This piece is part of a series exploring the many manifestations of privileges and prejudices at Minerva through student stories. You can read the introduction of the series here or more student stories on race, gender, class, ability, nationality, or religious discrimination.
Let me just open by saying that my name does not matter but my background does. I am a white (very white, like sun-burned-in-minutes sort of pale) female from a privileged background. The area where I grew up was very white, very religious, and very right-leaning conservative.
Prior to Minerva, I could easily count the number of people of color whom I had substantially interacted with. My parents raised me as “color blind” (a term from my own mind). Race was not a discussion, neither in a racist way nor in an anti-racist way. I simply didn’t notice differences in skin color or race — so, naturally, I didn’t consider the nuances of how skin color affects an individual’s life. I spent much of the last few years very upset with my upbringing for this failure.
This summer, my mother shared a snippet of her own upbringing in an area with a history of KKK involvement. And though she would never say it, I suddenly understood how radically I had been raised. When I was young and my parents were trying to raise me, being “color blind” was a major shift towards anti-racism. Now, I cannot express enough my gratitude for the way they raised me. For the fact that they never batted an eye when unofficially “adopting” my Haitian, Black older brother into the family (the one who I entirely forgot was Black for probably 6 or so years). For the fact that they defended me from the scolding white grandmas when I carried a Black baby doll as a young kid.
Of course, I still have a long way to go. That much has become abundantly clear.
As a white person, I have been on the kinder side of racism. At times on the global rotation, my skin color made life even easier — people were more welcoming, guys found me more attractive, and people found me more interesting because I was white. I was not aware how my skin color made my life easier until leaving the US (my home country, for better and for worse) and, unlike ever before, I have found myself uncomfortable with my whiteness. Hating the undeserved attention, ashamed for the way people like me have treated people unlike me, and sickened by the reality that racism makes my life easier.
Foundation Year and Foundational Changes
So when I started at Minerva, I was ignorant of the racial nuances that my classmates of color knew intimately. Over that first year, a few situational factors set me up for a sharp course correction:
- Both of my neighbors were Black guys
- My RA was Black (and male)
- My year-long civic project team had a Black guy and a Middle-Eastern girl
Through conversations with these individuals, I began to understand that racism was not in the history books I had learned from during high school. Racism was present every day in subtler but equally damaging ways.
One afternoon in December, my Egyptian teammate-best-friend-combo and I were talking about our civic project and the crazy shifts that brought our team together. She told me that the original team of four (which I was not part of) had another student on it. The individual would not listen to the insights or comments of her two African teammates, instead dominating the conversation. After their first meeting, she requested to change groups. The reason was something vaguely to do with her teammates not getting along and not seeming capable. She was immediately moved even though the project policy was no switching.
“She’s racist,” I remember my friend telling me. “She was the one who was difficult to work with & she didn’t listen to us at all. And the staff who switched her, yea, she’s racist to me too. She stuck her nose up when I told her I was from Egypt and she always over-explains to me like I don’t understand. She only likes people who are like her.”
And I thought that there were no racists at Minerva. Because I understood racism as my US history book taught it, racism existed during slavery and segregation. Neither of which still existed in the US so, by extension, racism no longer existed in the US, right? Wrong.
After that conversation, I couldn’t really conceptualize “racists” the same anymore. The dichotomy of racist or non-racist that I had always been taught had shattered when pressed.
That was the first time my perspective on racism was challenged — and thank goodness it was not the last.
How this began, I really don’t know, probably partially from the combination of situational factors that I mentioned above, partially from attending church and having a small group with other Christians (most of whom were people of color), and partially from some other elements that I will never be able to explain. But one of the last nights of winter break, I was sitting on my neighbor’s floor amidst the chaos of a group of Africans trying to leave on time for an African dinner (let’s just summarize to say it wasn’t going quickly).
I don’t know who said it, but I will never forget the words that have come to change the whole course of my last two years. As I sat on the ground, just laughing and talking with them all, someone looked at me —
“Aspen, why are you just sitting there? We’re waiting for you, grab your shoes.”
And from that moment on, I have had an African family.
Shortly after, when it had become routine for our habibis to all spend time together pretty much 24/7 in some combination of people, my Egyptian friend and I were talking about someone being weird the day before. She looked at me, “You don’t get it, do you?”
She shook her head sadly. “People treat you differently, especially when you’re around us.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just watch, watch what people say and do when you’re around us [Africans].”
So I began to watch. The more time I spent with my habibis, the more I saw it. Though my friend did not explicitly call it racism, I now know that’s what she wanted me to see. Now that I have begun to see, I cannot unsee.
