From Frats to Liberal Brats: A Black Student’s Journey in Higher Education

Pitzer College in Claremont, CA

Nothing in my life prepared me for Pitzer. I can remember the first day I arrived. It was hot and bright and I came to the realization that smiles were more beautiful under the California sun. There were more Harem pants than ties, more vegan food than I ever knew existed, and I was asked constantly what my preferred pronoun was. Thomas Poon, the Interim President of the college, sang a song on a ukulele. He merrily promised that the school would bail students out of jail if they got arrested protesting. Everyone was so kind and friendly. I was mesmerized by the palm trees. There were student artworks painted on dorm buildings, advocating love, knowledge, and social activism. One, in particular, caught my eye, a brilliant piece of an American flag shielding the eyes of a white man and simultaneously covering the mouth of a black man. That was a permanent piece of the college. I remember just staring at it the first few days I was there, grinning besides myself because I just felt so proud, so honored to call myself a Pitzer boy.

It was the complete opposite of my brash upbringing in Bronx, New York — where encountering a decently tempered bus driver warranted for a good day. It was another dimension from Trinity College, the school I transferred from. There, any sort of awareness of white hegemony was either incomprehensible by the student body or ignorantly misunderstood as white hatred. Excellence in athletics was Trinity’s guise, which made it easy for them to disregard the lack of intellectualism in a small liberal art school. It was a neo-conservative space, preppy and fratty for rich white kids whose Daddies couldn’t get them into Ivies, so Trinity just had to suffice. The school is segregated. The students of color had forced a space for themselves and found some comfort in them. But unfortunately, the walls of a cultural house was not formidable enough — the pain somehow seeps in. It is very emotionally draining to belong to a place, while concurrently, everything about that space tells you the contrary. I was getting tired of fighting. I was tired of explaining to sorority girls what “systematic racial oppression” meant. Once, a student decided to write an article about Mike Brown, proclaiming that his death was true, American justice. After I wrote a rant about it on Facebook, my newspaper editor scheduled a meeting with me, to talk about MY lack of sensitivity to that writer. I wish I was imaginative enough to make this stuff up. Even the “liberals” at Trinity could be insufferable. The LGBT group on campus annually chalk the college campus with gay-positive statements, and while I appreciated the sentiment, I found “Closets are for clothes!” extremely insensitive. When I brought this up with them, I was meet with defensive anger. They saw themselves as saints in that environment (not that I would disagree) — but they didn’t want liberal discourse, they wanted praise for their well-intentioned actions.

And despite all this, as a Black student, I was expected to be grateful just to be there — that my acceptance to Trinity was a product of both luck and Affirmative Action (a term they spoke about with the same level of condemnation that 17th century colonial Americans spoke about witches).

Trinity College in Hartford, CT

I don’t know which moment solidified for me that I should leave: the article, a friend of mine getting sexually assaulted at a party, or frat boys throwing eggs from their windows and me missing one by a hair. Either way, it became clear to me that I did not want the same degree as these people. I didn’t want to grow into adulthood there, with the belief that this was all life could offer me. I didn’t want the toxic environment to break my spirit — because by the end of my year there I had become much colder and harsher than I guy I used to be.

I left Trinity and announced that I would be going to a uber liberal school in Southern California, to everyone’s surprise. I believed in this world Pitzer was advertising — a bohemian, earthy-crunchy, liberal paradise. I believed them when they told me that Diversity and Activism were their core values. The freshmen I was coming in with were well-traveled and classified themselves as intersectional feminists. I finally found a home, I told myself, so I left everything I’ve ever known — to become a foreigner in a world I enthusiastically wanted to be a part of.

Pitzer taught me alot of things that I’m not sure I would have learned had I stayed in the east coast. I learned that my mental health is just as important as my grades or my resume. I learned that great professors don’t have to be egomaniacal. I learned that Media students are the most obnoxious people on earth. I learned that it takes exactly 4 months to get tired of Mexican food, regardless of how good it is (and it was pretty good). And above all, I learned that there is a big difference between my liberalism and white liberalism.

My liberalism is all about dismantling the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society that we all lived in — with the hope that we can create a different world, one in which everyone is equally free. White liberalism, especially the white liberalism that came from wealthy students usually had more to do with making everyone feel comfortable in this imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society, without actually changing anything in the process. To them, activism and protesting is all fun and good, just as long as it doesn’t inconvenience anyone — just as long as everything stays “chill”.

