Baltimore City Paper

Woke: Expectations vs. reality on an urban campus

When you found out that you would be attending an out-of-state college, you were ecstatic. You had high expectations for the next four years, excited that these university years would be extremely different from your high school experience. You were ready to escape, to create a new identity.

In the typical so-ready-to-get-to-college fashion, you imagine becoming more sociable; you were gonna go to every event on campus, you were gonna join all the organizations, and you were gonna have more than just black friends. I mean, that's the whole reason you fell in love with your college: the social atmosphere and the school's vivid selling point, "diversity."


To you, diversity meant that you would become a "cultured," self-aware individual who learns more about herself. You'd learn how much you do and don't know about yourself based on the experiences you shared with those of cultures different from your own. You hoped others around you would have that same mindset as well.

Attending a "diverse" institution, you are thrilled that your university promotes cultural expression and exchange that helps rid you and your peers of prejudice, racism, and stereotypes on the basis of race and other cultural differences.


Then it happens. At night, as you're studying for an exam, you receive a text alert that reads "Armed robbery. Suspect is a black male in white T-shirt and grey sweatpants. Use caution. Avoid the area."

Social media on campus opens your eyes to so much. Non-black students attending a university that occupies one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city rush to Twitter to talk about how scary it is to live in the hood. In the same breath, they tweet about how they feel so bad-ass to come from the 'burbs to attend a school that ranks in the "top 10 most dangerous universities" based on its location.

Then they receive a phone call from a worried parent about the violence of the night before to which they'll yell, "I don't know mom, they're black people!"

Here we go. Expectations versus reality.

The university goes on and on about diversity and inclusivity, and almost simultaneously fellow students use Twitter and Yik Yak to anonymously spew their racism—but the university won't denounce it because hey, freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, your neighbors in the city are annoyed by the fact that your university, with its less than 13 percent black student population, has a higher success rate getting an ambulance to the dorm room quickly because a washing machine caught on fire than they have for real emergencies in their homes.

Your university has structured itself to face inward; even its architecture says to the local residents "you're not welcome here." Your university competes with other local universities to develop new hi-tech buildings that push out even further into the community where resources are being sucked dry, without showing any care or concern about the voice or wishes of your neighbors, or even making sure that local residents are hired for construction and other jobs as a result of these developments.

You go to a student-led protest hosted by black students protesting the police brutality of black citizens who are chanting "Black lives matter!" only for the chant to be disrupted and co-opted and converted to "All lives matter" by non-black students who are dismissive of the structural and institutional racism black people routinely face.


Or you're holding a conversation that is seemingly going well until you correct a person for mispronouncing your name and they "apologize" by saying that they thought your name was "Danisha" because "you all always add -isha at the end."

Your peers will report a robbery of their off-campus apartment and tell the police the suspect was black, but the camera footage will reveal that the suspect was white.

On numerous occasions you have to talk with your friends about whether or not it's professional to go to an interview with your natural hair in all its kinky glory or to wear a style that's neat, one that won't hinder you from getting the position. You come across a clip of a black news reporter advising you to cover the fro so that it won't be seen as a distraction. Sigh.

You learn a lot in college, mostly outside the classroom.

A few months after graduation, you reflect on your college days and realize just how naive you were going in. You see you were falling prey to respectability politics and anti-blackness. You believed that in associating yourself with more than just black people you would somehow become more "cultured" and you would somehow gain the right of passage to being the "exceptional" Black.

You believed you would learn more than just the history of your people, making you a more well-rounded individual. You earnestly believed that hanging around more than your black peers would help you become more self-aware and appreciate the beauty in cultural differences.


You were wrong.

How could you appreciate the beauty of cultural differences when you hardly knew the history of your own people beyond surface-level knowledge gleaned in high school? This is not to say that you didn't meet some pretty cool people of different races who you bonded with, but building relationships with your peers across the African diaspora instilled knowledge that you'll never forget.

They used their gifts of writing, poetry, dance, and music to share their pride in their blackness, letting that pride reach the community of young and old that surrounded your university, sharing these talents and helping neighbors to find ways to use their own.

You think about this turning point in college when you began to connect more with black students in numerous cultural organizations, where you learned so much about your rich black history, along with the history of the West Indies and numerous African nations.

You sunk your teeth into the delicious cuisine of their culture, learned their dances, and saw the beauty in the different languages. Sometimes you were a fly on the wall, just listening and taking in the stories of their parents' upbringing and how that shaped who they are today.

It gave you joy to see your black peers and student organizations calling out your university for its aggressive gentrification, to attend community meetings and build lasting relationships. You pushed yourself beyond the university bubble and explored the ever-flowing art of your people in the city. You experienced other worlds and your ideas expanded.


And then there were times when you yourself were held accountable for promoting stereotypes and generalizations in an organization where you were a member. That accountability has made you more mature, more thoughtful, and you are grateful.

Having recently graduated, you are grateful that your naivete about college life and the expectations of the people you thought you'd surround yourself with have been shattered. You understand, this is where your self-awareness arose.