Look, I can sugarcoat my experience at my predominantly white university all I want. Yes, I was both a student and an employee (so they were paying me whilst studying). And yes, I am definitely afraid of getting into legal drama if I were to be fully honest of my experience. Gaslight all you want, but the last time I spoke up, the experience was explosive and they literally dragged me into this weird, toxic cycle of questioning whether I was losing my sanity or they were actually being racist, which is a form of racial aggression. So yes, them profusely denying my opinions to the point of making me feel threatened is in itself a form of abusive behaviour, especially since they are authorities in power and I was a student coming forth with mere complaints gathered from students.
Long story short, my experience with my university has been one long exposé that occurred pre the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has now (thankfully) empowered students of colour to fully call out their institutions; BS-free; if it feels gross, it is gross type of thing. With the information I know now, I would come forward, look into the eyes of the Whites in power and say "if you so much as make me uncomfortable, that is your responsibility to unpack, detangle, and dispose of." In fact, a Western higher-education institution is by default a form of institutionalised racism, just through the ways in which these institutions gain funding, gatekeep education, and (only) teach eurocentric ideals, so...how is this even a debate?
But you don't need me telling you any of this. That was just the disclaimer for any of the energy-sucking cockroaches who might want to invalidate anything I have to say. No, if you're here, chances are you need to be given positive energy instead of given another lecture. So before ado is in anyway furthered, let's get into some helpful guidance.
I write for this magazine called NUKS at the university and every year, we publish the novella equivalent of our usual work for the introduction week. It's a nice ice breaker for the new incoming students to get to know our studies, our study association and the culture at our university/town. These pieces are usually fluffy, filled with favourites, city tours, and advice for scoring high grades in difficult first year courses. Not to say those aren't fun, but I felt a little dishonest trying to think of a Fun n' Fresh piece for the newbies. I felt a little lied to when I first came to the Netherlands, with the assuring promises of open-mindedness and tolerance (which I've come to find is a false self-narrative) and I didn't want to perpetuate the silencing "sure, I guess the Netherlands can be progressive." Thus, I bring you tips on how to create a safe space as a student of colour in a predominantly white institution instead!
1. The culture shock is real
Let's get this out of the way: your cultural identity will be challenged, questioned, awarded, tokenised, and who knows what else when you’re a part of a marginalised group in a space with non-marginalised people running the show. You will run into people who have views that you’ve never even heard of. This can be terrifying, but it can also be exciting. While university is a great time for you to experience new things, it can also be a great time to deconstruct your values, morals and what being you means to you. Although talking about identity in unknown environments can get harmful very quickly if people do not respect your basic existence and human rights, talking to your fellow intellectuals who are open and respectful can be a great and fun way to practice debating opinions, worldviews, and perspectives.
Just remember, no one else gets to define what your race, culture, or identity means to you. If someone tries to invalidate you or speak over your experiences, draw a boundary and get the hell out of there.
2. Find your space
All the good, meaty debate stuff is only good when you're completely safe. Establish this space for yourself. Find likeminded people, find the people you can consider your home away from your home. Go to on-campus events, go to open lectures and seminars, go to seasonal celebrations, watch local film screenings, attend the international student association get-togethers, strike conversations with random people in class or at the gym, and see what the campus has to offer. It can be a little awkward at first, but there is no better time to practice social skills than at a place dedicated to learning.
3. Speak up!
One of the best ways I’ve found my own circle is by speaking up in class or during audience commentaries. Being outspoken can be terrifying, especially in the face of professors and peers who may make you feel judged, but this is how you make yourself and your views known to your fellow peers without actually coming up to them. Don't let the ignorant and small-minded silence you, especially not in a space you've literally payed to be educated in. Bloom, regardless of the hatred, confusion or negativity.
4. Correct others, if need be
Opening yourself up to more casual and academic political conversations means you will have to discern those trying to get a rise out of you, playing "the devil's advocate" out of sheer disrespect, are plan racist and those who want to educate themselves but may be too privileged to understand the systemic oppression others experience. Once you can figure out who's who, you'll be able to decide if you want to give your energy to these people by explaining or if you want to leave the conversation/the people. Both are completely okay.
I hope it doesn’t happen to others, but I myself have run into peers and professors that say things that are ignorant or disrespectful in the classroom setting. This goes for every intersectionality of identity. If someone uses a word that is outdated, calls you by the wrong pronouns, or makes you feel silenced, correct the people around you. There’s nothing wrong with making a mistake and you can always help your peers understand certain topics they might not have as much experience with. If kindness doesn't work, I suggest walking away. You do not have to carry out the emotional labour of educating those around you.
5. Don't stick to the status quo
Look, I went to a Catholic, mostly white university, where I studied the Western canon extensively. Suffice to say, it was not a diverse study. But that doesn't mean it can't be. Challenge the system if you believe something is problematic. Initiate conversations about course materials with your professors, seek course coordinators if you believe there is a structural issue, bring suggestions to the student councils and communities so that they can bring real change to your study if need be. The best things in life always evolve and you shouldn’t be afraid to create change in your own community.