Whiteout: Life as a black student at UMass Amherst

The largest public university in Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in America, doesn't offer enough in respect to diversity.

February 24, 2016

As my first lecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst filled up with hundreds of students, I realized that I stood out from the crowd. I had never been surrounded by such a large amount of people in an academic space where I couldn’t immediately point out people who looked like me. And from that point on, I became aware of my blackness, and aware of what it means to be black at this school. 

I had grown accustomed to seeing people of all ethnic backgrounds while growing up in Springfield, Mass., the third largest city in the state. According to the 2010 Massachusetts Census, 22 percent of Springfield residents identified as black or African-American, the second biggest ethnic group in the city. With its proximity to Springfield, I assumed that the percentage of students of color at UMass would be similar to that within the city.

Three years later, I can assure you that this is not the case.

* * *

“Look at her, talking like a white girl!”

I was walking with my best friend, a fellow “white-black girl” to our first-ever public school pep-rally. I knew that after spending eight straight years at the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School — where most of my friends, with the exception of two, were white — that I wasn’t as “spiritually” black as I was phenotypically. 

I shopped at Hot Topic and listened to Fall Out Boy until my sophomore year of high school; that’s when I started my Nike sneaker collection and simultaneously became Lil Wayne’s biggest fan by spending as much time memorizing his lyrics as I did learning trigonometry.

As a second-generation immigrant to Jamaican parents, I wasn’t as black as the self-proclaimed “black girls” wanted me to be. I spent a lot of time conforming to “American” standards, which is what I saw in my white friends. But with a little change in my taste of music, the way I dressed and, essentially, the way I carried myself, I found a way to fit in. By the end of high school, my best friend and I were allowed to sit at the “black girl” table.

When senior year and college came around, I had dreams to move as far away as I could. While my friends looked at schools no farther than Boston, I chose American University (AU), my dream school in Washington, D.C. It was a small suburban school that had everything I wanted in a campus.

At this small university, the population of black students wasn’t that large, but I did feel a sense of community. Every black person on campus would give you a head nod, even if they didn’t know you; the older black women working in the dining commons would keep tabs on my meal swipes for me and on sunny days on the quad, I could easily find a group of people who looked like me to hang out with.

After finishing up my freshman year at AU, I received my financial aid award for next year and found out I could no longer afford to attend. Over the summer, I looked at new schools, considered changing my major and almost took a year off — until I considered a future at UMass Amherst. I remembered it as the big school I used to take field trips to and as the only college I applied to, out of 12, that had waitlisted me.

Before I knew it, and without much of a choice, I applied to UMass and hoped that, this time around, I would get in; it was one of the only schools that I applied to transfer to that wouldn’t force me to change my journalism major. Three weeks after I received my acceptance letter, I packed and left for my first semester.

In August 2013, I moved into the 21st floor of the John Adams tower in the Southwest Residential Area. Other than the size, it didn’t feel much different from what I was used to, at least that’s what I thought.

UMass Amherst is the largest public university in the state, with approximately 21,200 undergraduates as of Fall 2015. African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, and Native American students are totaled at 4,740or 22 percent, of the undergraduate population, while black students are at 851or 4 percent, of the undergraduate population — the third-largest ethnic group on campus.

UMass is historically, and still remains, a Primarily White Institution (PWI), a term used to describe institutions of higher learning in which Whites account for 50 percent or greater of the student enrollment.

Although times have changed, racism still exists.

Right now, at colleges and universities across the United States, from UMass to the University of Missouri, students of color are expressing their frustrations with the way their intellect, opinions and lives have been handled by administration. In movements across the country including #BlackLivesMatter, students have taken action in solidarity with victims of oppression. My peers have protested poor treatment, demanded diversity plans and asked for more support from the moment I stepped foot on campus. Students of color have the right to demand less talk and more action, especially when they’re dealing with racial hostility at a place they call their home nine months out of the year.

* * *

Simonica Mendes, a senior journalism major at UMass, said that her perception of the university changed after being harassed by white men as she walked back to her dorm alone. They called her “a porch monkey in its natural habitat,” something she said she has never been able to forget.

