From Micro-aggressions to blatant racism, two students of color share their experience of what it’s like attending a predominantly white campus.
By Peyton Pitman, Editor-in-Chief
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INTRO (MIA SPLENDORE): Race relations has been a hot topic in the news recently. From police brutality to racial inequity, people are starting to have hard conversations about what it means to live in white America. On Huntington University’s campus, Black students are speaking up about how a racist culture impacts their education, mental health, and spiritual life at a primarily white institution. Peyton Pitman has the story.
PEYTON PITMAN: [Praying and worship music from New Life Temple Church plays] That is Apostle Katrina Williams praying and singing over the congregation at New Life Temple Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, a church started by a Black pastor and his son. Every Sunday during University breaks, you can find nursing major Tasha Peoples a few rows deep into the crowd with her hands up high in worship. Although she came to Huntington University because it was a Christian college, her chapel experience at HU differs largely from what she’s used to in her hometown.
TASHA PEOPLES: People are more free to lift their hands and clap — not that we don’t, like, do that here. But as far as flowing in the Spirit, that does not happen as much, if any, at chapel.
PITMAN: Flowing in the Spirit is a way of worshiping that New Life Temple Church practices. Instead of simply listening to a performance of worship music, people of the congregation will participate in the presence of God by moving their bodies, raising their arms, and dancing. But this kind of worship doesn’t occur as much on HU’s campus.
PEOPLES: I understand that you’re not going to please everybody, and that’s not the point. But it does help when the student-led worship team looks more reflective of the student body, and more than just a bunch of white people with a sprinkle of spice.
PITMAN: And Peoples’ observations are not unjustified. Nearly 85 percent of students on HU’s campus are white, according to Data USA 2020, where only 3% of students are Black or African American. This can result in a culture shock to students of color who decide to attend the campus. Jaden Sutton, a nursing major, has certainly felt that shift in perspective after leaving a diverse high school to enter into a predominantly white college.
SUTTON: Coming here, obviously, was completely different. And I just realized it took a big toll on me because I just realized I was only getting one experience and one experience only. It’s really hard going through school in the days, not being able to learn from someone who looks like me or be able to consistently represent who I look like just in campus in general.
PITMAN: Sutton also spends a lot of time off campus in Huntington County doing clinical rotations for his nursing degree. He says the experiences he has had in the small town can be scarring.
SUTTON: We got the opportunity to get service hours, and I’m just like, I don’t want to go out there because, you know, I’ve been called the N-word, I’ve been called “my mom is an N-word lover,” and I’ve been called so many names just from me walking and getting an insane amount of looks. Even when I’m doing clinical rotations here at Huntington, it’s still very scary because, you know, I don’t know what the older generation views me as.
PITMAN: Huntington University itself is not so blatantly racist, he says. But micro-aggressions, or subtle discriminations, are still an ever-present concern.
SUTTON: You try and start conversations, and it doesn’t really flow well. They’re not super interested. You raise your voice, just, like, having fun or whatever, and they think you’re very angry. “The angry Black man” is what I always, you know? I’ve gotten called angry probably 100 times, and I’m just naturally loud.
PITMAN: Former HU student and current director of intercultural enrichment, Chynna Presley, explains that little micro-aggressions can seem harmless, but they have a huge impact on one’s education and mental health. And on a homogeneous campus, most students aren’t sure who to turn to when they feel this way.
PRESLEY: You feel like you’re only getting one side of the picture. You don’t feel like you’re represented in the message. You don’t feel like you’re represented in the curriculum. You don’t feel like you’re represented, just, at all. And so, you kind of feel like you’re lost in the sea of white faces.
PITMAN: Presley added that this feeling of exclusion can carry over to the classrooms. Very few professors emphasize the need to understand other cultures.
PRESLEY: And, so then, sometimes, one of two things can happen. Either other voices are left out of the conversation, right? Like I said before. Or the one person of color in the classroom is expected to be the voice of all.
PITMAN: She says there are certain situations—like those in the classrooms—that white students don’t have to think about. This is where the idea of privilege comes in. Even recently, Presley’s had students open up to her about an incident in the HUB, one of HU’s popular dining facilities. Students were sitting upstairs eating when an officer came in to let them know it was closed. The facility, however, didn’t actually close until 11 p.m—an hour later.
PRESLEY: He had already locked up all of the doors, and he came upstairs. And, as it’s been described to me, he aggressively shouted at everyone, “It’s time to go; everybody get outta here!” And in that moment, the best picture of privilege, right? A few of the white students challenged him: “Well,I thought we were open until 11?” “Uh, no, there’s new hours.” Or “I’m not done eating yet” or “I have to get my work done”—all of these things. But immediately, the five students of color jumped up, got their stuff, and got out of there. Why? Because they know that when an officer comes in and starts yelling at you, you don’t challenge them because it could result in you losing your life senselessly.
PITMAN: Huntington University’s Chief of Police and Security Keirsh Cochran is working to make sure incidents like this don’t happen again. Cochran said in an email interview to me, quote, “That very real fear those students of color experienced is what we are working to heal here at HU. I take the safety of all students personally. Additionally, I don’t just want students to BE safe, I want them to FEEL safe. In response to the specific incident, I spoke to the officer the very next day in my office. I also met with SGA President Ashley Spirek about the incident. We worked with the Student Life office to clarify the closing time of the HUB so something like this won’t happen again. I want to remind students that my door is always open if something like this ever occurs again.”
PITMAN: And although HU is making an effort to reduce these situations, Tasha Peoples understands the frustration and hurt that comes with having to worry about them in the first place.
PEOPLES: I remember it was my freshman year, and I was in Dr. Ruthi’s class — Intro to Social— and they were talking about minorities, and you could just feel [laughs], you could just feel, like, “Oh, snap. It’s coming.”
PITMAN: She knew that everyone in the classroom would look to her for the answers on minorities. And at the time, it was uncomfortable for her to be in the spotlight. But now, she says, she is used to, quote, “code-switching.”
PEOPLES: I feel like I’m one of the Black people on campus who knows how to code-switch, and I’ve essentially assimilated into white America.
PITMAN: But Peoples’ goal for HU is to move away from the idea that people of color have to take up white culture in order to fit in. She hopes for a more diverse staff and faculty in the future, even if she’s not here to see it. And Jaden Sutton agrees. But he also wants to see white students get more involved in the talk about race. He says that having hard conversations and being vulnerable with people of different cultures is how change gets started.
SUTTON: We don’t want to tell our story because we’re proud of that [Laughs]. We want to tell our story because we want change to be able to happen. So, I think one of those things is to be able to have those tough conversations and continue to just educate yourself on why, why, the world is the way it is today, unfortunately, when it comes to race, and why everything is about race nowadays because what happened and what continues to happen on a daily basis.
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PITMAN: Reporting for The Huntingtonian, I’m Peyton Pitman.
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