When I was a young woman in undergrad, the animals men who nearly beat Rodney King to death were acquitted of using excessive force in that arrest and beating. A week of riots followed.
I could take a detour and talk about how little things have changed in the 25 years sinc except that these days kill shots have replaced physical beatings, but I won’t. I want to talk about what it was like those days and what it was like to go to a predominantly white institution as a young black woman.
The transition from high school to college is an important one. It’s exciting, and it’s scary. There are so many decisions to make, not just about school, but big life decisions. I now refer to the undergrad period as baby adulting. It was a crazy time.
I grew up in a place where white supremacy was visible. I could drive down a grand avenue with monuments to civil war losers. I remember the occasional detour on the way to church because the klan was marching in full regalia on Sunday morning. I remember going to see visit more plantations than I ever cared to, leading to a self-imposed moratorium on plantation visits since the early 90s.
As I started my applications to go to college, I knew that my family had limited resources. Scholarships were going to be essential to my success and to ensuring future college access for my younger sisters.
University of Virginia was near the top of my list as a Virginia resident. It’s a beautiful campus, steeped in history and tradition—even if that tradition purposefully excluded me. My grades were very good, but even back then UVA was very competitive. I worried about whether I would even get in.
I was floored during the application season when I received a handwritten note from the admissions dean about my essay. She asked to set up a time to talk, during which she strongly encouraged me to attend UVA.
I wrote about an event in pre-school that I still remember vividly. On a summer day on a playground, I became aware that being black was going to be problematic. I learned this at a incredibly young age, from another kid, who learned that being white was definitely better. She had learned that lesson at home from her parents. That story was the backbone for all of my college essays. To this day, the original essay written for a Black History Month contest, remains one of the most compelling things I’ve ever written. Occasionally, I’ll pull it out and it still breaks my heart.
For numerous reasons, not the least of which is that Charlottesville is gorgeous but racist #AF and that I got a full ride elsewhere, I chose to go further north to George Mason University. #patriot4life But the challenges of being one of about 1,000 black students of a campus of roughly 25,000 at the time were real.
There was the classmate whom I competed for the scholarship against who insinuated I bested her only because of the whole black thing.
There were the professors who talked down to me in from of my white classmates as I fought back anger and occasional mad, hot tears.
There was the dean of students who was visibly uncomfortable with black students in his office.
There was the isolation of being the only lonely in most classes over the course of four years.
And because I have a problem with perfectionism and self-pressure there was the challenge of being a model minority student always trying to prove that I belonged to be there.
That was layered on top of roommate squabbles, college boyfriend drama, daddy pop ups (he would visit unannounced—a major style cramp), a ravaging eating disorder and course work.
I loved and hated college.
When the LA riots broke out after the acquittal, I remember falling into an overwhelming sadness. It was consuming and distracting as it hit just before semester finals. I sometimes think back to what it was like for some of my classmates who weren’t plugged in. I was a student scholar and had access to the best of everything and everyone on campus—wonderful professors, additional resources, amazing mentors, 9 other black scholar classmates in my cohort. I actually had support systems during my undergrad years.
And it was still hard.
And sometimes scary.
After the 1992 riots I found myself reaching out to acquaintances I barely knew at Howard University. Howard, an HBCU, was in DC proper, a fairly lengthy train ride into the city from cloistered Fairfax. It seemed to take forever to get there, but I was grateful it was accessible. I would go to hang out there some weekends. Eat a Happy Meal at the Black Mac—the McDonald’s near campus, post up at the library, just watch critical masses of other black folk roll by. It was…safe. I didn’t have to do anything there. I didn’t have to do anything but just be…just be black and be around other black folk. It was emotionally warm and fuzzy even if I didn’t really know that many people there.
It was safe. So safe that I entertained ideas of giving up my generous scholarship and transferring, just so I didn’t have to do the black thing at GMU anymore. Some days it was just too hard. My parents got me together right quick on that. I graduated from GMU and ended up going there for grad school as well.
Tonight, though, as I watch the continuing drama unfold in Charlottesville, I’m wondering whether and hoping that the students of color at UVA have a safe place to go just be like I did. I’m so proud to see so many standing up for justice, but I know the toll it takes just wearing this skin and going to school. This burden is heavy. I hope they have one another to lean on, that they have a place to refill and recharge as they start their semester. I hope that UVA is prepared to support them properly and to make sure they are safe. I hope their professors offer mentoring and support. I hope professors choose to be bold and discuss these events and weave the lessons into their syllabi. As a mom, I just worry that these baby adults are in danger. If it’s one thing I’ve learned these last few years, it’s that parenting fears are the worst—you just want your kid to be ok in situations where you have zero ability to protect them.
That. Kind. Of. Fear. Is. The. Worst.
It’s not just that these lazy, ironic AF white supremacists are walking around carrying end-of-summer-sale torches named for a Polynesian creation story (Seriously, they can’t even make their own damn torches? Or did they just want a two-fer in repelling mosquitos AND intimidating people?). It’s that they are intentional and strategic in their intimidation efforts; that they are mowing down people with cars and that so many are sporting MAGA hats without a single word of chastisement from the dude in the White House who’s cool with cozying up to them.
Really who wants to go try to learn in the midst of that? And yet, that’s exactly what we’ve been expected to do for generations (even if Betsy DeVos likes to talk about our being leaders in school choice because of #racistsegregation #idiot).
This is all so exhausting. And sad. And Scary.
It’s undergrad all over again.
It seriously doesn’t feel like it’s ever going to end, which just brings the dark depression back.
It’s just hard.
So, tonight I’m offering my couch and floor to POC UVA students who just want to leave and go somewhere safe. I’m farther than a metro ride, but I’m happy to help you transfer and get settled somewhere else. Know that I and many others like me, feel your pain and stand with you. But I also want you to be as safe as you are strong. Reach out and Ill reach back.
I get it; I really get it.