“It didn’t strike me how devastating that was until I was in my building, in the elevator,” Mendes said. “I started to break down. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it. I cried about it for a while and for a point in time after that, I didn’t want to be black anymore. I didn’t want to be associated with any race.”

“I felt humiliated, sad and disappointed,” continued Mendes. “Since that day, UMass hasn’t been the same for me. I’m always on alert now, especially when I’m around other white students, just in case they decided to spit out racial slurs again. But if they do, what can I do about it? It’s unfortunate that I share this campus with students who are racist and I feel uneasy knowing that they could be my classmates.”

In the fall of 2014, Josh Odam, then a sophomore political science major, found “kill these n—-s” written on his dorm room door. At the time, Odam lived in Coolidge Hall, a residential tower in Southwest, on the Harambee floor, a floor specifically designed for students of African heritage.

“I came into college understanding that my body is marked and that it’s going to lead to a lot of different types of challenges. I understood the wages of blackness and what that meant coming to an institution like UMass,” said Odam as he recalled the incident. “I think after everything happened, I realized that there are a lot of layers to this. Somebody went to the 22nd floor of a tower, to a corner room, to do this.”

Odam, now a junior at UMass, stands in front of the Minuteman statue on campus after the incident in 2014.

“It was a blow to me, a blow to our floor, a blow to all of the black students on this campus,” Odam said. “That moment was like, ‘Damn. This is a lot bigger than I imagined.’ It definitely shifted my gears in a sense; my identity politics were shaped after that point.”

The university responded. They immediately mentioned the “import of vandalism” in a campus-wide email and called a town hall meeting and listening session where students were welcomed to tell administration their feelings. A strategic diversity planning committee formed and created a list of needs, spending a significant amount of personal time working towards creating more diversity.

A year later, we’ve only had more listening sessions and no direct action. 

The most recent session was geared towards the administration and listed the progress they’ve made thus far. They listed how many organizations they are in contact with and how they are working towards a more inclusive future at UMass Amherst.

But this leaves the wants and needs of current students unmet.

* * *

Sometimes I think about how it would be different if I went to a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). I had shot down the idea of attending because I had been told that many HBCUs do not award financial aid and are seemingly more competitive than other institutions. However, in light of my former schooling experiences, my main concern truly rested in the fact that I simply did not feel black enough to attend one in the first place.

According to the United Negro College Fund, in Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965, Congress officially defined a HBCU as an institution where the principal mission was, and is, to educate black Americans. With the first being Cheyney University, founded in 1837, HBCUs have a rich history and were once the only place an African-American could receive a college education.

Tiffany Griffin, senior American studies major at Wesley College, said in a phone conversation that she sometimes wishes she chose an HBCU.

“Sometimes I wish I went to an HBCU, especially now that I’m not at one,” Griffin said. “I used to be against them because I thought they were ‘too black,’ but now I have a newfound pride for my people and history. An HBCU offers things you can’t get at a PWI, but when real things are happening to our community… I just wish I had an entire school to rally behind me.” 

In 1904, just 14 years after the first woman student enrolled at UMass Amherst, Matthew Washington Bullock, the first black coach at an integrated American college, was hired. And 64 years later, the Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black Students helped enroll 128 African-American students. With that followed the W. E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies on campus, founded in 1970. 

University statistics and fact sheets tell us that between 1986 and 2015, the number of black students on campus per year has fluctuated from 474 to 1,002 at any given time. It has never been consistent. In the fall of 1997, there was a peak of 915 students. Six years later, however, that number decreased back to 795. Again, in the fall of 2008, the highest mark of 1,002 students was met and, just five years later in the semester that I entered campus, it declined to 795.

* * *

The heat is always blaring in New Africa House, the home of the Afro-American Studies Department and the majority of the black faculty at UMass. It extends a feeling of warmth and comfort to the students walking the halls, the same feeling that comes from spending time with family. I feel wanted in that building; I don’t have to second-guess my appearance for the hour and 15 minutes I get to spend there. It’s one place where I can just be me.

But the bodies who are in charge of the department, the bodies who look like me, who I look up to— face the same pressures as students do.

Dr. Karla Zelaya, a professor within the Afro-American Studies Department, shared some of the problems she has faced in her time at UMass.

