by Guest Contributor Alana M. Mohamed
Maybe I’m naïve, but when I stepped on the campus of my New England public university, I was dumbstruck by the whiteness of it all. I was literally the only person of color in a sea of white people. This had never happened to me before. I grew up in New York City and had never been to a school that was predominantly white. As such, I was partial to the color-blind politics of the day. This is not to say that I never experienced racism, but I was lucky enough to discount the few times I had encountered racism as the statistical outliers of my life. However, I was surprised to learn that my peers at university had rarely come in contact with people of color and often times lacked any sort of tact when dealing with people of color. After revealing that my last name is Mohamed, the questions and comments that followed without fail went something like: A) “You don’t look Muslim! Are you religious?” B) “Is your family…y’know, religious?” C) (A look of relief when I revealed that, no, they aren’t that religious) “Oh! Good, cause I know how crazy they can be.” My friends at other universities felt the same alienation and we started to really pay attention to the racism surrounding us.
Most of my class and dorm mates were white, middle class kids who lived in small, predominantly white towns. As a light skinned Guyanese-American woman, they found me hard to peg and I was privy to my share of racist “jokes.” Once, during Black History Month, our dining hall happened to be serving fried chicken and watermelon, in addition to numerous other options. A girl on my floor dim wittedly cracked, “What a way to celebrate Black History Month!” Half the room shared an uneasy silence, while the other erupted into laughter. I was shocked into silence and, looking back, I wish I could have said something. Since then, I’ve found that dealing with racist jokes is best handled by playing dumb. A simple, “I don’t get it,” and a couple of leading questions will encourage them to try and explain their joke and help them realize that relying on tired and racist stereotypes isn’t funny or clever in the least.
I’ve also encountered a very common situation: People saying racist things, but not realizing, or refusing to acknowledge that they’re racist. The most bizarre example of this occurred as a group of friends and I were walking back from a party. Shortly after chastising someone for using the word “Jiggaboo” to describe his black friends back home, my roommate and another girl began to discuss the physical differences between white people and black people. A snippet of the conversation? “And why does their hair do that? Like, why is it like that? It’s like they’re a whole different species! They kind of,” here she lowered her voice, “look like animals a little.” I shared a look with another friend and simply said, “Whoa, I’m not even gonna participate in this conversation.” However, my roommate and the girl she was talking to still didn’t understand why what they said was offensive.
In this case, I was too tired and too overwhelmed to say anything else. I still get overwhelmed every time I think about this scenario because I can’t possibly conceive how they would think such banter is acceptable. I wish I had asked them why they think it’s okay to liken black people to animals and expand from there. Engaging them in a conversation would have helped me to sort out my own thoughts, while helping them to understand the underlying racism in their statements, but at the time I felt too emotional to understand that this could have been a key moment for dialogue, or, at the very least, a witty retort.
The scariest sort of situation was dealing with hostile, purposeful racism. At the beginning of the year, when people didn’t know I had a Muslim last name, or that my father was Muslim, I heard a student loudly decry, “Fucking Muslim scum, fucking ruining our country. Motherfuckers,” at a party further down my hall. I also heard cheers, egging him on. I was in my room at the time and couldn’t see who had said it. And quite frankly, I was too terrified to go see. When it comes to direct confrontations, I draw the line at putting myself in dangerous situations. I wish I would have told my RA, but I was too scared of stirring up trouble so early in the year. As a consequence, I often felt unsafe and alienated from many of the kids on my floor.
My first year of college went badly because I was often made to feel like the Other. I suffered most of it in silence because I was lucky enough to have this all be a new experience for me. But silence is rarely the way to handle racism. Earlier this year, Alexandria Wallace’s rant against Asians at her school shocked YouTube viewers. The media was quick to demonize her and use her as a figurehead to purport America’s supposed color-blind agenda. But how can we act so shocked when the same things Wallace said are repeated amongst friends “just sharing a joke” all the time on supposedly liberal college campuses? Wallace was surrounded by a culture that encouraged racism. I imagine the UCLA campus is probably ripe with racist jokes about Asians that go unchecked.
This fall, I’ll be attending a college in a more culturally diverse neighborhood in my hometown of New York City. But as the back-to-school-shopping ads start to filter in, I can’t help but wonder if there will ever be an escape from the racism touted by the “ironic” white teens that fill many of today’s college campuses at overwhelming majorities.