When going to a lecture that you know no one in, you hope that friendly people sit next to you. There is that intimidation of not knowing anyone and awkwardly looking through your phone or doing things on your laptop to keep yourself preoccupied while others around you chatter away. Half of the people there seem to know exactly what is going on and the other half seem to be just as lost as you. You hope that someone nice, who also doesn’t know anyone, sits next to you and that you can both bond over the fact that the professor is a little quirky or that the in-class quizzes are super confusing. There is comfort in knowing that there is someone there who is feeling the same exact way you are and that is how friendships are built in the classroom.
But being a person of color really changes how I feel about all of this.
Walking into a discussion section for the first time, I always hope, please God, don’t let me be the only POC in this class. I feel so much discomfort when I’m the only POC in a classroom. Sometimes, it’s a class where this is not very apparent because some of the non-POC are aware of the identities and social structures that may be giving them an advantage over others. But in other classes, I can feel all of my identities, a South Asian Muslim woman who comes from a different socioeconomic background and is out-of-state, coming together to form a huge bundle of anxiety that I have.
This anxiety makes me quieter than I usually am. This anxiety inhibits me from speaking up in class and sharing the experiences and perspectives I have gained by living with these identities. I am nervous to share what I have to say because maybe no one will understand what I’m talking about, especially if I am in an environment where there are maybe one or two other POC present and the rest of the people are non-POC.
And I know I’m not the only person who feels this way. I know that there are so many other POC students who feel the way that I do right now. Being alone in a class where you know no one while being a POC can make that class so much harder and can also take a mental toll on many. There is some relief in knowing that there are other people out there who are in the same exact position and that we can all bond over this struggle that we face every year. But I want to emphasize that this doesn’t have to be a struggle full of hopelessness.
I have been working very hard this year to overcome this anxiety. My perspectives and experiences deserve to be heard and shared. Even though a class may be homogenous, there are variations in how people think and see the world; they all deserve to be heard, recognized and respected. For those POC who are in the same position that I am, I urge you to start small and start talking about your identities in a place where it seems that your experiences may not be shared or accepted. You can do this by taking small steps in conversations with your peers or even in writing assignments. Talk about your identity, culture and experiences. Keep it as small or as big as you want it, whatever you feel comfortable with sharing.
By starting this process and recognizing all of this, we are in a place where we can educate and empower others to do the same. Hopefully, in the future, this university will be a place where all POC can feel comfortable sharing their experiences in a classroom setting and not be the only POC in the room.