Young, Black And College-Bound: How Race Matters
Mali Dandridge, 17
I was admitted to my top choice college, Brown University.
On the day college decisions went live online, I squeezed my eyes shut and clicked on the link. When I opened my eyes, confetti exploded across the screen, and there was the word I’d been hoping for: “Congratulations.” Blood rushed to my face, and I started crying tears of joy.
But I also immediately began to worry about how I would be perceived as a black girl in the Ivy League, and where I would find my community. The few black Ivy Leaguers I know have all said that at one time or another, they felt slighted because of their race.
I grew up hearing stories from my uncle, who went to Harvard in the 1980s. He remembers some of his fellow black classmates being disinclined to speak up, out of fear that they’d be cast as the “dumb black person.” “They let their blackness become their weakness,” is how he put it, and he advised me not to do the same. Their behaviors only reinforced the biased suspicions of many of their classmates and professors at the time: that they were only there because of affirmative action.
Seeking comfort, I talked to my mom, who attended Princeton in the 80s. I hoped that my uncle’s experience was an extreme case. Turns out I was wrong. She said she felt pretty insecure on campus and gave me advice on how to “get through” it all– as if getting through college, not enjoying it, should be the objective. She said she had to have faith in her abilities when others wouldn’t. I found it chilling that her achievement would create so many struggles.
Despite hearing these disheartening accounts, I still hoped that people would have matured in the last 40 years. I hoped that the illusion of a “diverse” and “accepting” generation in society would somehow protect me from the outright prejudice that my family members endured.
But based on microaggressions I’ve faced at school around my college acceptance and other achievements, I know that things haven’t changed all that much.
For example, one classmate suggested that I was only elected as a student leader for diversity’s sake, not because I had earned it. Another time, a boy in my class said that race “obviously helped” me get into Brown, without considering my good grades and extracurriculars, or the role of race in his acceptance to competitive schools as a white guy. If this can happen at my small Catholic high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, which prides itself on being a “diverse and inclusive community,” then surely it could happen in the elite Ivy League.
At this point, you may be wondering, “Why even bother with the Ivy League, if you have so many concerns?” I’ve asked myself that question. But then I decided there are so many benefits, it’s worth trying to get around the negatives.
The fact that Brown is known as the “liberal, open-minded” Ivy gives me hope that I can find a community of people there who will let me prove my intellect without making snap judgments about me based on my race.
Mind you, I’ve never set foot on Brown’s campus. So in many ways, it’s still a figment of my imagination. But I keep thinking about something my uncle Jim mentioned in passing. He said that Brown students are weird. “They’re the types to wear mismatching socks to make some sort of political statement.” I thought about my favorite pair of bright yellow socks, my long history of bold outfit choices, and my love of social justice, and smiled.
It seems like being different is a badge of honor at Brown, not something to be ashamed of, which is why I think it will be a good school for me, as a black girl.
Joshua Bailey, 17
Those are the letters I keep seeing in bold print across the chests of two students who attend my high school in Atlanta. My classmates in their sweatshirts are like a walking embodiment of the choice lots of students are making right now: one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), or a state school?
But let me back up. In my case, to call it a “choice” is slightly misleading. While lots of factors are shaping my college decision, one of the biggest is money. I’m not going to sit here and say that I’m the poorest kid in the world, but currently, I’m only rich in innovative ideas, potential, and the drive to be successful. Plus I’ve got a decent GPA. What I don’t have, is all of the loot.
When I realized that colleges don’t offer full-ride scholarships through recruitment mail, I stopped opening the dozens of envelopes flooding my mailbox. I didn’t want to let myself fall in love with a campus or start fantasizing about how the sweatshirt would look on my Instagram account because there was no way I could afford it.
In addition to my financial situation, my high school is also a major influence on my college choice. I go to a diverse and creative high school in the center of the melting pot of Atlanta, Georgia. We have people of all races and from all over the city, from the hood to rich areas with million-dollar houses, and everyone is together. I want my college to reflect that same atmosphere.
Which is one reason I put HBCUs on my college “To NOT do list.”
My being African American and not showing any interest in an HBCU is surprising to most. But not to my mom, even though she went to Tuskegee University. She understood I’m looking for a more diverse college experience than the one she had.
