The challenge of being a Black man in a predominantly white female study abroad program.
Challenges are entrenched in all facets of each persons life, but for most college educated internet users it has become clear the challenges of some people are greater than others. I’m not writing this for pity, nor frustration (maybe a little bit), nor anger but to give a perspective on a rare and interesting situation.
I am a black male age 25, in what I want to describe as a “progressive” college program, which travels across the world over 4 years in order to get a degree in Global Studies. In my small class of 24 students, most aged 19–21, I am the only black male in my class. Where my challenge begins is first to identify who I am suppose to be in this group of mostly white females.
At first I thought, it’s better to lay low. Don’t be outspoken and controversial, don’t speak about my true opinions in class discussions or individually among my peers and above all do NOT catch any feelings for any woman in my class. I had learned from my previous semester that these types of actions cause the group to get defensive and uninterested in anything I have to say, so I became the phantom. I am the most experienced person in the room, with hardly anything to say and no alliances in the several factions of preexisting friendship groups within the student body. No one bats an eye.
Unfortunately that didn’t last long. I am a person who lives for debate and constant intellectual stimulation and so after only a few days of boredom I decided to break my silence but to take on a persona that maybe my peers could relate to. I talked about things with no real substance; (how much I like to get fucked up, how good the food is, how nice the speaker was) instead of career goals, community issues, family values, challenging experiences or curriculum theory, topics that develop character and critical thinking skills. I admit that on occasion I would have some friendship building conversations but the more I got to know them the less they wanted to maintain complex conversations. So I made childish jokes, I would respond to every utterance in hopes of garnering attention and I would make a lot of unnecessary movements, again, to gain 5 seconds of attention soon to be lost to a series of equally arbitrary actions from my fellow white male classmates. I tried to be more like a “normal” teenage male by mentally retreating back to the high school days I dreaded so much. But not matter how well I acted “normal” I couldn’t gain popularity because just like in my high school days I quickly realized that meaningless actions in the quest for influence are simply a waste of time.
While I was acting like a teen I couldn’t help but take note of all the social patterns my peers subscribed to that I had grew out of to be able to become a more well-rounded, responsible and prepared adult. Things like always talking to the same people about the same things, paying no attention to what is going on around me, constantly talking about memes and “remember when we did X in Y…” anecdotes. Soon all I could think about was, why was it that no one felt the urge to be different? Why did no one seek to be separate from the mold or even be able to realize that they were living in this collectivized mindset when college is suppose to be about discovering individuality?
My first hypothesis was, this is a cultural issue. As a black man, my challenge has always been to stand out, to be the best I can be, and not to embody the violent, uneducated and unattractive stereotype disseminated to the rest of the world by way of American media. I fight tooth and nail everyday to be exceptional at everything, to be recognized as intelligent and noteworthy and most importantly to be revered by my white peers in order to end the statistical dominance of white supremacy. No man should have to shoulder the burden of his whole race on his shoulders but the sad truth is its a mental complex many educated people of color find hard to escape. In a classroom of mostly white female students who claim to be aware of this reality but outwardly show no type of understanding or acknowledgement of such a challenge… I felt defeated.
This is the safety net of white privileged. In a world of majority with no institutionalized balancing measures the youth of today becomes complacent. There is no need to talk to the person who doesn’t look like me or act like me because all my friends are right here and that person is just different but equal. It becomes a situation where in the very locations that we travel to, where they see low representation of people of color and hear about the atrocities committed in order to sustain white dominance, they still do not recognize those very aspects are within their own institution. I’m not saying that they themselves are the cause of this situation but by actively ignoring the chance to break down social barriers within their own reach they are certainly not contributing in even the smallest way to the solution.
With the help of a overqualified and under respected teacher’s assistant, I expanded on my thesis with my observations over time, while subtly questioning and prodding responses from my peers. I began to see that the reason my peers had such trouble leaving their comfort zones was the very program designed to aid them in doing so. They leave the country which has equal or greater amount of problems as the countries we travel too, with a group of peers raised in the same way with a low amount of embedded diversity and travel to places where the relative standard of living is always high if not outright above their own at home. I understand that the first priority of the program must be the safety of its students but this program has been around for a long time and is beginning to shift the true value of a global education from experiencing life in a way many cannot afford to, into providing a safe space for sheltered teenagers to have fun. The program claims to be trying to balance academic rigor with experiential learning but gives no exceptions for exploration even when a student demonstrates maturity and motivation. Again I understand that their may be many variables within the administration of the school which may restrict them from taking some of the risks of the past but if that is the case they should attempt to facilitate more intraprogram experiential learning.
Abroad a key point we have been learning is the importance of making change in our own personal lives first, then moving onto state and community levels. As I said in the beginning, in life we all have our own challenges that may or may not be known to those around us, but in order to grow it starts with challenging yourself to do something different. Challenge yourself to talk to the person you think is weird, challenge yourself to do more self-reflecting even in big groups of friends, challenge yourself to think and talk about things that may make you uncomfortable and challenge yourself to imagine how it must feel to be the overwhelming minority.