Christopher Abreu | Racism taints the University
After a run-in with racism, I would not encourage minority students to attend Penn
April 19, 2011, 5:41 am·
I’m no stranger to racism. Being a minority, it comes with the territory. However, because of a recent experience, I cannot in good faith recommend that minorities come to Penn.
I was heading home at 2 a.m., which meant that students were stumbling out of bars and making their way back home as well.
Outside Harrison College House, I noticed a group of four white students — two females and two males — who were all drunk. I ignored their yelling, until I realized that the two guys were walking closer and closer to me.
Then suddenly, one of the girls spoke. “Yo son, what up dawg? Wut’s good, a’ight?”
Of course, I was taken aback. She was addressing me. “Nothing,” I responded.
“Word, really? Yo, what are you doin’ here? You belong here or what?”
“I’m a student here.”
“Nah, word. Yo, what you doin’ here?” the guy said, joining in her game.
I again replied that I am a student here. They ask me my age, again speaking mock slang to me. They continued to press whether or not I “belong” here. When they saw I was going the other way, they broke off, wishing me good luck and whatever garbled slang they had picked up watching television.
Unfortunately, it didn’t end there.
There were more drunk students around, but I did my best to ignore them. After my previous encounter, I was angry and didn’t want to be bothered.
A young white student blocked my way. “Yo.”
Here we go again.
“Yeah? What can I do for you?” I responded.
“I’m hungry, you see. Where can I get some fried chicken?”
Fried chicken? Did I really just get asked for a location to get fried chicken?
“Excuse me?” I didn’t know how to react. When racism is in your face like this, you don’t know how to respond. Many of us declare, “Oh, if this ever happened to me I’d smack them upside their head!”
But in reality, so many questions come to mind. “Is this person serious? Am I overreacting? Maybe this isn’t racist? Should I hit this person?”
“I’m looking for fried chicken,” he continued. “You look like someone who knows where you can get fried chicken.”
I needed to remove myself from this situation. I said, “Look, try Wawa if you’re hungry. I’m going now.”
He walked back to his friend and yelled, “I’m gonna go get some fried chicken! This nigger just told me where it’s at!”
Racism at Penn is usually subtle. It is a way of life, something that minorities come to accept. In class, it’s usually sly comments about us. In the dining halls, it’s people talking really loud, complaining about us to their friends. I overhear it.
But this was the first time it was so blatant.
I don’t know which experience was worse that night. Being called a “nigger” or being questioned about belonging here.
In retrospect, being called a “nigger” was the short-term sting. It made me more self-conscious about what white people think of me here — just some black guy who got here because of some affirmative action.
The idea of “belonging here” is the long-term wound. Ever since I came here, I have been self-conscious. You have to understand that Penn is extremely different from most schools, in that the vast majority comes from a much wealthier background. I grew up in the projects, surrounded by crime and drugs. I came from there to here without much help, and in May I will graduate cum laude.
But that isn’t good enough. I’ve always felt like an outsider here. There was a report six months ago that stated how few black men make it to and graduate from college.
Reading it made me start taking into account how many other black men were here. I became that person you see on busy transit stations or at rallies. You know the ones with those clickers in their hands counting people?
Click. One black guy, click, click, click. Two, three, four.
It almost became a game on my way to class, playing “How many black men attend Penn?”
Very few, apparently.
So I had issues over whether or not I “belong here.” After that experience, I definitely felt like I didn’t.
I’m lucky that I only have a month left here. The social atmosphere and unwelcoming environment for minorities at Penn is more draining than any class you could ever take.
Yesterday, I saw a Penn Preview Days tour on my way to class. I again played the counting game.
Two black men. I saw two of them. No Latinos.
I wanted to stop them and warn them. “Please don’t come here. I don’t want you to go through what I’ve gone through.”
I think I’m writing this to make myself feel better. I’m not sure whether it is working though.
Maybe I’m writing this because somehow, someday the people that did this to me read this and realize what they’ve done. Maybe this will be their wake-up call to not be bigoted.
But the pragmatist in me doesn’t believe that. To me, that night is the defining moment for me at Penn. Something I will carry with me until the day I die. For them, however, it was just Saturday. To be long forgotten, if not so already.
Christopher Abreu is a student in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies. His email address is email@example.com.
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