“When I first came back here three years ago, they had a new faculty orientation,” said Dr. Zelaya. “There was a buffet line for breakfast before the orientation formally began. I came out of the bathroom and got ready to join the line and someone says, ‘Miss, there’s no more orange juice. Can you get me some?’ I was wearing a name tag, with my name and the department on it, and I had to tell this person that I don’t work there. I felt so small. I dressed up. I was excited to be there, and I just felt crushed,” said Dr. Zelaya.

“Later on in the event, another woman I spoke to complemented my English as if it wasn’t my first language,” she continued. “I can’t even begin to tell you how many workshops I have sat through where there is some element of that coming from faculty members, and that is incredibly alarming.”

* * *

Though diversity isn’t prominent throughout the entirety of the campus, it comes out to play in one of UMass’s most funded areas: sports. UMass Athletics is part of the Division I National Collegiate Athletic Association and, while the percentage of black students on campus is 4 percent, most of the black students I see on a daily basis are also athletes. Most black student athletes are represented on the football and basketball teams.

According to Ryan Johnson, senior communication major and Offensive Lineman from St. Louis, MO, black members of these teams, placed here by scholarship, have different experiences from their white teammates.

“The hardest thing about being a black student athlete is not being taken seriously as a student,” said Johnson. “But when I put my jersey on… Well, that’s when people want to talk to me and consider me cool all of a sudden.”

“White student athletes are accepted along with the general population of other students, teachers and the college town or city they’re playing for, because they’re ‘good kids,'” continued Johnson, as he put his dreadlocks into a ponytail. “We’re just not viewed the same way. Unless we’re the star of the team and continuously scoring points, of course.”

Johnson and many of his “bros” are almost never seen in anything other than UMass Football apparel, which is mostly due to financial distress. While many people think these students want to be known as athletes, Johnson states otherwise. 

“To be honest, not many of us have other clothes to wear all of the time. The gear they give us is free, and we get a lot of it, so that’s what we wear,” Johnson explained.

* * *

As a student who doesn’t play any sports, I have always appreciated student activities, clubs and organizations. When it came time to seek out student activities on campus, I noticed that black students are usually faced with the decision to join a group that has little to no students of color. Larger and more popular organizations tend to have more white students as representatives, while the other, smaller organizations typically feature more diverse leadership.

When faced with the decision, I chose the organization that met my interests, no matter the risk of inclusion. I needed to be in a group that would allow me to excel and strengthen my skills as a writer, all while helping me meet new people. When I joined the UMass Amherst chapter of Her Campus, a female-run, online publication that focuses on topics including life, love, career and style in 2013, I was the only black member.

Today, I’m the first black President of Her Campus at UMass Amherst.

Despite everything, I’m thankful for the opportunity to come to UMass. I have used what I have witnessed, the people I have encountered and the experiences I have had to shape me into the best version of myself. I can’t deny that I have a grown as a student; I have excelled in student activities, but most importantly, I have started to define and embrace my identity as a young black woman in America.

I have never been more aware of who I am as a black woman than I am today. I see it when I take higher-level courses in my major and I am the only black person sitting in the classroom; I feel it when I go into town on Friday night and the people I came with are the only people who look like me; I live it when I awkwardly smile at other black students, faculty and food servers that I don’t know, just because they make me feel comfortable; I exude it when I wear my hair in its natural state for the first time in weeks and get glances as I take my seat.           

Four years at a PWI has essentially led me to define what it means to be both black and a student. I see my black peers spending more time as activists, part-time workers and committee members than any other group of students on this campus. I have found myself, and others like me, to be leaders; whether it be in a Registered Student Organization (RSO) or within the classroom, we are leading current, meaningful discussions.

Diversity at UMass Amherst and at colleges and universities everywhere isn’t just something that is wanted, but rather something that is needed. The students demanding acknowledgement from administration aren’t in it to cause trouble — they’re in it to bring awareness and prompt important conversations within our campus community. From HBCUs to PWIs, black students exist, and their accommodations matter. Let’s start talking and taking steps to fix them, together.

Email Ellanjé at [email protected].

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