Lessons Learned from Attending a Predominately White Institution
In just a few days, I will be graduating from one of the most “prestigious” universities in the country. This act will place me in a legacy of Black and Brown kids who graduated from institutions that have no true understandings of difference and inclusion, despite whatever their liberal mission statements may boast about. However, though my graduation is bittersweet, I cannot regret my choice. For attending such a problematic institution has taught me such invaluable skills. I’ve detailed the perils of attending such an institution in another blog, but here I want to actually reflect on the skills I’ve garnered. To my fellow peers who attend predominately white institutions, I intend for this to be a moment of celebratory reflection. A reflection on how powerful, resilient, and talented we continue to remain, even in the face of repeated acts of chaos. Of course, A few of these are not restricted to PWIs but college in general, but overall, here are the seven things I’ve learned from attending a predominately white institution (in no particular order):
1) I’ve learned how to “unlearn.”
The only types of people that America has learned to give nuanced depictions of are white, slender, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, middle-class, and protestant males. If you, like the vast majority of Americans, don’t fit into this mold, then you’ve grown up learning some pretty fucked up shit about yourself. Yet, I discovered that if one takes the right classes and engages in the right discussions, one begins to learn how to shave off all the layers of self-hate and ignorance that gets perpetuated in this world. College helped me cultivate the skill of learning who I actually was, and not society’s version of me.
2) I’ve learned the true meaning of “difference.”
Audre Lorde writes, “Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.” In laymen’s terms, difference is where we learn from each other. It is the space where we can grow and create new things, and it is something that we must discuss continually. Difference does not function as a static phenomenon, but it involves process. Ironically, many PWIs fail to realize that just letting “different” students in doesn’t equate to much if we don’t learn how to really address the differences between us. But for me, college put me around such a diverse group of people that I was able to make these discoveries for myself. I’ve had some wonderful, awkward, angry conversations with people from all different types of backgrounds. And though many times I had to agree to disagree, I learned so much more about myself. You learn that you are not the only thinking individual in this world, and that goes a long way to learning how to truly connect to people.
3) I’ve learned how much I don’t know.
And that’s actually a good thing. We’ve all met the know-it-alls, and we all know how people feel about them. Socrates said it, “The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.” Accordingly, learning how to take up the position of listener is key to learning from people who deal with different oppressions. Understanding that one doesn’t know everything is a crucial aspect of coalition building, and as marginalized individuals, we have to learn how to build coalitions and relationships between other minorities. To do this, we must learn to combine curiosity and humility. I’m not sure yet, but I have a sense that being curious and humble opens your mind up to learning so much more.
4) I’ve learned to name my oppressions.
Growing up, I could always feel when something wasn’t right or made me uncomfortable, but college gave me the language for it. For instance, I never liked playing sports as a kid. (Especially since I wasn’t good at them.) It wasn’t until college that I realized that in sports there was a particularly detrimental system of hyper-masculinity that I didn’t identify with. (Which sounds much fancier to say.) Being able to name and understand what makes you feel uncomfortable as a gay person, as a woman, or as a disabled person allows you to take ownership over your oppressions, and ultimately learn to cope with these issues.
5) I (began) to learn the type of leader I am.
One of the greatest opportunities college offers is the ability to take leadership positions in student organizations that can offer real change with minimal risk. Are you a procrastinator? Don’t get along well with others? These traits become manifest when you’re planning an event for a cultural student organization, or you are the president of an organization with your peers. I began to learn how to manage conflict, what I can and can’t tolerate, and I learned to compromise. Furthermore what’s great about college organizations is that if one fails, there’s not too much fallout to deal with. College is one of the few opportunities where one can learn to lead and possibly fail. Learning the type of leaders we are is crucial for many of us marginalized individuals who will often go into spaces where we will have to take the initiative to work against some of the racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic and transphobic practices of our jobs.
6) I learned to create space for myself.
This means many things. But as a Black person, a queer person, or hell even a videogame nerd, you need to find ways to create relationships or physical environments that reflect who you are and how you identify. If you attend a predominately white institution, then you often have to learn how to do this for yourself. I learned to create and search for spaces that feel safe, inclusive, and prepare me to deal with a lot of the BS I’ll deal with in the world. This is a necessary skill for all people, but becomes especially important for marginalized individuals.
7) But lastly, I learned the power of focus.
Through all the ignorant jokes, comments, and incidents—I learned how to persevere and focus on what’s really important. Learning when to fight back and when to grin and bear it is something that marginalized individuals know all too well. I will be living a life where I must constantly learn to pick my battles. Going to a PWI was pivotal in developing this understanding.
I could name many more things. But ultimately, if your identity exists anywhere in the periphery of society, graduating from a PWI is a feat of Herculean proportions. At times, some of the foolishness I’ve dealt with has left me wondering why I didn’t retreat into the relative safety of an HBCU, but still, I’ve gained so much social and psychological resilience that I feel fit to take on the world. Indeed, when you are a marginalized individual who graduates from a PWI, resilience is arguably what you actually majored in.