The Daily Northwestern

The Spectrum: Students of color shouldn’t be forced to feel obligated to always speak about their identities

Troy Closson, Opinion Editor

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This essay is part of The Spectrum, a 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.

During Peer Adviser training this fall, as we practiced facilitating each True Northwestern Dialogue, I always felt most comfortable preparing to lead the diversity and inclusion TND. I’ve talked about both topics before and I’d reflected on experiences directly related to my identities in the past — I wasn’t worried about doing it in the context of my PA group and facilitating a dialogue for others about the same topics.

In the breakout session following the TND, my co-PA and I prompted our group to think about aspects of diversity and inclusion. At one point, I asked “what does your identity mean to you?”

My group members shared their answers and eventually moved on to address different questions. But it was hard for me to move past that one. Afterward — and even still — that question stuck with me. What does my identity really mean to me?

My high school was much more racially diverse than this campus, so wherever I went, it wasn’t hard to feel like I belonged. When race-related issues would arise in the news, my parents made sure my younger brother and I were fully aware of the implications of being black men in this country. And personally, I felt like I fully understood how my identity informed my perspective in different situations. Before college, being black meant a lot to me.

Coming to NU, that hasn’t changed. But the context has.

I have always valued my identity. And here, it continues to mean everything to me — but it’s always on my mind regardless of whether I want it to be. That doesn’t mean occasionally I’m not proud to be black or feel disappointed about my identity. It means I don’t always want to feel forced to think about it and how it impacts me. But on this campus, I often am.

We’re over halfway done with publication at The Daily this fall. When I applied to be an Opinion Editor, I hoped to bring more people of color onto this staff. But still, I’m one of the only black people here this quarter. Nearly every time I walk into the newsroom, I don’t see anyone else who looks like me. Even the Opinion desk continues to lack many columnists of color.

And it’s hard not to blame myself for the lack of improvement. It’s hard not to take responsibility for the fact that our staff isn’t more racially diverse. Oftentimes, I feel like if anyone should be able to make change, it’s me.

Since I’ve been on campus, being in spaces where I’m the only black man in the room has become all-too common. And it’s tough — feeling like you belong isn’t always easy when you don’t see anyone who looks like you. But this quarter, I’ve realized there’s another layer to that. As one of the few black people in many spaces, it’s hard not to feel the pressure to constantly bring issues affecting members of the black community to others’ attention.

I’m not disappointed to be talking about these things or uncomfortable doing so, but being the only one available to address certain experiences can be hard and comes with a lot of pressure.

Every week, when deciding what to write columns about, I immediately start with ideas that relate to my identity. Lately, I’ve almost felt that if I’m not writing about experiences related to being black, I’m doing myself, other black students and the NU community a disservice. No one is going to write about these things if I don’t because no one else even shares the same identity.

When I first started writing columns, I was honestly excited to talk about issues that affected me because of my racial identity. But feeling obligated to talk about them all the time is hard — even if I want to write about something unrelated, I feel like I need to write about being black.

And here I am, writing this.

But in the future, I know I have to stop putting pressure on myself to speak about my identity at all times. That doesn’t mean I never want to write columns about diversity or inclusion. But when I don’t, I need to realize that it’s OK not to.

My identity means everything to me, but it shouldn’t always have to. To any other students who struggle with this: this isn’t a call to stop talking about your identities, but understand that forcing yourself to constantly be the one to make others woke only disservices yourself.

Troy Closson is a Medill sophomore. He can be contacted at troyclosson@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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