For the small number of black students on Washington college campuses, a subtle undercurrent of racism can make higher education a hostile place.
In his early days on the University of Washington campus as a freshman, Kaid Tipton got his first taste of what it was going to be like as a student of color at the state’s most elite public school.
He ran into a former classmate from Kentridge High School in Kent, who greeted him with a puzzled look on her face. “Kaid, what are you doing here?”
“I’m walking to class …” he said. His classmate look baffled. “Wait, you go to school here?”
To Tipton, a track star who worked hard in high school to get top grades, whose guiding philosophy was to disprove stereotypes about black male athletes, there was a clear subtext to the awkward question: Do you really belong here?
Seven years after UW student Lull Mengesha wrote a book, “The Only Black Student,” about being black at a school where the enrollment is overwhelmingly white and Asian-American, students like Tipton still find themselves facing similar challenges at UW — and most other colleges in the state.
In November, that isolation and separation arose forcefully at Western Washington University, when profanity-laced, anonymous threats aimed at that university’s student-body president — who is black — exploded on social media. Classes were shut down for a day.
A year ago, a Black Lives Matter march on the UW campus drew thousands of students, black and white — but some spectators called out racial taunts.
And on Wednesday, many of those same UW students rallied to tell administrators that the university needs to move much faster to make campus equitable for all.
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Many black students at Washington colleges say it’s not just the headline-grabbing incidents that wear them down and drive some students away. Rather, it’s the countless small insults and put-downs, making their college experience very different from that of their white counterparts.
“Racism is not over,” said UW student Jordan Elijah DeSanto, a student ambassador for the UW’s Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, who is biracial. “It’s in our face every single day.”
More than a dozen students at four college campuses were interviewed for this story, and some themes emerged. For all of them, dealing with racism is exhausting; they find themselves constantly on guard for the next expression of bias, whether it’s a subtle comment or a flat-out racist statement or act.
Many don’t want to talk about racism at all — they don’t want to relive the pain. What’s more, they’re tired of being put into the role of having to explain to a largely white population what racism is like for them.
With the passage of Initiative 200 in 1998, Washington voters ended affirmative action, the practice of using quotas to make college admissions more equitable. Since that time, the UW’s black student enrollment has stayed about the same, even while overall ethnic diversity has increased, with Asian-American and Latino student enrollment growing, and white student enrollment shrinking. (About 65 percent of undergraduates are white or Asian.)
The UW also enrolls many more international students than it did in 1998.
But black students say white students often treat them as if they were offered college admission only to fill a nonexistent diversity quota — and taking some more deserving student’s spot.
The culture at college campuses has changed in recent years in ways that are good and bad, says Ed Taylor, UW vice provost and dean for undergraduate academic affairs, who is black.
At times, it is more volatile and less welcoming, he says.
Taylor cites three things: The rise in social media, that anonymous space where racial hatred can explode without consequence. The tenor of today’s politics, where meaningful discussion has been replaced by provocative sound bites. And the videos of police shootings that so often show unarmed black men killed by white officers.
At the same time, he says, a new generation of students is bolder, more empowered and more likely to confront college leaders over important social issues.
That empowerment has led students to seek big changes. At Western, a new group, the Student Assembly for Power and Liberation, has issued a far-reaching set of demands that includes a new college to teach social justice and a student committee with the power to monitor oppressive behavior on campus and fire faculty.
Western President Bruce Shepard says the proposal would “fundamentally contradict” the university’s policies and practices, and violate federal laws and union contracts.
At UW, student demands issued last week included the establishment of a new center on the study of race, an effort to recruit more black students and other underrepresented minorities, and a 25 percent boost in the number of faculty of color, particularly black faculty, by the end of winter 2017.
“Hiding in the library”
By the end of her second year at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Amy Jones was tired of being called “sassy,” as in, “Oh Amy, you’re so sassy.”
Or “articulate.” As opposed to shucking and jiving? she wondered.
Or having white students ask if they could touch her hair.
Jones had gone to PLU because it was close to her home and she’d gotten a good financial-aid package. Her sister also attended PLU, and she thought she was going in with her eyes open.
But she found herself overwhelmed by the whiteness of the school. The Tacoma university has an African-American enrollment of about 3 percent, in a city where blacks make up 11 percent of the population and 20 percent of the public-school enrollment.
Because city neighborhoods — and by extension, public schools — tend to be largely racially segregated, many black students go to high schools where many of their classmates look like them. In college, though, the picture changes.
African Americans make up about 4.5 percent of the college-age population in Washington, but only 2 or 3 percent of the enrollment on most Washington college campuses.
Jones spent her first year at PLU “kind of hiding in the library,” and hung out in the diversity center during her second year. It was the only place on campus where she felt comfortable.
“Everywhere else, you were probably going to get, not necessarily a comment, but a microaggression” — a subtle racist comment, she said. “It wears on you after a while.”
She lived at home because hardly any students of color lived on campus, even though that made it harder to get involved in college activities.
To Jones, PLU also seemed to have an uncomfortable relationship with its neighbors; the university is in Parkland, a neighborhood that is largely African American and lower income. In the bookstore and cafeteria, clerks and other workers watched black teens who visited campus like hawks, she said.
“There was this pre-emptive attitude that we need to get you out before you do something — which tells me this predominantly black community is not welcome,” she said.
