#BlackGirlProblems at a Christian College

NOTE: This is the sixth part in our 8-part Black to School series which highlights African-American voices and experiences at Christian colleges. Please read Part 1 for context. Today's post comes to us from Joy Ubani, a wise and courageous young Nigerian-American woman who graduated from Westmont College in May 2013. I appreciate her honest, humorous and forthright account of what was undoubtedly a challenging time for her at Westmont. 

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“What do you call a Black pilot?”

This was the joke that greeted me when I walked into my first class during my first semester at Westmont College. I made eye contact with my professor, confused as to why he was telling this joke. He returned my gaze as he laughed and told the class the answer to the joke.

“A pilot, you racist,” was the long awaited punch line.

As my classmates laughed in unison, I sat in my seat confused, wondering why a professor would begin class with such a joke and disregard the feelings of his only Black student.

Awkward encounter indeed. While my classmates laughed, I wondered if I should loudly clear my throat, reminding people that there was a Black person sitting in the room. The laughter continued. These sorts of situations were everyday happenings. The lack of cultural sensitivity was made apparent to me from day one.

bgp174I graduated from Westmont College, a private, Christian, liberal arts college. You might imagine the school was pretty diverse. That’s what I imagined when I applied. However, contrary to popular belief, Westmont is better known as a predominantly white institution, or PWI. I spent the majority of my four years there answering the questions of my ill-informed peers, fighting stereotypes, and trying to “fit in” although I so obviously stood out.

#BlackGirlProblems

#BlackGirlProblems is a trending topic that not many students at Westmont understand. These topics reflect common uncomfortable situations that Black females find themselves in, especially at a PWI.

1. Everyone expecting you to know the latest hip-hop trends and dance moves: Whenever I went to a social gathering, my peers would be so excited to see me. Not because I was popular, but because they expected me to teach them how to dougie, twerk, jerk, and reject.  I wasn’t at the party to teach party goers how to be “hip, hop and happenin’.”

2. People wanting to touch your hair: “Oh my goodness! Can I touch it!?” “No!” was always my firm response. I know my hair is fabulous; I did not attend Westmont to be an exhibition of black hair texture and styles.

3. Can’t find someone to do your hair: As you can imagine, Westmont was located in a predominately white town, which means, finding a hair stylist that did Black hair, was like finding a needle in a haystack. And asking my White peers to help me with my hair was out of the question.

4. Other races are disgusted and confused because you don’t wash your hair every day (or surprised that you can wash your hair while it's in braids): My hair is coarse, kinky, and beautiful. In order to maintain its moisture, I didn’t wash it every day like my other peers did. Frankly, I thought my hair washing regimen was my business

5. When your peers ask you if that is your "real hair?”:  Again, my business. Additionally, just because my hair is long and straight, does not mean that it’s not my hair.

Yep, all black people come from the same country :)6. When people find out you were born in Nigeria, and they tell you excitedly that they went on a mission trip to Africa: Mission Trips -- students at Westmont love going on them. To these students, Africa is usually regarded as one country, and when they find out you are from there, they question your ability to speak and understand English so well and ask if there were lots of giraffes and monkeys in your village (like they saw in “Africa” the movie).  These terribly wrong presumptions often left me aggravated at my peers’ ignorance.

7. Professors assuming you don’t understand a concept during the lecture: This comes in the form of stereotype threat. Faculty, staff and students often expect your academic performance to be inferior to that of Whites and speak to you in a condescending manner as though you cannot understand them.

8. People excitedly telling you that you are their first Black friend or that they remember having one Black friend in grade school: How I loved being the token Black girl. Not.

Please don't assume this is me.

9. People rolling their necks in an exaggerated manner whenever they see me, saying “Heeey girl!”: That ghetto or “Black” act needs to go. No one likes to be mocked. Please speak to me as you would speak to anyone else and do not assume that because I am Black, I have an “attitude” and snap my fingers and roll my neck.

Making Sense of It All

 These were the problems I encountered regularly at Westmont. Lucky for me, the other Black students in my class were a tight knit group. By “other” I mean about 5 students. As you probably guessed, not many Black students attend Westmont. But the few that did were plugged into progressive organizations such as the Black Student Union. Proposed to create a safe space for students of color to voice their concerns and gain support, these organizations instead catered to the general student body. While our umbrella cultural program encouraged us to host events that would educate other students on issues of diversity, I struggled to understand why we could not also host events that would specifically speak to the needs of Black students (i.e. discussions that would aid us in navigating social and academic spaces at school and in our community; options for dealing with administration and faculty when we believe racism is at play, etc.). We were instead compelled to host events that were not “intimidating” to the rest of the campus, that catered to the interests of other students and would garner mass student participation.  These events usually came in the form of discussions on hot topic isses such as “The N-Word”, “Hip-Hop”, and “Interracial Dating.”

I often wonder if genuine racial diversity can be achieved at a Christian college, or any PWI. Generally speaking, students who attend these colleges are privileged, White students. Some of these students and staff members have grown up in a rather homogeneous environment. (Hence the dramatic questions about hair and surprised expressions when they know I can’t twerk like the Black girl they saw on YouTube).

It was disappointing to find limited campus resources available to students like myself.  To create a less homogeneous campus, campus administration should work to hire more faculty of color who would be an asset in advising and mentoring students of color. An increase of faculty of color would work to increase self-efficacy and diminish identity crises and self-esteem issues that arise from experiencing stereotype threat in the classroom at a PWI.

Further, it would be beneficial to Black students (and other racial minorities) if faculty and staff attended mandatory cultural sensitivity training to better prepare them for interaction with diverse groups of students.

Although I appreciate the college’s strides towards inclusivity and have been lucky to work with student leaders who have been intelligent and capable regardless of their race, gender or my perception of their socio-economic status – the homogeneity remains and unfortunately the #BlackGirlProblems continue.