Let’s talk about being a woman of color at a predominantly white institution (PWI). I am an Afro-Latinx woman. Not only am I a person of color but I am also a woman which means I must face inequalities in my race, ethnicity, and my gender.
I grew up in a pretty diverse area, but the majority of the population was still white. Coming to JMU was still a culture shock for me. Usually, I’m around people of all different races but coming here I find myself being the only person of color in the entire room. As a minority, I find comfort in being around other minorities because I know that they can relate to me in some way. So, when I look around the room and find that I am the only person of color it almost feels like I am put on display.
It can feel difficult to try and fit in and find your people around campus because people look at you like you’re different and they sometimes even stare. Can you imagine what that is like? Imagine sitting in a classroom and the topic of slavery is being discussed and the whole classroom turns towards you. I can tell you from experience that it is not a comforting feeling. I personally want to work in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion field of work so I enjoy promoting inclusion and diversity because that is something I am passionate about and more importantly something I am comfortable doing. However, no minority should EVER feel obligated to share their experiences just to help non-people of color try to understand something that honestly, they’ll never understand.
Let me paint you a picture. I had an experience where I was at a party and a girl came up to me and complimented my hair. Of course, I appreciated her compliment but then she asked if she could touch my hair. As an Afro-Latinx woman, this is a very uncomfortable question. By saying no, no matter how polite you may be, it can be taken as an angry response. I felt obligated at that moment to say yes so after I said yes, another girl came up to me. Next thing I know I have three girls surrounding me touching my hair. As a non-person of color, this might be hard for you to understand but when it comes to our hair it’s not just hair. There are centuries of oppression and humiliation that go along with it. At this party, the majority of the people in the room were all white, so of course, I was the only person of color in the room. Having all of these girls surrounding me so fascinated by my hair made me feel like I was an animal in a petting zoo. I once again felt like I was put on display and there for everyone to stare at.
I understand that when non-people of color ask questions like these it can come from genuine interest, however, what they don’t understand is that their fascination with black hair has deeply historical racist undertones. Black women have been exploited and treated like objects for centuries. In the early 1800s, there was a woman named Sarah Baartman. Baartman was a South African Khoikhoi woman, whose body was publicly viewed and exploited inhumanely throughout her young life. She was paraded around in European “freak shows” due to her unique and curvy body. With that being said you can understand why even harmless fascination with the way I look can make me feel uncomfortable.
I spent two years at JMU feeling lost because I never took the initiative to surround myself with other people of color. If you can relate to this and do not know how to get involved, JMU’s Center for Multicultural Student Services is an amazing resource and one I have found very helpful!
I would like to end this post by acknowledging all the women of color who have ever felt like they were put on display. Your natural features are beautiful and not something you should ever be ashamed of. Embrace your differences and be proud of them because no one can look like you.