Being black in predominantly white spaces can be complicated for African Americans at different ages and stages in life. The difficulty of the African American student’s college experience can be a particularly complicated time given the growth, learning, and change that are an embedded in this season of life. Specifically, research has shown that students experience a sense of ‘onlyness’, are often called upon to speak for their entire cultural group, and will suffer anxiety and depression and stereotype threat (Harper, 2012; Steele, 1997; Pieterse, A.L, et. al, 2014). Realistically, everyday indignities or microagressions will continue to manifest in students’ lives. However, there is still good news. This current generation is rising up to take control of their destiny and hold campus officials accountable for their inaction.
Below are a few survival tools to help create success for those students who find themselves being “Black in White Spaces”.
1. Find a supportive network of people to walk the journey with you. You may feel alone in your struggle, lonely, and like the only person who is dealing with the oppression. While these feelings are valid, one of the best ways to combat this is to build community to help support you and validate your experience. There is a reason that we have study groups, faith communities, books clubs, knitting circles, and online discussion groups – there is power in being part of a group and knowing you are not alone. Let others who are having similar experiences hold you up.
2. Remember you are in charge of your voice – use it as you wish. Over the years I have watched students respond in one of three ways: being silenced by the amount of oppression, using their voice to herald each and every issue, and selectively using their voice on the issues and situations that matter most. Selectivity renders you the most empowered. Choosing when and how you react strengthens the clout of your voice. Allowing yourself to be defeated by oppression and constant microaggressions is understandable especially when you can’t see any change of by sharing your concerns; however, it is important to fight this urge. As a therapist, I have seen people who have been effectively silenced turn that anger and agitation on themselves leading to depression, anxiety, and a muted experience of life and school. Finding a good balance is best.
3. Let go and accept that others’ actions are not a reflection of you. Racial battle fatigue (RBF)is real (Williams, 2007). That is the psychological toll that results from the stress and anxiety caused by constantly dealing with both overtly racist actions and subtle references to one’s race. One reaction to RBF is that the victim of discrimination will internalize the message of the oppressor, leading to low self-esteem and self-efficacy, along with stereotype threat. These reactions are common, but should be fought back vehemently by Students of Color. While the effects of racism are personally experienced by the victim of racism, the problem of racism is the problem of the racist and not the victim. Remember it is not your fault any more than women are to blame for sexualized violence. It is possible to do three times as much work, speak in perfect English, drive the speed limit, and never commit a crime and be seen or treated in racist ways. To boost your resiliency and grit, do you what you can to hold the perspective that the incident is external to you, unstable, and not because of your character. People who see the world in this way tend to be the most successful and have the greatest amount of resiliency.
4. Some of your best allies could be people that don’t look like you. One of the most consistent demands across the student protests in the past few weeks has been has been the desire for more faculty of color. This is a direct response to the small number of faculty of color. Because of this, it is reasonable to expect that not every faculty ally will be a person of color. Some of my strongest allies over the years have been White colleagues. I encourage you to diversify your support network. You might be pleasantly surprised at the result and it might even be healing or corrective for you.
5. Remember your ancestors. African Americans have a deep history of invention, creativity, resiliency, and fight. That is your legacy and where you come from. Hold on to that by keeping some pictures and other things that remind you of their struggle as a way to inspire you to overcome your own struggles.
While this is a difficult fight, it is doable: If you take care of yourself in the process, stay connected to a community, use your voice intentionally, connect to allies, and remember that our ancestors have lead the way for us.
Credit // Author: Dr. Stacey Pearson-Wharton
Dr. Stacey Pearson-Wharton offers expertise and a positive approach for issues surrounding diversity, social justice, inclusion, and mental health to provide hope and healing in difficult times. Learn more about her keynotes at campuspeak.com/pearson-wharton.