In her junior year, Jones transferred to Central Washington University, taking classes that it offers in a building at Pierce College, in nearby Lakewood. The campus is much more diverse, “more grounded,” Jones said.
“They belong here”
When Mariama Suwaneh entered the UW in 2013, she did not expect to feel out of place. Now a junior majoring in political science, she graduated from Redmond High School east of Seattle, which is primarily white and Asian. She was used to being one of the only black or Latino students in a class. (She is Afro-Latina; one parent is black, the other Mexican-American.)
But she found the UW culture shockingly different.
She didn’t expect to walk around all day and not see anyone else who looks like her, or rarely encounter a professor of color; in total, just 67 professors — about 2 percent of the UW Seattle faculty — are African American.
At Redmond High, Suwaneh’s classmates knew she was smart, taking Advanced Placement classes and headed for college.
But at the UW, where big lecture classes can easily number 500 students, Suwaneh is often the only black student in class. She sometimes feels like she is judged solely by the color of her skin.
“I do feel like every time I raise my hand, I speak for all black people,” she said. “If I say something that seems out of place, or something that doesn’t sound as intelligent as another student, that’s a knock on all students of color here on campus.”
Taylor, the UW dean, says it can take a tremendous amount of strength and resilience for black students to succeed at a school like the UW, where they are very much in the minority — especially those majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, some of the least diverse majors at the university.
“They need consistent reminders that they belong here,” he said.
He cited the research of Claude Steele, a University of California, Berkeley, professor and now provost, who found that many students underperform when they are anxious because they fear they might reinforce negative stereotypes about their race. The idea is known as “stereotype threat.”
The students affected by the hate-speech incident at WWU last fall declined to talk about the climate in Bellingham for this story. But Briana Glover, a biracial student who graduated in 2010, said she experienced incidents of bias at Western, and she believes the climate there has become worse in recent years.
“I know there were definitely times on campus, or in the dorms, or just generally, that I was excluded from things,” she said. “I had an inkling it was because of my appearance.”
Two sides of UW
At the UW, Tipton — a senior — has found two sides to the same university.
A track athlete who runs hurdles, Tipton spends much of his time on what’s commonly known as “lower campus,” the area around Husky Stadium where athletic fields and practice fields are located.
Because many of the UW’s athletes are students of color, a kind of de facto segregation exists, with lower campus more diverse than upper campus. Within teams, there’s further segregation. More black players are on the football and basketball teams, fewer on Tipton’s track team. (Indeed, both he and DeSanto say white students frequently assume they are basketball players.)
Still, Tipton — who is biracial, with one white and one black parent — has had bad experiences in both places.
On upper campus one day, he was standing at the door of a sorority house while a girl he knew ran upstairs to get something, and was immediately questioned by a woman who wanted to know what he was doing there. Tipton knew the rules: No male students left alone in the house.
Still, there was a white male student also standing near the entrance, unaccompanied. No one questioned him.
Then there was the time he was studying for an exam with a white student who happened to know that Tipton had a better grade in the class. Out of the blue, the student said: “You’re not that black. You’re pretty white.” The inference, Tipton said, was that his superior grades were due to the fact that one of his parents is white.
And one afternoon on lower campus, Tipton was watching a game show on TV with other athletes. One of the contestants was black, and during the show he was given a choice to take $40,000 or gamble on a riskier option. The man turned the money down.
A white student watching the show exploded in disbelief. Why didn’t he take the money, he said. That’s probably double his income.
The student’s assumption, Tipton said, that black people never make more than $20,000 a year, was an indirect racial slam.
“New wave of activists”
National surveys underscore that there are changes taking place on college campuses. In an annual survey of incoming college freshmen by the University of California at Los Angeles, researchers found that interest in activism is at an all-time high — especially among black students.
At the UW, Taylor said he’s seeing “a new wave of activists, informed by a generation before them.” And they’re not single-issue students — they’re also concerned about gender issues, mass incarceration, environmental degradation. Many times, they’ll start a rally by recognizing the UW campus is on land once occupied by the Duwamish people.
College campuses are well-suited as places for students to learn about and from classmates with very different backgrounds and experiences, Taylor said.
Last year, after the UW Black Lives Matter march, black students formed the Facebook group #BlackAtUW, and got the word out about social events where they could talk about what it meant to be black at the mostly white and Asian university.
Suwaneh says black students are starting to coalesce in ways that weren’t as apparent during her first year in college, in large part because of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Despite the challenges, she said it’s empowering to be at the UW as a black student, pointing to the number of black students who serve in leadership positions. “We’re some of the most engaged student leaders on campus,” she said.
“I have a lot of hope for our generation,” said DeSanto. “I see this movement as just the beginning.”
UW President Ana Mari Cauce, who has talked publicly about experiencing racism and prejudice as a Cuban-American and lesbian, has put Taylor in charge of a race and equity project that is working to heal racial divides. Cauce and others say college is exactly the right place, and time, to try to educate young people about racism, sexism and homophobia.
Many black students applaud her for those efforts, although hundreds who protested Wednesday say she is moving way too slowly, and that the university’s efforts have been feeble and inconsequential.
Tipton has taken a seminar on microaggressions, and has had conversations in class and outside of it about how to deal with people when their words suggest racial bias.
He thinks back to the “What are you doing here?” question from his high-school classmate, and says he would respond differently now.
Today, he would ask: “What do you mean by that?”