Thursday, January 19, 2012

Threatened By Presence

I am a sophomore RA (Resident Advisor) at Syracuse University. When I first entered my freshman year, I was ready to pack my bags and head to an HBCU. I have since had my ups with this university, but I wouldn't still be here if I didn't grow to ultimately love my Alma Mater. For those who don't know, Orangeman Ernie Davis was the first Black player to win the NCAA football Heisman Trophy decades ago. I feel like so many issues he faced in the movie about him "The Express" are still prevalent on this campus and other PWI's (Predominately White Institution).

I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, so I have encountered my share of race-related conversations and scenarios. When I was in grade school, my mother told me to say "And liberty and justice for SOME," during the Pledge of Allegiance, so you can imagine what type of upbringing I had. I'm used to ignorant comments, being followed in stores, white women clutching purses, and getting the ‘Please don’t rape me smile’ ect. I have already started my career, landing a different great job in my major, so I have experienced racism in the workplace as well. I have always been vocal about these issues. However, I'm sure many of you know some bias-related incidents stay with you forever.

As an RA, I supervise other students in my dormitory. I help encourage a healthy, fun community, and enforce university policies. It can be a very enjoyable position; I facilitate floor and building-wide programs, mentor residents, and I am a true leader in my dorm. You can often see me heading groups of students to campus events, or decorating our building. I had my share of incidents last fall as the only Black male RA in my dorm, but never would I have thought I would be discriminated against like the way I was right before winter break.

Occasionally, RA's do room checks for prohibited items and safety inspections. We are not allowed to check the floors we live on because some people may let things like underage alcohol possession slide if they're found in their own residents' rooms. Anyway, I ended up being paired to do room checks with a white RA that I'll call "Vicky." Becoming an RA is an extremely competitive process, and being one requires excellence in many areas on top of school work. So, I was getting an "Oh, you're an RA??" type of vibe from some white students when we knocked on their doors. I’ve noticed many whites have problems with Black authority. Although, a lot of them recognized me from the work I do in my building and around campus. Then came room 212.

I knocked three times. No answer. "RA's, coming in," I announced. The students were warned in advance that we were doing checks and had master-keys to let ourselves in if they weren't home. I got the key ready, but the door was unlocked. Vicky and I entered the room to do a quick search. We don't touch things or look under beds like police officers. Since there were no major violations, I opened the door, stood in the doorway, and waited for Vicky to finish the inspection form for the room. Things quickly turned from routine, to chaotic.

I heard the door across from the room I was in creak open. I turned around, and looked into the eyes of a white girl. Her pupils dilated, her mouth opened, and her vocal chords screeched. Later, I found her name to be Lauren. She screamed at the top of her lungs, and began running away from me down the hallway. I thought to myself, "Really!? Wow!" She ran a good 25 yards down the hall, still yelling for dear life. Who did she think I was? A burglar? A "Syracuse Townie?” Maybe all the vague, unhelpful, racist email propaganda that the SU police send out when there is crime on campus got her scared: “Black male, 6 ft, dark hoodie. If you have any information that may help catch the perpetrator, please contact Syracuse police.” People were opening their doors, investigating the movie-like scene she caused. 

Vicky came out of the room, and yelled "Hey! It's OK, we're RA's!" Lauren stopped, and turned around. Another white girl came out of the room that Lauren did. It turns out she was the resident of the empty room we had been checking. Later, I asked myself "Why would she scream if it wasn't even her room?" Keep in mind, to even get into the building during the hour this happened you need a valid SU ID with the specific sticker for your dorm unless someone who lives there signs you in. It was also a room for two people, so couldn't I have just been a friend of the girls who actually lived there? Lauren slowly walked back with an embarrassed smirk. I watched her blush as she avoided eye contact. I was going to ask "Why?" but I already knew the answer. I thought maybe she would at least have had the decency to apologize and tried to explain her actions. But no, she let out an awkward laugh and looked at her friend. I glared at her, speechless. 

I thought, "Should I go in on this racist trash?” You know, give her a piece of my mind? Maybe say something witty like 'I know society treats you like you’re a hot commodity that I’m supposed to thirst for, but don’t flatter yourself’ or 'You don't have anything worth stealing anyways.’ But I knew that wouldn't do anything--She would shrug it off and continue living her ignorant life of privilege. Vicky didn't acknowledge what had just happened, and I'm still not sure if she fully understood the situation. In a job where you live where you work, you expect your team to be there for you. I thought she might ask how I was doing or that she felt bad for what I had experienced. But, she just wanted to continue doing rounds.

I knew that this scenario could only happen to me, and not any other RA in my dorm. When that white woman saw my six-feet and jet-black skin, her prejudices erupted. Going off on her would've only made it worse, so I felt there was a better way to handle it. I hoped that she felt shameful for her actions, and to make sure that she did, I reported it to the university as a bias-related incident. Not only was I distraught about the situation, but my mentors encouraged me to document this case of discrimination because if it happens again, no one can say it was an isolated or unusual event. People should know what type of students go to my university, and especially the struggle of being an African resident advisor at a PWI. 

