The Black Experience at Primarily White Institutions

Kenya Fickens
May 14 · 4 min read
Photo by j.o.h.n walker

“Education is very important. Once you get an education, no one can take it from you.” & “ You’re going to college,” should’ve been my first words. My father recited those phrases with indisputable conviction and sincerity for the first 15 years of my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but my experiences would illuminate the depth of his words impelling me to uphold them at an equal value.

As a black boy growing up in Charleston, South Carolina in the mid-50s and 60s, my father witnessed the bloodshed that the fight against black American’s right to education caused. He was about the same age as six-year-old Ruby Bridges when she made history for being the first black child to attend an all-white public school. Two years later, the Ole Miss Riots of 1962 would remind him that many white Americans would kill or die before they shared schools with us.

I was a smart, yet understandably naive kid growing up in early 2000s New York. At the time, I didn’t realize that my father lived through the very historic moments my teachers were dedicating lessons to. However, the facts were diluted — disguising the events as ghosts of America’s shameful past that instantly vanished the moment segregation was outlawed.

That wasn’t a ridiculous narrative for me to accept because basic education is no longer a luxury. My generation experienced the presence of truancy officers and parents who’d exaggerate the legal repercussions of missing a few days of school. From Kindergarten to eighth grade I went to a predominantly black lottery school where I felt comfortable and had teachers, both black and white, who motivated and respected all of their students. These circumstances shielded me from another reality.

Ruby Bridges/Credit: Seattle Parks & Reaction

When I decided to attend a predominantly white high school where I could easily identify every black student in the hallways, I experienced pronounced reverberations of a previously segregated education system. During each grade’s separate lunch periods, almost every one of the black students sat at two and a half lunch tables together — all in the same part of the cafeteria of about 600 students. Of course, this wasn’t abnormal, as it reflects the socioeconomic structure of life outside of school. At 2:50 p.m., black and white students peered at one another from opposite sides of the street as the white students waited for the northbound Q76 into their side of Queens, and the black students waited for the southbound Q76 to our side of Queens.

The instinctual, cordial segregation was disturbed when the white students that occupied the lunch table during the period before us called my friends maids and slaves as they waited for them to get up. This wasn’t an isolated incident. When Trump was elected in 2017, a white student told a black student we were “all going to be slaves again”. Following that incident, a student from my school made headlines for telling a black student from a neighboring school to get to the back of the bus. The absence of consequences for these explicit racist acts aligned with subtle injustices in the school’s social infrastructure — black students were being suspended and expelled while our white peers were excused for comparable misconducts plus bigotry.

My experience at my PWI, Rutgers University, shared a similar theme. This time I was prepared. I wasn’t surprised by my lack of interaction with white students despite their disproportionate representation in all of my classes. Nor was I taken aback by the lack of awareness from the white students as they shouted the n-word in their favorite songs while we stood shoulder to shoulder in the packed basement of a house party. I didn’t waver when two of my white academic advisors unreasonably insinuated that I should choose a simpler major. Like most black students attending PWIs, I’ve learned to protect my mental and emotional wellbeing by retreating to safe spaces we’ve created for our community such as the Black Lives Matter club.

When I learned of the recent racist zoom bombings in which white students successfully executed a virtual blitz on black safe spaces at Rutgers and Penn State during this Black History Month, the theme of my experience as a black student was evident. Schools are not a safe space for Black Americans and getting an education is still characterized by racial obstacles.

Meredith Returns by LRD615

Though our legal rights are no longer in question, a cultural dilemma persists. There’s a level of mental and emotional warfare that black students at PWIs experience before they walk across the stage. Our resiliency shouldn’t be confused with complacency or acceptance. Our resiliency is a part of our fight.

As I ordered my cap and gown to be worn on May 16, I felt a sense of overwhelming pride for completely resonating with my father’s sentiment. Though we have nothing to prove to racists and bigots, and the celebration of our education shouldn’t be diminished to how uncomfortable it makes them feel, there’s a triumph in the realization that we continue to achieve our ancestors biggest dreams despite the trying remnants of the society they lived in. As I await my rite of passage, I reflect on the image of J.H.Meredith taken in 1962 as he was protected by the National Guard while receiving his diploma from the university he integrated. Black education has always been a form of power and protest.

NJ Spark

NJ Spark is a social justice journalism lab at Rutgers…

NJ Spark

NJ Spark is a social justice journalism lab at Rutgers University. We bring students together with media makers and journalists to create media for and with underserved communities.

Kenya Fickens

Written by

NJ Spark

NJ Spark is a social justice journalism lab at Rutgers University. We bring students together with media makers and journalists to create media for and with underserved communities.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store