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On being the only black kid in class: diversity matters

Being the only black kid in class is one of those things in that once you notice it, you can’t un-notice it. I don’t remember the first time I realized was the only black person in my classes, but it became an issue my sophomore year of high school. In my English class, one of the assigned texts was “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry. The book was written as a play, and during class, each student took turns reading character lines to make it feel more like an actual play. The book is set in Chicago during the 1950s, a racially charged period on the brink of the civil rights movement. Characters in the play use the “n” word, and my teacher felt it was important to say the actual word out loud, as opposed to substituting it for the politically correct moniker. Her decision was for literary purposes, and I agreed with that. Use of the actual word would help to contextualize the story and show its derogatory history, a complete departure from the modern-day, colloquial use of the term.

But what I didn’t agree with was when she looked to me before making her decision. I was questioned, in front of the whole class. I was the only black student in a room of 20-something people, and she asked me whether I wanted the class to use the actual “n” word. I knew she meant well. But in that moment, it felt like I was being told, “Look, since you’re black, and this word gets associated with you, let us know if it’s okay to use it or not.” I was put on the spot and at the risk of becoming the residential, culturally oversensitive black girl I said it was fine. Having all the eyes in the room trained on me was much worse than the stolen glances I was used to when the subject of slavery or the Civil Rights Movement came up. In those situations, I could write off the looks as ignorance, thinking just because my skin is brown and my hair is nappy doesn’t mean that I know every microcosm of information related to those social movements. But I couldn’t be surprised as to why people thought that was the case. The otherization I felt at that moment was intense — I knew it, and the rest of the class knew it.

Every black student has a different experience when they’re alone in a classroom. For some it might not be a big deal, others might switch out of the class completely and still others may remain but with a grain of salt, which is what I did. Being the only black person in class made me value diversity that much more. I realized then that part of living in white society means I might as well get used to being the only black person in the room. But that’s nearly impossible, at least for me.

After high school, I went to school in Boston for a year in search of diversity. At first, it felt great — I was taking classes with people from Beijing and Ghana, I lived with students from Switzerland and was friends with girls from Dubai and Ethiopia. Then one day, I looked around and realized that in four of my five classes, I was the only black person. I tried to act like it was not a big deal, but it really is one of those things — once you notice it, you can’t un-notice it. Cultural diversity is not nearly the same thing as racial diversity. Just because people are of different backgrounds does not mean they look like me or anyone else. I made the decision to transfer to Rutgers, picking up my search for diversity once more, with race at the forefront.

At Rutgers, there are thousands of people who represent both cultural and racial diversity. Walking around campus, you’re surrounded by people from all races, which is exactly what I was looking for. But classrooms aren’t too much different from what I’ve been greeted with in the past. While lecture courses may have a couple hundred people on the roster, only half of them show up, and even then it’s still possible to count all the black people on two hands. In smaller classes, it’s the same deal, except you only need one hand to count the black people. Either way, in my classes at Rutgers, no one gets called out as the black kid in class because that’s usually not the case. Being the only black kid in class is a strange feeling, one I will never accept, but at Rutgers there is comfort in numbers, regardless of how many.


Yvanna Saint-Fort is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies and political science. Her column, “Three Layers Deep,” runs on alternate Thursdays. Follow her on Twitter @yvannathecritic.

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