Next month, tens of thousands of young people will leave home to attend university for the first time. On their college campus, they'll likely be exposed to new ways of thinking, bad cafeteria food and--if they're minorities--racism. This is especially true for students of color headed to predominantly white universities. If these students aren't prepared for such experiences because they were raised in culturally diverse areas or have little prior experience with racism, campus life will be trying. Such was the case for Alana Mohamed, who describes herself as "a light-skinned Guyanese-American" from a Muslim family.
When Mohamed, a New Yorker, first stepped foot on her New England college's campus, she felt immediate culture shock. "I was literally the only person of color in a sea of white people," Mohamed recalled on Racialicious.com. "This had never happened to me before."
Mohamed wasn't just unaccustomed to being the only brown face in the crowd but to overhearing racist jokes, racist observations about people of color and outright hateful bigotry, all of which she experienced at her college. For example, she witnessed two white classmates discussing African-American hair. One of the girls remarked:
"And why does their hair do that? Like, why is it like that? It's like they're a whole different species! They kind of...look like animals a little." When Mohamed balked, the two girls were clueless as to why she considered their remarks offensive.
This wasn't the only experience that left a bad taste in her mouth. Because of her Muslim surname, classmates often asked Mohamed if her family was religious. When she explained that they weren't, her classmates routinely expressed relief. "Oh, good, 'cause I know how crazy they can be," they said.
Once Mohamed heard a student in her dorm hallway exclaim, "F--king Muslim scum, f--king ruining our country. Motherf--kers." The remark generated cheers. "I was in my room at the time and couldn't see who had said it," Mohamed recalled. "And quite frankly, I was too terrified to go see."
Due to such experiences on campus, Mohamed spent her first year of college feeling alienated and marginalized. She's hardly alone. In recent years, race scandals have broken out on college campuses thanks to "ghetto parties" thrown by students bent on stereotyping African-American culture or white students complaining about rising numbers of Asian-American students on campus. And don't forget the affirmative action bake sales thrown by conservative student groups to suggest that black and Latino kids in college are only there because they're minorities. They couldn't possibly be talented enough to have gained admission without affirmative action.
In short, the college campus can be a hostile place for students of color. Mohamed decided to leave the university she spent her first year at to attend a college in a diverse part of New York City. Some students of color may not have the option of transferring, though. An academic or athletic scholarship may render it impossible.
So, how can minority students on mostly white college campuses buffer themselves against racism?
For one, these students should seek out other students of color who can relate to what they're going through. They can find these students by participating in cultural clubs, enrolling in courses about race or connecting to minority faculty members, as they may mentor students of color on campus. Connecting to minority alumni through organizations for grads of color will also prove helpful. After all, minority alumni can relay how they survived the challenge of life on a mostly white college campus for four years.
Of course, the burden of fitting in on a mostly white campus shouldn't fall on students of color alone. Colleges can play a crucial role in helping all students navigate through issues of race on campus. At my alma mater, Occidental College, programs on diversity were held during orientation week. Students were guided through discussions about race, class and gender. Moreover, students of all racial backgrounds could apply to live in the multicultural hall on campus.
By having a multicultural agenda, Occidental prevented many students of color from spending their first year of college suffering in silence, as Mohamed said she did.