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 [email protected]
I remember the first time I felt like I didn’t belong at Northwestern. It was my freshman year during Wildcat Welcome.
I remember going to the Diversity Essential NU, standing up for descriptions that I believed were salient to my identity, seeing fellow classmates of 2017 standing up with me and sitting down, watching me.
That wasn’t the hard part.
The hard part was going to the break out session afterward. I was convinced that despite our differences, our student body — freshmen, at least — could come together and support one another. However, this wasn’t the case. I remember being in a circle with my PA group and sharing the word we wrote down on the “Respect My ___” cards. I am a black American female who is a first generation college student and who comes from a predominately black neighborhood. My card: Respect My Background.
As we shared in the circle, a statement stopped us from our moment of solidarity.
One of the members of my group began with, “You know what makes me upset? Affirmative Action. Because of it, deserving white men are unable to attend the best universities they would have normally been admitted to. Undeserving minorities,” — he looked at me and the two other black people in my group — “are taking up space at universities like this one.”
I looked at him in shock. It felt like his words punched me in the face. He didn’t know my background, he didn’t know I graduated No. 4 in my high school, that I got straight A’s from the second half of my sophomore to my senior year or that I had to make it to college on my own.
He didn’t know me, but he assumed that he knew my worth. This was the first instance of racism I experienced here at NU.
Sadly, it wasn’t the last.
This summer, I decided to stay in Evanston and work on campus. I usually worked 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Black House as a part of Multicultural Student Affairs and spent the evenings working at Phonathon. I love working at Phonathon and find it very refreshing to hear the stories of success and life experiences of our distinguished alumni. However, one alumnus was not so admirable. I spoke to him the day the Sandra Bland arrest video was released with audio. I watched it before leaving for work and decided that I could not process it at that moment.
As a black student, I had to schedule my time to grieve. I’ve realized, especially from being at a school like NU, that the world doesn’t stop when black people are killed, even when your heart does.
I went to work at Phonathon. It was a normal shift. I was talking to great alumni and raising money. That was until he picked up the phone. He was an older man, having graduated sometime in the early 1960s. The conversation started with the basics: name, address, occupation, etc. Our conversation started on the topic of football. He wasn’t happy with the coaching and wasn’t hopeful for the season — clearly, he was wrong considering our 10-3 finish. As the call progressed, I decided to ask him to give to a student group on campus. It was all downhill from there. He paused and asked me if I was black. I said I was.
Him: “I don’t give money to black people.”
Me: “Excuse me — ”
You can imagine how I must have felt — shocked, hurt, angry, confused. Then sorrowful as a rush of emotion overcame me. I ran to the bathroom and proceeded to sob helplessly. I cried for Sandra. I cried for racism. I cried for myself. I cried for my blackness.
Well, guy in my PA group from freshman year and Phonathon alumnus guy: I’m still here, “taking up space.” I fill that space with excellence, dignity and scholarship. I fill that space with superb blackness, consciousness and compassion for others. I deserve to be here just as much as anyone else. I don’t have to prove my worth to you. Your measurements are unworthy of my acknowledgement.
To every person of color on this campus that thinks they don’t “belong” here: You do. Furthermore, to those who devalue you and refuse to support you because of the color of your skin: It’s their loss. You know your self-worth. You know how valuable you are to this world and this campus. People that have hate for you because of what you look like must truly hate themselves. Be who you are, unapologetically. It only matters what you think of yourself. If anyone tells you differently, their opinion doesn’t matter anyway. You are more than enough.
Listen to the writer discuss this piece here:
Podcast edited by Corey Mueller.
Cheron Z. Mims is a Weinberg Junior. She can be reached at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.