This is a guest post for swpd by A. Smith, who writes of herself, "I write a blog that is hard to explain except to say I write what's on my mind. In the real world, I'm a recent college graduate who's had enough of DC and its politics and is ready to go back to school, for a different, albeit familiar, kind of politics. I'm also a black woman with 23 years of experience in this race thing..."
I attended undergrad in Nashville, Tennessee. I wouldn't normally disclose that, but Nashville is often called the Athens of the South because of all the colleges and universities there. Nashville has 20 of them, ranging from an auto diesel college to one of the premiere private universities in the nation. Therefore, it would reason that if I tell you I went to school in Nashville, you would ask me which one -- there are so many possibilities, the odds of you guessing correctly are clearly not in your favor.
My current job requires that I frequently meet with people, mostly white, from the great state of Tennessee. They're often a little surprised (I can see it in their faces) when they meet me. Between my race-neutral name, race-neutral pattern of speaking (of course, we know that while I say "race-neutral," both my name and the way I often speak are characterized as "white"), people often show up expecting to see someone of a far lighter hue than me. I also lack a noticeable southern accent, though I was born and raised there, so people will often question me about where I'm from. I always say, "I was born and raised in Chattanooga and went to school in Nashville."
A handful of people will nod and move on, but the vast majority of them follow that question up with, "where did you go to school?" and far too many of those people continue by answering for me, "TSU?"
Tennessee State University is a Historically Black University and is well known-throughout the state. Unfortunately, part of the reason it's well-known is because the local media in Nashville has gone out of its way (especially recently) to villianize and stereotype TSU as a dangerous place. I have to be honest and say that while first attending Vanderbilt, I too fell prey to believing the unfortunate stereotypes of violence, danger and subpar academics that plagues TSU. It wasn't until my school held a roundtable event and invited TSU among other schools to participate that I actually realized how much of a stereotype it was and how I'd allowed the media to color my view.
Not only do these white (and they are always white; the black people I come in contact with never answer the question for me, though I don't doubt they also make assumptions) people assume they already know where I must have gone to school, but they choose the most stereotyped university of all of them.
I've actually never had someone guess my school and guess it correctly. I went on a twitter rant once and said, "believe it or not, Vandy does accept black people..."
This was something I began encountering long before I was out of undergrad. My friends and I would constantly relay stories of being questioned about where we attended school while wearing clothing items with our school's name on it, and having people respond in a shocked manner when we would tell them we attended Vanderbilt University.
Two recent incidents have me thinking about both why this happens and exactly how it makes me feel. The first happened recently when, in a room full of people from across the state of Tennessee, a man asked me where I attended school. He paused for a second, only long enough for me to open my mouth to take in air, and then he said, "TSU or Fisk."
I laughed. Then I looked around the room and noted that the 4 other black people there were either smirking or laughing, and that the other white people had no expression at all. That is, until I answered his question. The smirk disappeared and his face reddened. Some of the other white people also laughed nervously.
It's usually enough to just say the name of my school; I typically don't have to follow up with too much of "you know, that's really presumptive and borderline racist to assume I must have gone to an HBCU." The "oh" and subsequent look of stupidity and sheepish grin suggest they get it, on some level at least. However, this man pissed me off. He gave me 2 choices, out of 20 options, and he only chose the 2 HBCUs in the city. So I added, "you know, Nashville has a lot of schools beside TSU and Fisk."
The second incident happened when I had the "pleasure" of meeting with a dean from a school that's in a city right outside of Nashville. He found out early on where I went to school and spent the rest of our meeting comparing his school with mine. Either pointing out where they excelled ("we graduate more students" -- of course they do, they're larger) or pointing out where my alma mater excelled, but also distinguishing why we have an advantage ("of course we'll never do the research Vandy does. We don't have the money").
I also struggled to read him. Reading the people I meet with is integral to things going smoothly. Knowing how much to tell them without telling them too much is important, and reading them correctly helps put them at ease and is necessary to ensure that I do my job well. Typically, I excel at it. I'm very even and friendly with skeptical people; I usually succeed in winning them over with my humor and excellent grasp of the issues that they come to meet with me about. This man, however, maintained either a disturbed or shocked look on his face. I don't think he ever got over the fact that I was black and a graduate of such an academically rigorous school. This was particularly disturbing because he's a dean of the largest university in the state and surely has come across a smart POC or two in his life. At the end of our meeting he began asking me questions like when I graduated, what my major was, and then the kicker: "How long did it take you to get your degree?"
I've told this story to black and white friends. My black friends always gasp at the question while my white friends wait for the punch line, or the part where they're supposed to be upset. For anyone missing it, he didn't need to ask me how long it took me to get my degree, and there was an interesting assertion there that it would've taken me longer than 4 years to get it. Why else do you ask someone how long it took them to get their degree?
Before anyone chimes in that it took them 5-6+ years to get their degree, let me point out that my alma mater BOASTS its ability to graduate students in 4 years. Anyone who knows anything about it (as a dean of another local school would) knows that Vanderbilt goes out of its way to make sure students have the access to what they need to get a degree in 4 years. Trust me, if it takes you longer than 4 years, you either took time off, switched majors too many times, or made some other major snafu (like failing a class). In any case, why else do you ask someone how long it took them to get their degree? I mean have you ever asked someone that before? Does it really add to your knowledge of that person? Outside of the type of advice-seeking conversations that individuals headed to college often have with college graduates, I don't see a place for the question.
By the way, my answer to his question did little to assuage his concern -- whatever the concern was. In fact, I think it made it worse.
And really, that's the issue behind all of this. Why is it shocking for someone to find out that a POC attends a school like Vanderbilt?
I'll have to be honest, this one has been tough for me to analyze and assess. It could be because I give some people too much credit and struggle to understand why someone wouldn't think I could've gone to Vanderbilt simply because of my race. What's worse is that these people walk into my office and can clearly see that I've accomplished a lot and are still surprised at my academic background.
We've had discussions in the past at swpd about HBCUs and schools that are commonly referred to as PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions). In this post, macon said,
Personally, I prefer to call higher ed PWI's "historically white colleges and universities." It helps to foreground their racially exclusionary pasts, and the de facto white supremacy that still pervades them. It's not a perfect term, though, as it could imply (unlike "PWI") that their pervasiveness [sic] whiteness is in the past.
In a later comment, I agreed with macon, and as I ponder his point now, wonder whether or not it's that same thing -- that pervasion of racial exclusivity and de facto white supremacy -- that causes the white people I come into contact with on my job to always assume that I went to an HBCU. In other words, as usual, good = white and bad = black. The shock isn't that I went to a white school, the shock is that I went to a "good" school, in their minds. But if we explore what that means, we realize that they're shocked that I went to a white school AND that I went to a good school.
So again, I ask: Why is it shocking for someone to find out that a POC attends a school like Vanderbilt? Have you ever asked (or been asked) someone how long it took them to finish their degree? And, a final question: What is it about the university setting that still encourages the white = good, black = bad assumption?
Author's note: I've asked macon, for the purposes of this post, not to prioritize responding to problematic comments, but rather to prioritize keeping absolutely ridiculous, derailing or otherwise offensive comments out. This will mean that some such comments will go through without a macon response. I hope this encourages more WP who comment frequently and say they're in this anti-racism fight to step up and speak out on what they see as problematic in other commenter's posts, rather than waiting on a POC commenter or macon to do it.