- Illustration by Megan Mulholland
BY ERIKA ROSS
Published September 28, 2012
There I stood. Dumbfounded, heart racing, face red. She stared at me like I was a joke. I couldn’t believe the comments coming out of her drunken mouth. She was just so … ignorant.
How do you feel about race relations in Ann Arbor?
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Have you ever felt out of place, disconnected from your surroundings? Have you ever had people stare at you like you’re obviously different? They look at you like they can see through you. They snicker, stereotype and think they know you better than you know yourself. If you share the same feelings, then you’re probably black and living in Ann Arbor.
Prior to coming to the University, I had always been comfortable in my own skin. Growing up as an Army brat, I had never thought of my race as a limitation until I started college.
My introduction to the University came in the form of Summer Bridge, an academic program for incoming freshmen that serves as a “bridge” into college life. Though I consider my experience at Bridge to be one of the best in my life, there’s much that comes with the territory. Since the majority of the students in the program are in-state, inner-city black students, some people see it as nothing but affirmative action — a way for the University of Michigan to pay its debts to the black community.
I remember going with some friends to Noodles & Company on South State Street that summer. While explaining to them how to order, I noticed the cashier looking at us out of the corner of her eye. As I stepped up to the register, she turned to me and said, “You guys must be a part of the Summer Bridge Program.” I nodded, but asked how she knew.
“Well, my old suitemate was in the Summer Bridge Program, and she was black,” she said.
I could have been a returning student, or a kid here for orientation. Though I don’t think she meant it maliciously, I wondered if I was the only one who heard it. But my friends, a lot of whom had encountered this form of subtle racism before, were unfazed by her remarks.
I encountered similar situations throughout my first year at the University. In classes, fellow students would make insensitive remarks about the black community, forgetting I was there. When I went to the University Hospital for a check-up, the nurse asked me what college I went to, despite my maize-and-blue outfit.
For the most part, I ignored these comments. But on one particular night, I lost control.
I had gone to visit one of my friends in South Quad Residence Hall. The two of us were laughing and talking about guys we knew. My friend repeatedly used the word “nigga” to describe the guys.
One of her roommates came in, a rich white girl from the West Coast, asking why was it OK for us to call each other the N-word when we got so upset if a white person used it.
I explained to her that we used the term as a way to describe an ignorant person, but she couldn’t fathom it.
She turned to me. “Well, if you don’t want me to call you ‘nigga,’ you shouldn’t call yourself it.”
I tried to ignore the girl. She told me that I was from Detroit (I wasn’t) and the only reason I had been accepted to the University was because of affirmative action. She explained to me calmly that she felt that black students used their “blackness” to get by in life and through college. After this, she claimed that she wasn’t racist.
I felt particularly combative that night. I felt the need to defend myself. She assumed I had the same background as other students she had met on the basis of my skin color.
The confrontation continued.
“Well, I’m sure you have financial aid,” she said. “It’s so unfair that you get financial aid just because you’re black.”
The room was quiet. My friend left the room.
The girl started to put her hands on me, trying to force me to listen to her. I don’t consider myself a fighter, but something in me snapped.
“Don’t touch me! You can get as loud as you want in my face, but don’t touch me,” I shouted.
My entire body grew warmer and warmer.
“I swear, if you touch me again, I will drop you. Right here, right now.”
“Well, do it, since you think you’re black and bad,” she screamed.
I tried to walk away. But the girl decided she wasn’t done with me and pushed me down the stairs twice. People came out into the hall to see what the commotion was about.
“Get her away from me,” I screamed.
She pulled me off the stairs again. But this time, I reacted quickly. Before I knew it, my hands were around her throat. She gasped for air.
At that moment, I blacked out. I remember only being dragged outside by my friends, crying and screaming with rage. It had to have been the grace of God that saved her life and mine. She had gotten the best of me, but I had let her.
I find it funny that people categorize the South as a backwards-desolate area. I’m from the South, and I’ve never experienced as much racism as I have in Ann Arbor. Though I want to make it clear that the University of Michigan as an institution isn’t racist — I’ve never been made to feel out of place by faculty members or by the University itself — the people I encounter from day to day can make me feel completely disconnected from the rest of my surroundings.
The girl I fought with represents something more than an isolated incident. She represents the lurking racism that the black community in Ann Arbor experiences on a daily basis. The worrying, the need to prove ourselves wherever we go, the walls of self-defense we put up — all these are things I’ve developed after spending a few years here.
To my friends, I am the Oreo: the black-white girl who never hung out with other African-American students until she came to college. But to the rest of the University, I’m just another black person walking the streets.
Erika Ross is an LSA junior.