Examining Comfortable Spaces

In this "post-racial" world, many people think nothing of race, assuming that the systems of oppression designed to put down people of color are far from here. In actuality, the 60s and 70s, when the movement was going strong, was not that long ago. My parents were actually born around that time, so I know that I am still affected. I've heard many complaints on campus that race is talked about far too much, but in actuality, race isn't going to go away; it has many repercussions, and is discussed far too little.

Those with privilege enjoy having it while simultaneously denying that it exists, while the rest of us move around in stores and the like, hoping that maybe we won't get followed around because we "look too Muslim" or "like a thug." Well, a few days ago, a black person by the name of Deonte Holder was tased by the police for no other choice than that he looked "suspicious". After which, the cop gloated to Holder’s friend about how the guy was now going to have to go to the hospital. This sounds just like the constant stories of police brutality that have been making new headlines, except for the fact that it happened in the grocery store that I have been to so many times in my Duke career, as it's 5 minutes off campus.

I came to Duke because despite this being a PWI (a primarily white institution), I saw potential for this place. I saw the education it could give me if I took advantage, I saw the opportunities it held, I saw the amazing financial aid it provided me, and I saw the black community as a haven, nothing I have ever experienced before. Of course I had seen some of these elements at other universities, but I could feel that Duke was the right place to harness my thoughts and put direction to them.

Moving out of the tiny apartment in the ghetto to Duke's illustrious campus, I knew it was a gift, and that I was so blessed to be here. But people both inside and out of campus have used this opportunity against me. Surprisingly, I've had my opinions about the university and what goes on invalidated because "I chose to be here, so I should just accept that things go this way," or because "it's simply a first-world problem." I can understand that my problems relative to being constantly hungry and not knowing where I'm going to sleep tonight are probably miniscule. But when you put it in the context of a history of white supremacy in which black people and black women like me have been continuously kicked out and ostracized in society, along with other people of color who fail to assimilate to whiteness, it has a significant impact on my life and the way I interact with others.

When I surround myself in blackness, I embrace it. I have struggled with it for years, being black, understanding the implications, understanding that it means that I'll have to sit up straighter, enunciate my words, try to never show my culture, not get upset when I see another black body strewn out in the street on television. But being black, while I know it is one of the biggest burdens I have to bear, is one of the things I hold so dear to me. I have been provided with the gift of family, the ability to have a collective history of overcoming, and so much more.

White students at school often complain that black students tend to stick together, and whenever we have something that bears the adjective of "Black" it causes controversy. Well, nobody ever talks about the many groups that tend to exclude people of color, save for the token. Nobody discusses the groups of white people who stick together and are rather exclusive. Nobody talks about the racism surrounding the girls fetishizing the basketball team. What they see is the black kids "self-segregating". They see the foreign students speaking their dialects and they assume that they're speaking negatively of other people. They believe that Hispanic Heritage month is an excuse to talk about that one time they visited Buenos Aires and how they now understand the "authenticity of the culture."

What I see is a space created to protect ourselves from the systematic oppression that continues to plague us. I see a space where I don't have to code switch, where I can let out all the "ain'ts" and "y'alls" and ebonics and not be judged for it. I see a space where I can go and talk about my culture without someone expecting me to teach them to whip or nae-nae or whatever dance craze comes along. I see a space where people don't say I'm "too pro-black," or whatever it is. I don't have to worry about why I have the urge to scream that my life really does matter, in these spaces, because I know that my peers feel the same way.

We need these spaces because our history is not the norm. We live in a world where a group of mainly white men decide what goes into history books. We live in a world where most people believe that all Hispanic people are Mexican and all Asian people make Chinese food or do nails.

We have these spaces labeled as such because we need places where our voices can be heard without restriction, where our culture can be appreciated without being appropriated. Nobody is stopping you from joining in, but you need to understand that we do this not to exclude, but to find a place that fits us without draining us. And if that's too much to ask, then just how far from racism are we, by your standard?

Jazmynne Williams is a sophomore currently majoring in African and African American Studies. She is an avid reader, and loves having intellectual debates. When she isn’t studying, you can find her at the library or hanging out with friends. Catch her at her personal website at www.educatedblackgirl.com.