“Every black student in class feels like Rosa Parks on the bus,” Sy Stokes, a UCLA student, once said.
Is that a bit exaggerated? Maybe, but as a black student, it makes sense to me.
I’m not going to bore you with obvious statistics like the small percentage of black students at Lehigh — it’s four percent by the way — and compare it to other predominantly white universities across the country.
Instead, I’m going to put you in my shoes for a moment.
If you know me, you know I’m naturally a happy guy. Occasionally, I’ll have sour moods, as a normal person should, but I’m all smiles most of the time. You wouldn’t be able tell the difference between a great day or a dreadful day based of my facial expression. You can’t see the daily pressure that originates from the color of my skin.
It was about 9 p.m. on a Thursday night in late November. My friend, who is also black, and I were walking on a deserted Packer Avenue, and we saw a girl heading toward us. She glanced at us and quickly turned to our left to cross the street. It definitely caught my attention, but I didn’t think too much of it.
That was, until my friend turned around and said, “Wow look, she’s coming back to this side.”
I turned around and saw she had waited until she was was three or four steps behind us to return to the sidewalk we were walking on. I laughed, because it was the only thing I could do at the moment. But it lingered in my mind the rest of that week.
It wasn’t a coincidence.
Actions speak louder than words. We were two educated individuals with no criminal history minding our own business, but it’s the color of our skin that superseded our character.
Society has never changed with its stereotypical assumptions, it’s just people are less outspoken about it, or they speak about it behind a fake identity.
As a black student at a predominantly white institution, you have a target on your back whether you believe it or not. There’s a reaction for every public decision you make and everywhere you turn, you’re doubted or misinterpreted. Just one mistake, and you’re negatively affecting the general perception of the rest of the black students on campus. That’s just how it is.
Our society feeds off of stereotyping. I’m sure the majority of black students on campus have received the “you only got into Lehigh because of affirmative action” remark or something along the lines of that at some point. And those statements are still a close second to ignorant questions like, “What sport do you play?”
For some people, it might be natural to react that way because of how they were raised or what environment they grew up in. I understand that, but it’s still not an excuse.
I have to constantly prove myself to people. I have to prove that I worked my tail off to get where I am today. It doesn’t matter what your resume looked like in high school, the slate is wiped clean and you have to try to defy those perceptions when you get to college. I have so much respect for the senior class president, Freddy Coleman, who was the first black student at Lehigh ever to be a class president.
Just to be clear, I’m not pitting blacks against whites on campus or saying everyone has the same mindset of that girl who crossed the street. I’m merely sharing insight of my experience.
But let’s be real: We’re not even four years removed from the UMOJA house incident. Lehigh hasn’t changed. No matter how many smiling black students Lehigh puts on its brochure, it won’t make a difference. The perceptions and interactions will remain the same.
We’re not doing anything as a student body to improve on these perceptions. Take the Multicultural room, or “M-room,” in the University Center. It was designated to connect and unify people of different cultures and backgrounds, but from what I’ve seen it has essentially become a room for minorities only.
As corny as it sounds, as a student body we need to enlighten our stereotype-based mindsets by being more inclusive. There’s a social divide that causes people to separate into their own cliques and groups.
For instance, why are cultural Greek organizations excluded from conversations about Greek life and campus issues? Treating them the same as others would be a good first step in the right direction — a step to defy the stereotypes that are so ingrained at Lehigh.
Stereotypes are just skin deep. I’m proud of my skin color, but it doesn’t define me.
Zion Olojede, ’18, is the sports editor for The Brown and White. He can be reached at [email protected]