Lull Mengesha has recently written a revealing little book on what it's like to be black at Seattle's largest institution of higher learning.
“Can I touch your hair?”
The first time a white University of Washington student asked Lull Mengesha this question, he didn’t think much of it. It was odd, sure. But he was an inner-city black kid going to college. That alone was unusual.
Around the sixth time someone asked to touch his hair, though, or maybe it was the tenth or fifteenth, Mengesha started to wonder if everyone at the UW viewed him as some sort of exotic pet.
“I didn’t know how to take it,” Mengesha recalls. “It was just one of the countless things about going to the UW that I was totally unprepared for.”
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I guess we can add “touching black people’s hair” to the list of Stuff White People Like. Who knew?
Mengesha, 25, now works at Boeing and is in grad school at the UW (he cut off most of that apparently irresistible hair, too). I met him because he has written a revealing little book on what it’s like to be black at Seattle’s largest institution of higher learning.
It’s a 76-page travel guide for black kids journeying into an overwhelmingly white and Asian slice of the world.
It’s called: “The Only Black Student.” That’s not literally true, but it’s not far off, either. The UW expects only 131 black freshmen in a class of more than 5,000 when school starts this week.
“I called the book that because that’s how it felt to go to school there,” Mengesha says.
Like he was on another planet. Even though he grew up only a few miles from the UW campus, graduating near the top of his class at Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School.
“Something would happen almost every day to make you feel like you were a million miles from home,” he says.
Things like: Incessantly being mistaken for a basketball or football player as he walked across campus.
Or for a drug dealer. Cases of mistaken identity — some innocent, some not-so — are so common for black students at UW that some of them set up a satirical Facebook page titled “White People Think We All Look the Same.”
“I am not Tyrone or Jerome or any of the other black students you have said hello to in your class,” Mengesha pleads at one point in the book.
He describes the UW’s culture as resistant to talking about race but simultaneously fixated on it.
He is of course stopped by campus cops repeatedly for no reason. Including once when he was a high-school student attending a computer programming course at UW sponsored by the Black Data Processing Association.
Think about that, he says: Even nerds fit the profile if they’re black.
But mostly the book is nonjudgmental. He doesn’t cry racism so much as muse about cultural misunderstandings.
Like how, if you’re black, you can move about campus as if equipped with your own force field. Nobody pesters you to sign petitions, like they do to the white students. The crowds step aside “like the parting of the Red Sea,” he writes.
There’s no question the UW has trouble attracting black students, in part because it has this reputation. Administrators say they are acutely aware of it, and have a host of programs to try to remedy it, including bringing black students to campus for field trips as early as middle school.
Mengesha says he wrote “The Only Black Student” to “get these topics out in the open,” not to bad-mouth the place.
Nearly 1,000 copies have sold so far, mostly to colleges. Mengesha, who graduated in 2006, in economics, also is becoming a kind of ambassador to schools baffled by the black experience. He has given workshops for minority students entering UW’s engineering and business schools and this week is flying down to talk to UCLA.
It’s no wonder the schools need an interpreter. If anything, campus race relations are getting more complex. In the book’s most cringe-inducing passage, a white student uses the N-word on Mengesha. Only it’s not intended as a put-down. He says it as a term of endearment — as if both parties were black instead of just one.
Mengesha is appalled anyone could be so clueless. Still, at least the white guy was trying, however clumsily. Mengesha decides to let it pass.
“What can you do about some of this stuff but laugh?” he says.
Well, usually what we do is fume or shout or fight. That’s really what’s special about Mengesha: He chose instead to write.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.