How College-Bound Students of Color Should Prepare for Life in a Predominantly White Campus

February 2, 2012

Let me start out by assuring readers that I'm not suggesting it takes a magical coat of arms to survive life on a predominantly white campus if you're a student of color. Over the decades, tens of thousands of students of color have been effectively and happily educated on predominantly white college campuses across this wonderful country of ours, and most of those students look back fondly on their college experiences.

But even under the best circumstances, the differences that divide us and the stupid cultural assumptions sometimes gift-wrapping those differences can have a disarming effect on a minority student who believes that college equals a racial utopia in the land of happily ever after. While the best thing students can do to ready themselves for every college experience involves academic preparation, real talk about adjusting to life on campus just makes plain sense -- especially when you may be a mystery wrapped inside an enigma to some folks you'll encounter there. Here's my Power List of conversation topics that can help students in your school community make a smooth transition to college life.

1) You Deserve to Be There

The worst advice I ever heard a counselor give to her students of color was that they would be guests on their campuses and should behave as such. Talk about a setup to remind you that you don't belong! This advice, like the comments from my neighbor down the hall about how I might be "taking the spot" of some deserving white student at the college I attended, are all designed -- intentionally or not -- to shake the confidence of students of color about whether or not they are fully qualified to attend the institutions where they end up. Here's my answer: "No one ever worries about what percentage of students are admitted to a college because they can afford to pay full tuition, or because their parents attended a particular university. No one ever worries that colleges seeking to create geographic diversity may admit students from other regions that don't have the same academic records as those who live in closer proximity. There were just over 300 students in my first-year class. Roughly 20 of those students were African American. With 12 million Black people in the United States, I'd like to think it's not a far stretch that the institution managed to identify twenty 17-year-olds that met the admissions requirements." Remember to tell your students that they might not win everyone over when it comes to comments like these, but the important thing to remember is that colleges are in the business of educating students. If they didn't think you could hack it, they wouldn't have admitted you.

2) The Hidden Curriculum

Some kids are educated in "black and white." Their schools offer the basics but fail to ensure that they receive the kind of academic and cultural exposure that will ensure their future success in college. Some kids are educated in "high-definition color." Their schools offer a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum and a host of extracurricular activities aimed at helping them to become more competitive. If you're teaching in a school that operates in "black and white" -- and oftentimes it's the scarcity of resources that make it so -- you need to actively seek opportunities to level the academic and cultural playing field. For students at Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), that means trips to museums, partnerships with higher education institutions, opportunities for student travel, etiquette classes and access to a wide variety of professionals who can help to open doors for workplace exploration and internships. Never underestimate the power of The Hidden Curriculum -- it represents a set of unspoken cultural norms that don't find their way into most textbooks, but that your students will be judged by as they go forward in life. Imagine how hard it would be to have a meaningful conversation with your roommate about international politics if you've never left your block and your roomie spent the last two summers traveling with an international human rights organization. At the very least, give your students continuing opportunities to leave their neighborhood and to interact with young people who have different experiences.

3) Be Authentic

In spite of the best laid plans, every year I hear from a college student about the weird alter-ego they created to fit in at college, and the sheer exhaustion they feel at trying to maintain a persona that doesn't represent the real them. Sometimes the personality and personal choices can be as minor as washing your hair every day until it turns brittle because you're tired of explaining why most Black students don't wash their hair every day. Occasionally students speak of not listening to their favorite music or avoiding friendships with other students of color because they don't want to be misunderstood by their hall mates. The bottom line is that it takes an unreasonable amount of energy to be someone you're not. When students are authentic in a new environment, they are much more likely to attract friendships with people who genuinely like them and appreciate all that they bring to campus.

4) You're Not the National Spokesperson for Everyone Who Looks Like You

Looking back on my own college experiences, I can remember many a day when we hit upon a topic that had even the slightest mention of "African American" and seeing all eyes in the room on me. Now I can appreciate the fact that in some cases people were deferring to me to make sure they didn't say -- dear me! -- the "wrong thing." But at the time, I felt enormous pressure to always say something profound, prolific and "right." Eventually I realized that it was okay for me to pass on these choice opportunities to offer the "African American" perspective. The truth is, I don't know all African Americans and, depending on the topic, I'm just as likely as the next guy or gal to get the "right thing" wrong. Whatever your students decide to do, it's their call. And that's...well, it's okay.

5) Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

Ahhh, here's that age-old question of post de facto segregation America. Inasmuch as I want my students to venture beyond their comfort zones to learn and play and commune with people who don't share their experiences, I want them to feel completely comfortable finding opportunities to break bread and just "chill" with kids who do share their backgrounds. I never quite figured out the motive behind this question, but my best response was: "I'll answer that question if you can tell me why all the football players sit together or why all the rugby players sit together, or why all the theater kids sit together, etc, etc." In truth, most people just shrugged and said, "You know, I never thought about it like that."

The point of this article isn't to make students of color paranoid and start looking for racist motivations behind every interaction that seems uncomfortable. My hope is to empower the adults who teach these amazing students to engage in Real Talk so that when things come up, their students are armed with real strategies to overcome the bumps in the road and get back to the real purpose of a college education: learning your subject or craft and discovering the best version of yourself in an intellectually stimulating and culturally affirming community.

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  • Diversity
  • College Readiness
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 9-12 High School

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