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The Spectrum: Black students shouldn’t have to represent their entire race

Jesse Sparks, Columnist

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This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email spectrum@dailynorthwestern.com.

I don’t remember the first time I felt “the look.”

I don’t remember the chill that would run down my spine the second I felt that expectant gaze from my peers and teachers alike. The look asked when I was going to teach them something trivial, like how to dance. It demanded that I say something during our class lessons on slavery. It asked me to describe the nuances of racism and then provide an in-depth narrative about the traumas associated with growing up black in white spaces.

I could lie and say that I remembered distinctly the first time I felt my classmates’ hesitant, beady eyes lock onto the brown of my skin and the tight black curls of my hair, the blackness in general.

I could, but I won’t because the truth is simple: I don’t remember the first time because it’s been a part of my experience since I can remember.

Like a lot of black students on campus, I’ve consistently been placed in white spaces, from the different schools I attended to my extracurricular activities. My blackness was constantly and starkly contrasting with my literal, symbolic and cultural environment. In most of these settings, I was the darkest person in the room, and along with that came the burden of “blacksplaining.” For those who don’t know, blacksplaining is the act of explaining African American history and culture, issues relevant to black people and the nuances of blackness to people who are not black.

While this may sound perfectly acceptable to some people, this is no small feat. It’s more than just a few comments here and a few participation points there. For many, it’s an obligation to endure and re-experience the traumas associated with growing up in predominantly white spaces. From the invalidation of one’s blackness to the exclusion from mainstream beauty standards to genuinely horrifying experiences facing the vitriol of racism firsthand, black students endure so much just to get to this point in their lives at all, not even considering the intersections of class, gender, sexuality or other identities.

In light of this, it simply can’t be the responsibility of students of color to be student, teacher and therapist simultaneously. With so many discussions on ethnic identity and intersectionality, there is an implicit expectation that students who identify with these concepts should be the ones who need to step up in class discussions and bare their wounds to the class, just to prove that the concepts and discussions happening are valid.

But that’s not our job and our professors and peers shouldn’t expect it to be.

Sitting in any class that encompasses some aspect of race, class, gender or some form of intersectionality tends to end up feeling like a blind gamble. With each class, I have to brace myself for the dreaded likelihood that a professor will either be too ill-equipped to engage in a discussion on marginalized identities without encouraging genuinely toxic undertones of racism or that the discussion won’t happen at all and my experiences will be misrepresented. In either situation, the professor’s silence is complicit in reminding us that this isn’t a space that was made for us.

But black students shouldn’t have to be strategic in how they conserve emotional and psychological energy just to have these discussions. They shouldn’t have to choose between engaging in conversations that will leave them drained or to not have the conversations at all.

To be clear, this is not to say that black students are incapable of performing or that we need to be saved or pitied. I’m not saying that we can’t engage in these discussions either, because dialogue is important and necessary when done in a healthy way. That’s not the case at all. The case is that these discussions aren’t happening in a beneficial way.

It matters because too often the opportunity to be a normal student who sits and learns without feeling the weight of having to know everything about blackness becomes a rare luxury. And that’s a huge problem, especially when the students who are required to essentially co-teach their peers are the same students who still have the same homework assignments, midterms and finals as their peers. This idea of blacksplaining only adds more pressure to the daily stresses of attending a university like Northwestern.

But one of the most alarming and heartbreaking things about this is that it’s not an isolated incident. My experiences aren’t unique. I’m not a special case. This “responsibility” is a trend rooted in a historical tradition of making blackness palatable and easily digestible, something to be consumed. This consumption seeks to make a spectacle of blackness without grappling with the history associated with being black. Once we can address what happened in our past and what’s happening in our present, only then can we begin to take some of the pressure off.

Jesse Sparks is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at jessesparks2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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