Online Exclusive: Being Black in White Spaces

Fall 2018

By Kalah Brown

The news is filled with stories about innocent black people accused of wrongdoings most likely based on their race: In Philadelphia, two black men were arrested for waiting in Starbucks; in Michigan, a 14-year-old black boy was shot when asking for directions to school after missing the bus; in Connecticut, a graduate student at Yale University had the police called on her for napping in the common room of her residence hall.
These incidences often involve people of color being shamed, assaulted, or victimized for just being, for simply existing, in white spaces—situations or environments predominantly occupied by white people, seemingly unfit for people of color.
Given that I’ve grown up middle class and attended elite independent schools, one might think I would have some amount of privilege and social capital that would give me a sense of belonging in these spaces. Yet, as someone who identifies as black, no matter where I go, I often feel out of place.
Black people not feeling at home in this country is not for lack of trying. I see myself and my peers work to fit into the vision of America curated for centuries by media, designed in the image of white Americans that has whitewashed the experiences of people of color. A recent study by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA examined diversity in Hollywood, specifically the top 200 films in 2016. This study showed that even though minorities made up 40 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2016 Census, they only accounted for 13.9 percent of film leads in 2016 (an increase from 10.5 percent in 2011), 12.9 percent of directors, and 8.1 percent of writers. So, growing up, children of color, striving to be what they see on the screen, try to assimilate into a culture that doesn’t make space for them. They look in the mirror and see the other, the one that is not the perceived ideal often presented in the media.
This information is not new. Many of us have read, heard, and watched powerful people speak from their perspective about this. However, an arguably more prominent issue is not the exhausting efforts of people of color to fit into an impossible ideal, but the persistent microaggressions inflicted on them during this pursuit. This occurs even within our independent schools, where the white ideal may be even more present.
At many independent schools, assumptions are often made about students of color. Often times, regardless of the fact that academics play a large role in the application process and every school day, students of color are assumed to have inferior academic profiles; they must be there on an athletic scholarship. A black friend shared how peers at our school presumed in her first few months that she was not only on a scholarship, but that it was for track and field, well before they had seen her perform academically or athletically. This assumption about her academic potential and socioeconomic status based on the color of her skin is an example of a microaggression that students of color experience daily.
According to Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue, microaggressions are the everyday slights, snubs, or insults that communicate hostile or negative messages to targeted people based solely upon their marginalized group. Microaggressions are often unintentional, but they hurt the victim nonetheless—like death from a thousand cuts. Though the student who asked my friend about her admission to the school may not have meant to be malicious, the comment was still painful and made the black student re-evaluate her place at the school, and in society as a whole. These offhand comments can make students of color feel out of place and can have a lasting impact on their identity, self-esteem, academic performance, and social-emotional development.  
To combat microaggressions and feign a sense of belonging, students of color regularly practice code-switching—the practice of shifting the language you use or the way you express yourself. This tactic, which black people have used over the last century for basic survival when interacting with whites, continues today as young people of color navigate and assimilate in mixed or predominately white spaces.
While we all have many sides to who we are—the languages we speak, the religions we practice, and the cultures that shape us—people of color often have to choose to be less than their full selves to feel accepted. Most often the traits that are hidden are those that may cause them to appear “more black.”
This self-compartmentalization can be painful and isolating, even when it achieves successful assimilation within the dominant group. Throughout my day, in class, in the dorm, and in the dining hall, I read the room and the people surrounding me. I invest additional effort in filtering my thoughts on their way to my mouth.
Let me be clear, I do this with students, faculty, and administrators. I intentionally code switch and worry about my perception and acceptance with my peers just as much as I do with the adults on my campus. I am aware that the perceptions of who I am and my potential might be determined by stereotyped views of my behavior. In addition, this evaluation may not stop with me. The behavior of a single black student can often be overgeneralized to our entire black student community. We are acutely aware of how being ourselves can affect our collective success.

Change Is Happening—But More Is Needed

In the past year, my school has addressed these issues with the help of faculty and students advocating for change. I am thankful for the commitment my school has made to the diversity of the student body and staff. Representation matters. The faculty of color support students as they work through the challenges of day-to-day school life. Their presence is incredibly helpful and important. Just having faculty of color around can make students feel safer, visible, and more included.
Black students at independent schools across the country (and I imagine faculty as well) share similar experiences. When talking about these experiences, it is clear how much change is desperately needed. Schools must help all students understand what microaggressions are and how they affect marginalized groups. If students better understand the effects of microaggressions, hopefully they will happen less often.
It is also vital that students of color have spaces where they can be themselves and not be limited. These safe spaces can be a refuge and a place for dialogue, where both people of color and white people can have healthy and intelligent discussions about these issues.
By educating the community about microaggressions and code switching, and how they adversely affect a student’s confidence, self-esteem, and ability to perform well academically and athletically, students of color could have a school experience that is slightly more similar to that of white students. This is an experience in which students can be themselves—not have to code-switch—and feel a sense of belonging. In the end, students’ full potential cannot be reached when they are more focused on the way they are portraying themselves racially rather than their academics.
Being black in white spaces means being the elephant in the room. Being black in white spaces means having to stand alone and not knowing for certain if there is anyone behind you.
Educating independent school students on the experiences of their black peers would create a more inclusive school community and a safer space for people of color to more fully invest in their education. In a safer, more inclusive environment, students can feel like they really belong.
Kalah Brown

Kalah Brown is a senior at The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.