When we gathered in the lobby, classmates coming past always spoke to me first. I could be deep in conversation or in the middle of my Habibis and they spoke to me, the only white person in the group. “What’s going on?” They would ask, usually with a veiled tone of concern. You know, the way you ask a question while implying assistance if needed. Of course, some people used the subtler version (still directed to me), “Where are you all going?”
Very quickly, I learned to deflect these questions to the people who actually knew where we were going or what was happening because, a lot of the time, I didn’t know — and, if I accidentally said this, the swift response was always:
“Oh, are you okay?”
Wow, I heard this question so many times from so many people — people who I had not spoken to in weeks, people from all over, people passing by, people coming out of their way (VERY noticeably) — whenever I was around my Habibis, people suddenly cared if I was okay.
And ONLY when I was around my Habibis did these people care if I was okay.
Consciously or unconsciously, they looked at the white girl with Black and Brown Africans and worried for her safety.
The assumptions they made about my Habibis still knots my stomach — because it’s been almost two years and I am still asked the same question. This exchange has happened over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.
I suddenly realized how long this has gotten. I’m sorry for my lengthiness and heartbroken that I even have so much to say — but I will not use lengthiness as an excuse for me to push aside other moments of racism as “insignificant.”
Because those were only a few of the manifestations of racism that I have seen among Minerva students.
Direction Year and Direct Responses
On multiple occasions, I have been asked to speak at events (including Friendsgiving, Quinquatria, and Continuum) or to write something on behalf of my cohort. And, on multiple occasions when I have politely declined and recommended some of my classmates of color, I have heard event hosts (staff and students) decline the recommendation with the words “we already have enough people” or, more disheartening, “that’s okay, we already have someone from outside the US” (of course, this most often meant they had a white European speaking).
And what about the comments that classmates made about who I chose to room with in Seoul (a German, a Nigerian, and an Egyptian, all girls). “Oh, that’s… interesting,” “how can you all get along? You seem so different,” or “oh so you have another Westerner.”
And the more blatantly racist comments that classmates made about my flatmates in Hyderabad (an Egyptian girl, two Nigerian guys, a Moroccan guy, a Mexican guy, and a guy from the US):
- “At least you have one American.” → In full honesty, I didn’t even plan to share a flat with him. I found out he was in our flat when I moved in.
- “Really? Are you sure about that?”
- “Will you be okay? Even with the African guys?” → Yes, in fact, the African guys are the very ones who have taken care of me when I’ve gotten into sticky situations on the street. I was more than “okay” with the guys, I was better off because they were my flatmates.
- “Do you lock your door?” → This question is not worthy of a response.
Over the course of spending time with my Habibis, they have come to share secondhand stories with me. These conversations usually start with one of the Africans commenting, “you know, Aspen, you’re not like the other Americans.” And then continue with remarks about how they feel unwelcome around some of our American classmates because they’re from Africa. How they feel ignored or not really listened to by these classmates.
Another time, a Black friend of mine commented about people thinking he was intimidating. I sort of laughed (yes, I cringe while recalling it too), “you’re not intimidating to me.” He sort of stared at me with his mouth open. Apparently, that was the first time a white female had told him that she didn’t find him intimidating. He had heard the opposite from classmates and non-classmates.
I had a similar conversation with a different Black friend of mine. For him, he had multiple classmates tell him that when they met him, they thought he had anger issues (he doesn’t) and that he hated them (he didn’t). Some classmates had even told him that’s how all the Africans looked to them — angry.
Another time, a Black friend of mine was telling me about his work study project & the couple other students he worked with. He mentioned how the manager thought he was lazy when, for the last few projects, he had done most of the work, including covering for the other teammate. No matter how much work he put in, his teammates and manager just seemed to think he was lazy. At the time, he didn’t call it out as racism but I wondered about it, having heard stories like these from him for the last two years (usually from teams where he was the only African).
Another time, I learned that racism doesn’t just come from people sometimes. An Egyptian friend made that clear one day when we were doing some Minerva survey and they commented, “Ah, I hate these forms that make you pick your race. A lot of times they don’t have Middle Eastern so I put Caucasian but then people tell me that I’m wrong?”
She’s the same one who has enough stories that she plans to write something on her own. She’s the same one who encouraged me to look — to really look — at how people treat each other.
Many of these moments seem small and subtle. They’re the actions that, years ago, I would have brushed aside as misunderstandings or just false assumptions.
Yet as I write them out, I notice the repetitive nature.
The commonalities across each story.
And the stark reality that I have never seen my white classmates treated this way.
And that is the bottom line here. While we are all equals, people of color are not yet treated that way. Time for us to get to work.
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