What It Is Like to Be A Person Of Color At A Predominantly White Institution

Jasmine Razeghi writes on her transition to a predominantly white institution and what these colleges are doing wrong. 

Photo: AdobeStock.com

I was born and raised in Houston, Texas, one of the most diverse cities in the entire country. From elementary school to the day I graduated, my friend groups and my peers were people of color. That is not rare in Houston. People did not consider us poster children. We were just kids. That was just our neighborhood. I did not know I lived in a gentrified neighborhood until I was in high school. 

I graduated from YES Prep Northbrook High School in 2019. YES Prep Public Schools built schools in neighborhoods where there were low rates of students that attend college. Their mission is for students in underserved communities to attend college. I live and attended school in a gentrified neighborhood. It was not until high school that I learned that this gentrification in the Spring Branch Independent School District was famously known as the highway divide or the I-10 divide. 

The district that has four main high schools is currently divided by a highway that distinguished the low-income/middle-class neighborhoods and the richer neighborhoods. The two high schools on the poorer side have a low college attendance rate when compared to the other two high schools in the richer area. On one side, college attendance is a dream and on the other, college attendance is an expectation or a norm. 

I Was Unprepared

90% of my high school currently identifies as the first in their family to attend college, also known as first-generation. 97% of the student body identified as Black or Latinx. When I applied to colleges, I made sure to note the support that institutions had in place for first-generation students of color like myself. With regard to my race and first-generation background, high school was a safe space for students like me because most of who I was surrounded by shared my identities. No one prepared me to handle circumstances outside this safe environment. 

They prepared me to get into college but left me unequipped to endure it. The highest degree either of my parents has is a high school diploma. For some of my peers, even that was not a reality for their parents. How does this affect students like me? Well, for starters, I did not know what to do or what to expect when applying for college. I did not know how much value my identity held as a winning number for predominantly white institutions (PWI) across the nation in their work to diversify their campus.  

What, If Anything, Should Be Considered?

“Diversity and Inclusion” is a tricky initiative for institutions. There is so much time spent recruiting students of color, including international students. I would say that the commitment many post-secondary institutions have to diversity and inclusivity is misleading at best. Has the institution committed to bettering the lives and environment for those students to thrive once they have matriculated into the college? Or is the “Diversity and Inclusion” section of their website only committed to recruitment rather than fulfillment? 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016, 56% of college undergraduates identified as white, and the rest, 44%, were people of color. On average, colleges saw an increase in people of color presence on their campuses. With this high presence of students of color, a number of concerns arise when people analyze academia. 

In 2017, the overwhelming majority of full-time faculty in degree-granting institutions were white. There is a relationship between this gap in same-race role models or mentorship and lower performance from students of color, according to The Brookings Institution. Additionally, as institutions should foster a safe community for students of color, it should do the same for staff and faculty of color. 

In addition to this gap, the mental health of especially Black students is under threat when they experience racism on college campuses. Based on an article by The Atlantic, there was a large push for marginalized students to persevere through these challenging situations like a racist school environment. Why have institutions placed the burden on students of color rather than addressing the problem in their own institution?

Where Do Institutions Go From Here?

Rather than give empty promises to students of color and calling it “Diversity and Inclusion”, I would extend a proposal from my peers at Whitman College for all PWI’s in the United States. Race education could hold college students accountable for learning about the role that race plays in the U.S. education system and further, in American society. 

Many colleges, including mine, require first-year experiences that assist in transitioning students from high school to a college environment. This can manifest in a specific course first-years take that particularly transitions students academically, and race education must become a part of the courses required by institutions. 

Currently, the stiffness in classrooms when talking about race is unacceptable. Students that come out of college with no race education bring the same ignorance and bias to their workplaces, communities, and teach the same things to their children. It produces an endless cycle of upholding racial divides and outright racism in the United States. 

What Does This Endless Cycle Refer To?

A prominent example of what is within this endless cyle is microaggressions. Professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice Kevin Nadal defined microaggressions as “the everyday, subtle, intentional — and oftentimes unintentional — interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups,” on NPR. An example would be to compliment a person of color for “speaking so articulately” or “like a white person”. This perpetuates the idea that white people set a standard of what is the “correct” or “proper” way to speak. It also assumes that people of color speaking articulately is surprising. 

A concept like microaggresssions or casual racism thrives in community spaces. Race education would inform a new generation of community members about the issue that it presents. Not everyone will be given the opportunity to have race education, but those who do will be given the tools needed in order to address them in their own lives.

Here’s Why “Not Seeing Color” Is Problematic

Why is race so hard to talk about? Institutions like colleges and universities in the U.S. are guilty of painting the world as perfect, thus they deny the reality of Black individuals and people of color. This, also, perpetuated a cycle of harm for people of color on campus through a lack of race-based education. In order to directly address these issues that lie in communities of color, there cannot be this attitude of “color blindness”. In other words, not seeing color is part of the problem. People need to see color in order for there to be progress. It is the responsibility of higher education to see color.

Color-blindness is counterproductive. If people ignore color, they also ignore the systems in place that target people based on color. To ignore color would mean that companies would not have to make an effort to hire people of color or appoint them to positions of power. In a school setting, it would allow students to ignore their bias rather than work to dismantle it. In an everyday environment, being color-blind would also keep people from recognizing their own privileges when it comes to the color of their skin. Since the police system, education system, healthcare system, and more are not color-blind, it would be irresponsible to be color-blind ourselves.

My Transition

Personally, I dealt with unexpected hardships during my transition to a PWI. I did not fit in. I felt that almost immediately. A lot of students at my PWI brushed off conversations about race and they could afford to do it. I was not one of those students. It felt uncomfortable surrounded by people who did not share my background. It was completely different from my high school experience. I felt like I was behind before classes even started because of my unmatched background and experiences to my white peers.

However, as a first-generation working-class (FGWC) student of color, I found my community at my PWI. I rely on the FGWC community and women of color community on my campus. I worked towards embracing my identities rather than seeing them as something that holds me back. I continued to work towards being a better ally for my Black peers and fellow students of color. I also found strength and hope that Gen Z will transform the current systems that perpetuate disparities among people of color. Sometimes, I hang on this hope by a thread. At least I am hanging on to something. 

 

 


 

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Gen Z racism  mental health gentrification first-generation education Microaggression

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