Being “chill” and being socially and politically progressive are two different things, obviously. And this became extremely clear when racial tensions in higher education became a national discussion. Claremont McKenna was in the news consistently after a very offensive picture was circulated on social media. The climax of the conflict lead to the Dean of Students at CMC stepping down. The whole espisode was so dramatic, that it lead all the colleges in the Claremont Consortium to reevalute how students of color were being treated. Pitzer, the most liberal of all the schools, needs alot of work.

Firstly, for a school that considers “Diversity” as a primary school value, it is important to note that I am one of 20 Black males on campus. Where at Trinity, there was enough Black students that a sufficient Black space could be created, at Pitzer it was near impossible. This was something that some Pitzer alumni must have known, because one family specifically gave money to the college for a Black Student Union space. The college instead used that money to create a study room. The current BSU space has been nicknamed the “Broom Closet”. The room is so small that it’s completely rendered useless. Black Pitzer students have to reserve one of the dorm’s living rooms for their weekly meetings. And with no Multicultural Center or Administrator, Black Pitzer students have absolutely no support whatsoever.

My perspective on the American flag artwork began to change for me. It wasn’t a demonstration on Pitzer’s racial consciousness — it was outcry from a Black Pitzer student. He felt silenced. And the fact that he decided to paint a large piece was beginning to make more and more sense to me. He wanted people to hear him.

Here’s another issue: Protests are not raves.

The first day I actually felt comfortable at the Claremont Colleges was November 12th, 2015, the day of the Black Lives Matter protest. Black students from all the five colleges organized it all the night before and so many people came. All the campuses were virtually deserted, except for CMC, naturally. The upperclassmen leaders began the march by saying all the Black students should be at front, all the POC after them, and then all the White allies in the back. I thought this decision stemmed from reading too much Black Power literature, but it was much deeper than that after I talked about the protest with White Pitzer students. You’d would almost think they were talking about a rave, instead of a march against racist systems in PWIs. The same people who couldn’t define what a microaggression is, or give an example of one, were the same people at the protest. The same people who organized Reggaefest, a Pitzer Music festival that many Black students were against, were also at the protest.

Being an ally or an activist in general does require you actually knowing what the fuck you are supporting — which should, again, be obvious. If the only Black literature you’ve read are obsecure quotes from Martin Luther King in the third grade, I’d highly recommend you expand your repertoire. And don’t do it for me, or for your one Black friend. Do it because America was physically and figuratively built on racial oppression, and learning about that will give you a much better understanding of the country you live in, and the world abroad.

When I left Trinity, people told me that I couldn’t run away from the pressures that came from being a Black student in a private liberal arts school. They were all the same, they would say. And to an extent, they are right. I found myself reliving alot of PWI nightmares. But if Pitzer has given me anything, it is a renewed belief in America. Despite all that’s at fault, there is a difference between a student praising the murder of Mike Brown and a student going to a BLM protest uninformed. At Pitzer, I’ve seen change happen. My friends and I personally showed President Poon the BSU broom closet, and starting next semester we will have a new, larger one. I’ve seen Student Senate try their absolute best (misguided or otherwise) to ease the racial tensions on our campus. It’s only at Pizer that I would recieve an angry email from an administrator, explaining to the student body that “reverse racism doesn’t exist”. When the Yacht Club controversy happened, I was happy and relieved that white students were educating their white brothers and sisters on what White Privilege actually means. It was no longer my burden, exclusively, to correct racial issues on campus anymore. I am still so honored to be a Pitzer boy.

But let me be absolutely clear: none of it matters until Pitzer is a SoCal paradise for everyone — the Black students, the Latinx students, the Asian students. Everyone. Just having good intentions aren’t enough.

I love Pitzer and I love the young men and women that I get to call my student body. As much as Pitzer wants to advertise itself as the most liberal school in the country, we clearly have a long way to go. We need to live up to the values that we set for ourselves. We have to make sure that a Pitzer student is a student that understand the fundemental issues that plague humanity.

It is only then that we can truly be mindful of the future.

— Gregory Ochiagha ’18