Today was a difficult day. I find that I have often times been the only [insert: person of color; woman of color; first generation immigrant] in most of my professional settings. It is difficult to be the lone authority on those topics while running the risk of offending the very audience who asked the questions to the point of making a work environment hostile, or at the very least, uncomfortable. But then I witness so much, and it’s difficult to stay silent. Today was a tough day because I went in this morning with the many posts from former students in my mind, posts representing their universities, all standing in solidarity with the students at Mizzou and then was confronted with a survey regarding how we work with students of color. The fact of the matter is that we don’t. They are present and tolerated insofar as they are silent. But should they make any noise, should I make any noise, the same reaction that we are seeing about these too loud students of color would once again silent the legitimate concerns.
I’ve been spending time each week talking to my classes about college. So today’s talk went along these lines (as best I can from memory):
“There is one really important thing to remember about college: getting in is way easier than getting out. There are many reasons first generation students, low-income students, students of color, and immigrant students drop out of college. Most of those reasons have to do with the lack of support they receive, including an understanding of how to access that support. In some ways I am talking about academic supports: going to the writing center; knowing how to use office hours; or asking appropriate questions during lecture. But in other ways, I am talking about social supports. The students at Missouri and Yale are showing how to access that support. It is tremendously difficult to be a college student from an underrepresented group. You may be one of six other black males in the entire freshman class or you may be a handful of students who don’t speak English at home. And if you are me, watching the presidential debates as candidates invoke some of the worst blights in US history as in Operation Wetback, you don’t feel welcome in much of any context, let alone a university that can’t even have a conversation with you when you someone threatens you [acknowledges nods from two students of color, helps to hold back tears]. So it’s a good thing, a really good thing, when students are empowered to stop playing ball or to walk out and demand basic dignities that other students have without much thought. With that said though, many of you don’t identify with those students and you may even think we are being too sensitive and that your freedom of speech is more important than another’s discomfort. Maybe. But what happens when someone decides your concerns aren’t important enough?”
When I first started working in college access, as is my way, I read most anything on the topic I could grab. I remember reading an article about teaching students of color to understand that they are not welcome on college campuses and how to do their best to not cause trouble. So this is for all of my former and present students: it is so heartwarming to see you cause trouble. Fists up.