Just Another Day in the Life of a BIPOC College Student
“I am so angry right now, that I am about to scream!” Debra slammed her books down on the cafeteria table and stomped off to get her lunch. Her friends look up in surprise. “What’s wrong?” Katherine thought to herself, concerned. Debra is usually so even-tempered. This outburst was so unlike her. Maya spoke what Katherine was thinking. “Wow. I wonder what’s wrong with her?” The mood at the table quickly changed, and the three ladies talked nervously among themselves until Debra returned with her lunch.
As Debra returned to the table where her friends sat waiting for her, she felt badly that she had entered the cafeteria the way she did. Her friends did not deserve that. They all had enough on their plates, without having to carry her frustrations too. When she approached, a hush came over the table, and all eyes were on her expectantly. Debra lowered her eyes, and said, “I’m sorry, guys. I should not have come in like that. I was just so frustrated! I can’t believe what Mary, my dance ensemble director, just said to me.
Alena, Imani’s closest friend and fellow performing arts major, visibly tensed. “What happened now?” she wondered. “Someone was always saying something! Honestly, the everyday microaggressions, that everyday racism that people of color face, were getting to be too much!” Alena braced herself for the anger she knew she would feel when she heard Debra’s story. She asked, “What did she say to you?”
Debra replied, “Mary told me that she was shocked that the choreographer wanted me since he’s from a prestigious ballet company in Chicago. She actually admitted to me that she tried to get him to choose from the other dancers, because I am not really a ballet dancer. Is she kidding? I trained in classical ballet for 10 years before I came here! What does she mean I am not a ballet dancer? She claims that my strengths are in more “grounded” dance genres, like African and Hip Hop. I have no idea what that means, but I’m pretty sure it’s racist! Tears started streaming down Imani’s face. Dance was her passion, but she was so tired of trying to prove that she was just as good as everyone else.
All the girls rushed to comfort her, while Katherine asked, “Has Mary ever seen you dance ballet?” “That’s just it!” Debra exclaimed! She has no idea what ballet skills I have. She’s only ever seen me perform what the choreographers cast me in–African dances and Hip Hop. Don’t get me wrong. I love those genres. But how asinine is it to think that my dance ability is based on my skin color? And guys, not to be random, but…who am I going to marry? It’s like I’m invisible! No one sees me, who I really am. I haven’t even held anyone’s hand since I’ve been here!” Debra begins quietly sobbing, her tears now falling into her salad.
The young ladies sat in silence, each one triggered by Debra’s story. They were all ladies of color, attending a predominantly white institution. While only Alena could directly relate to how it felt to be typecast, all of the ladies could relate to what it was like to be more judged than seen, to be more stereotyped than actually known.
There was Maya, the beautiful, intelligent, Blasian junior, who everyone was drawn to – until they found out she was half-black. She was constantly asked where she was from and why she looked so “exotic.” People always looked so disappointed when they realized she was born in the States and identified as a black woman. Making friends and dating were no walk in the park for her either. As Maya sat contemplating Debra's story, she had to fight back her own tears. It was Debra’s moment right now; she didn’t want to make it about her, but as she sat there, she felt her familiar anxious and depressive thoughts return. “Sometimes, this whole life thing seems really hopeless, she thought.
Katherine sat, lost in her own thoughts. Debra’s pain also made her think of her own. “Why is everything so hard?”, she wondered. Katherine had fled troubles at home to come to college and lose herself in her studies. She was a natural student; good grades had always come easily to her. She didn’t like the element of tokenism present in how her professors treated her. And since she was usually one of the only people of color in the class, she was always expected to have the “black” response to whatever “urban” issue arose in class. “Why am I expected to provide the answers for my entire race?” Katherine wondered. She got up to get a cookie. She had to disconnect from the stress just for a moment. Sugar helped. If only it didn’t make her gain weight so fast…
As Alena sat in the silence, she stewed in anger, too frustrated to say a word. A beautiful,multi-talented Latina, Alena lived daily with an anger that she didn’t dare allow to come to surface. She knew Imani’s struggle, but she also knew her own. “It’s like my people don’t even exist. Latino Americans are mostly absent from the classes, the textbooks, the professors, and the student body. Alena struggled with ther thoughts. She loved her friends seated around the table; they had become her lifeline. These lunches in the cafeteria were like group therapy. However, she knew that outside of college, she would have never even associated with these ladies. Her parents made sure to move her to suburbia by the time she reached adolescence. They enrolled her in an elite private school, where no one looked like her, let alone like the people seated next to her right now. Alena had felt invisible there too, until she was asked to use her beautiful singing voice to wow the donors, or her amazing acting skills for the school play.
During the lull, Debra had stopped crying, dried her tears, and was sitting, quietly eating her salad. Maya was the first one to break the silence. You know, guys, my sociology professor, Dr. Chin said something in class yesterday, that I just can’t get out of my head. He said that because of America’s unique racial history, we have all learned to look at each other, and even ourselves, through “white supremecist’s eyes.” I think that’s true. Debra, your director sees you as a black woman first and then a dancer. So she puts you in the box where she thinks black dancers belong. As for me, I struggle to make friends because my biracial status makes me difficult to put in any box. I am definitely not seen as Asian, and I'm not really seen as a black woman either.
Katherine chimed in, “And I’m the token black student, who somehow broke the intellectually inferior trappings of my race to be as smart as everyone else. Alena nodded understandingly at Katherine’s comment and chimed in, “And though my family did everything they could to keep me away from “urban elements”, ie., black and brown people, here I sit today, clinging to you ladies for dear life. Maya, your professor may have been on to something there. We all make judgments about each other through fear, ignorance, and ridiculous stereotypes, and we have been doing it for a really long time. Now it’s learned behavior.“
The ladies around the table nodded their heads. Debra put her fork down, took a deep breath, and looked at her friends, tears brimming in her eyes. I love you ladies. Thank you for listening to me and helping me realize that while I am not perfect, I am not the problem here. I will go to my ballet teachers and see if they will vouch for me with Mary. If not, I am going to keep on being me. If that makes other people uncomfortable, so be it. And I’m going to slay that ballet piece that ‘luck’ got me into.”
“That’s the spirit”, Alena shouted, as she high-fived Debra. “You go, girl!”
Can you or anyone you know of relate to any part of this story?
Did this story remind you of your own story? Why or why not?