As Columbia once again becomes a stage for microaggressions against the black community to turn into macroaggressions, I’ve been both impressed and dismayed by the reactions scattered across this campus. I was surprised at the speed with which both student groups and individuals took to condemning the actions of Barnard Public Safety two weeks ago, as well as the speed of a letter of response from the University (a low bar, I know, but they met it).
What I’ve been dismayed by, though, is how surprised everyone seems to be that racist people and incidents keep popping up at Columbia. As a black student, I’ve personally made it my mission to be as involved as possible with the recruitment and admissions process here—I volunteer with Days on Campus, serve as a tour guide, and work at the Visitors Center. But I know just how hard it can be for a student representative to accurately portray the day-to-day of living on this campus as a black student to one of the admitted prospects amid all the excitement of figuring out first-year dorms or taking a night bus tour during Days on Campus.
There’s no realistic way to summarize every single microaggression I have faced at Columbia—every tiny thing—in a 20-second answer as I walk a tour group from Butler to John Jay. It’s even harder to try, at the same time, to precisely convey those instances in appropriate relativity to the rest of my experiences at a school that I am still proud to be a part of—so much so that I choose to give campus tours every week without pay. So I can understand when first-years arrive on this campus and are startled by the first few incidents of blatant bigotry.
But Columbia upperclassmen, having spent a few years here, don’t have that same excuse. So it confuses me when my peers and seniors share articles on social media about recent incidents on our campus with captions like “unbelievable!!!” or “I didn’t think things could be like this on such a multicultural and multiethnic campus!” I can’t emphasize enough how tired black students are of reminding y’all that these “incidents” are not isolated incidents. Watching people react every single time with the same wide-eyed indignance and astonishment, like a newborn with no object permanence, becomes revolting.
It’s because of how exhausting this cycle is, how tiring it is to go through the effort of educating nonblack peers every time a new act of racism happens, that I see first-years cry with frustration, sophomores burn out way before their time, juniors disillusioned with selling Columbia to future applicants, and seniors busying themselves with the job search so they can get the hell out. It’s part of the reason why the administration gets away with never really enacting changes in policy: We get tired, so fucking tired, that it’s hard to keep a collective, community-wide sense of urgency and motivation that lasts longer than two years. People graduate, underclassmen become upperclassmen, new first-years come in, and the cycle of surprise repeats.
So, to the black first-years here and future Columbia first-years, I want to remind you that it is never your responsibility to educate people who refuse to educate themselves first, no matter how surprising their ignorance is. I see you working endlessly to support your black peers and keep this campus a safe place for each other. But I would hate to see all the effort you do convince you that this campus is not the place to be for you.
Being black at a PWI does not have to be about being a point of reference about “the black experience” for nonblack people. It’s about being another friendly black face to other black people here. I keep giving tours, because it means there’s one more black person that black high schoolers see when they visit campus. (Speaking of which, we need more black tour guides, but that’s an op-ed for another day.)
You need to keep doing what you do for yourself and for the people you call your friends. When you’re tired, take care of yourself. Don’t give up. Take care of yourself, and remind yourself why you decided to attend this expensive-ass PWI.
(And to all the nonblack people reading this who think they’re not a part of the problem: God, get a grip.)
The author is not angry, just black. You can reach out to her about this or any of her columns by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is the last installment of her column Your Token [Blank] Woman.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.