she’d crossed a line and immediately back-peddled to her spot behind the table.
When no one said anything she tried blaming it on rap music, “Damn Kanye West and his music. It’s so catchy.” I watched her look to the white people around her for support, neither were willing to offer any.
I finally broke the silence, “Let’s just finish this game so I can go.”
Names of people involved have been changed.