I also felt my supervisor should be aware of the issue. I'll call my white female Residence Director "Jay." Now, Jay is a generally helpful and empathetic person. I had discussed similar issues when some other RA's on my staff said some ignorant comments. She understands things like white privilege, but in my experience, many white people can't (or don't try to) grasp more advanced levels of racial issues. I began, "This white girl…" and I saw her eyes roll. I don't believe it was because she was trying to be malicious, or because she didn't care. I think it was more because I was once again in a position that reminded her of how racist this world is and she would be forced to deal. After detailing the incident, she admitted she had no solutions. This was disheartening because I believe that in America today, and especially on this campus, people work diligently to protect certain identities more than ethnicity. In light of the recent string of suicides members of the LGTBQ community have committed, many have paid special attention to safeguard this identity. 

Jay's advice to me was "Next time you do room checks, wear your RA t-shirt." I almost heard tires screeching inside of my head. I was appalled that she had the audacity to tell me that I should wear identifying clothing to look less threatening. Why should I have to wear the shirt when no one else has to? Syracuse University has several resources on campus like the Office of Multicultural Affairs and she has supervisors that can assist her with tough issues. She also knows I'm on the E-Board for a group called Underrepresented RA's United which pairs us with Residence Directors of color as mentors. If she really cared, wouldn't she have reached out to someone to help me with what I was dealing with? What if I had been discriminated against due to my religion or sexuality--would she have handled it differently? 

After speaking with other professionals in the department, it showed how badly Jay dropped the ball. She should’ve at least encouraged me to report the incident to the university, sat Lauren down, and explained to her how severe her discriminatory acts were. I guess the ‘No Place For Hate’ campaign is as superficial as ‘Celebrating Diversity.’ The most disturbing aspect was how Jay took accountability and blame for the event away from Lauren’s bigotry and put it all on me when I was just doing my job. Furthermore, I face the harsh reality that the incident could have happened with any of the white girls on my floor if I wasn't their RA. 

I love my school for the academics, athletics, spotlight and opportunities. It truly is a special university. Being here has helped in shaping me as a person and as a man. However, each semester I learn something very disturbing about being a Black man in this country. First, I learned that the further you go up the ladder, the more people and roadblocks there are to tear you down and hinder your success. Second, that white people can never fully comprehend the racist system they collectively fuel. And most recently, no matter what I do, no matter how I dress (usually in collared shirts), no matter what my education is, even if I am a leader in a safe college environment, some people are always going to view me in a stigmatic light. With this confirmation, I am only more dangerous to this white supremacist system. In the words of Nas, "They don't know if I'm going to rob them, or if I'm Russell Simmons."

Original source of essay


DStiny August said...

Can I just say: Wow! First off, great story and very well written. I have seen that "please don't rape me or steal my purse" smile before. It would be funny if it weren't so darn ridiculous. You handled the situation with Lauren quite well. Vicky and Jay will never understand the gravity of the situation because they are not black. I deal with situations like this daily. I am the only black person in my HR office and I get the "o wow you actually are smart" looks and slight comments frequently. It's 2012 and this country is lead by a half-black man, you would think stuff like this would have died with Jim Crow - but nope, racism still always will!
Great story, I look forward to reading more from you.


Tone said...

When you said that the white girls pupils were dilated, that can be classified as a direct sign of drug use. As an RA I would have reported her wild behavior as possible drug induced, and if she was found to be negative, I would of just done an "Oh my bad" and kept on moving. That's what she gets for acting a fool. By the way, it is a known fact that people who are racist have no social skills because they can not relate, and if one can not relate to social human beings then one simply has no social skills.

Anonymous said...

Well written piece...Stay strong and keep your head up because there's more of that coming at you. Keep up the faith and represent the best you can. Unfortunately, we meet the reality of racism in it's true form (not a white man in a white sheet on a horse, but a screaming white college female, that would've came out of her friends room smiling if you looked like one of the Jonas brothers)..

Keep your head up and press on...."Peace"

Anonymous said...

Did you think about any of that before you typed it down?

Jim said...

"Becoming an RA is an extremely competitive process" are you serious?... And "I was a real leader in my form" what?!? RA's are a joke to everyone. They irritate people. They are not leaders, more so the highly irritating person you remember from high school that always thought he or she was smarter and better. How exactly did you mentor? I would like to know that as I have never in my years of college seen this. I dont really know what an RA would mentor? He or she is there for the purpose of establishing rules between people who live together and to a certain extent, enforcing them. Essentially, RA's are there to check to make sure kids aren't doing drugs or drinking and to keep parents' minds at ease. "please don't rape me eyes" ...dont be dramatic. You're from colorado, not 1950's Alabama.

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