Just this month in my Speech and Forensics class, we watched an animated video on Brown vs. Board of Education, something that we have been familiarized with a million times over, and it showed–with so many of my classmates engulfed in their phones. Still, the message about segregation definitely was not lost on me. Remembering that history helped me to be even more confident in my opinion on HBCUs retreating from the end-goal of desegregation we have strived so long for.
I hope that my statement is not misjudged. I know HBCUs have become more diverse, and I totally respect and understand why they were created — to give African American people a chance to get an equal education when they had no other option. If I were around when they were established, I would have appreciated that, and I still do. But my choice has changed because the world has changed.
When I called my father to tell him I didn’t want to commit to an HBCU, he told me he didn’t want me to. My dad didn’t attend college and feels he was deprived of so many opportunities he deserved. He worries that I would also face discrimination, after graduating from an all black college.
So in the end, I’m heading to Georgia State University. I’m still working out the financial aid package, but I’m hopeful that I’ll qualify for a full ride. I know I’ll be testing the waters there because I truly don’t know what it’s going to be like. When I arrive on campus, I’ll look around and see what needs to be done, and what I need to do for myself to further my journey in this life. And if I feel like there are aspects of campus life that need to change–related to race or anything else–I’ll work to make that change happen.
Because isn’t that what college is all about?
Samaiyah Lewis, 18
Someone once asked me about the moment when I realized I was black.
I mean, I always knew to fill in the bubble for African American whenever I took a survey. But as a kid, I never thought too hard about my blackness. Fast-forward to now, I’ve decided I want the sense of belonging that will come from attending one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
It really wasn’t until my freshman year in high school that I became more aware that I am a black girl—and what that means. Transitioning from my small, liberal elementary school to a college prep high school in downtown Chicago is what initiated my awareness.
In high school, I entered a new world of nearly 1,500 students who came from families who harbored feelings and opinions I had not been exposed to before. In my English class freshman year, there were three African American students in a class of 30. This was not unusual to me, because even though I have resided on the south side my entire life, I’ve always attended schools on the north side, where there aren’t many black and brown students. However, this was the first time my classmates seemed to view me as the sole representative of my race, at any given moment. I remember being called on to read the poems of Langston Hughes because I mastered the pronunciations of his colloquial euphemisms. My classmates asked if I shared the cultural practices represented in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” One time, I was singled out to answer what feminism means to black women.
The expectation that I would educate my white peers and provide the “common black perspective” — on demand — became a chore and signaled that to many of my classmates, I was ‘the token black girl.” I wondered if my friends at predominantly black high schools held these responsibilities in their classrooms. Probably not.
Then, earlier this year, I was sitting in the hall and a teacher, who was white and male, walked up to my circle of friends and me. All of us are black. He asked if we knew the details of an upcoming Black Student Union event at our school. When we all replied we didn’t know the exact details, he looked at us in shock and said, “Well, people have been asking me, and I’m white–I don’t know. I thought you guys would.” We let out uncomfortable giggles and he shrugged off, looking annoyed.
It was that moment in the hallway that got me thinking it was finally time for me to break from the predominantly white institutions I have gone to since kindergarten. Having to enter and exit different worlds on a daily basis has taught me to relate to and empathize with others who are different from me, and that’s a good thing. But in schools I’ve attended, I have rarely been afforded the opportunity to identify with people like myself.
So when it came time to apply for college, I checked more and more HBCUs on my common app. I was admitted to five of them.
My heart told me to pick Howard University. When I visited, it was everything my godmother, a Howard alum, said it would be. When I saw a classroom filled with black medical students, I felt inspired. It’s my dream to become a psychologist, and seeing the Howard students so focused on their goals made me believe I can accomplish mine too.
But Clark Atlanta University gave me a full ride.
I chose Clark Atlanta. Graduating with no debt is going to be wonderful, and I can also take classes at nearby Morehouse and Spelman. For the first time, I’ll get to attend an institution that has a variety of courses and extracurricular activities tailored specifically for my educational advancement, as an African-American.
I will no longer have to feel like a visitor or a representative sent from elsewhere. I get to belong to a community.
These are full versions of three essays that appear in shorter form as part of Youth Radio’s partnership with the New York Times Race/Related.