Double Consciousness: Black students discuss everyday experiences with race
A Black LSA sophomore has to think twice before any decision they make: once as an individual, and again as a member of the Black community. For this reason, the subject of this interview requested his name not be used in this article. He has to consider the impact of his words on how people view him as a Black person, he said.
“I have to be mindful that I’m a student, but I’m also Black here,” he said. “Sometimes the intersection of that, it becomes a double workload. So, a lot of times I feel uncomfortable even voicing my opinion on certain things because I don’t want to be perceived as a radical, or against white people.”
This idea of living a double life, or as this student put it, “thinking with your regular eyes and with the mind of a Black person as well,” is encapsulated in activist W. E. B. Du Bois’s term “double consciousness.” According to the sophomore, this double-consciousness permeates every aspect of his life, even in something as simple as a white female student asking to call an Uber from his phone when he was with his friends at a Black fraternity house.
“I had to think consciously about it,” he said. “I had to think with two minds. I want to help her, so I’m going to allow you to order the Uber from my phone, but I also have to keep in mind that if you’re in this house with a lot of Black men, you could try to flip this into something that completely did not happen because you’re drunk, and they would believe you because you’re a drunk white woman and we’re Black men.”
This caution, this obligation to constantly think about one’s race and these ways of thinking are shared by many members of the Black community at the University of Michigan. Early experiences of racism created them, and the continued racism they experience at the University engrain them deeper in Black students’ minds.
Large-scale, more publicized racist incidents have plagued and continue to plague the University, the most recent one being a student posting a blackface Snapchat mocking the #BlackLivesMatter movement. 50 years after the first Black Action Movement began with students taking over the Fleming Building following the assasination of Martin Luther King, Jr., racism still pervades in social interactions, in classrooms, at parties, on the street and more.
Entering the University
LSA freshman Brian Hicks moved around a lot growing up with his father in the military. From Virginia to Panama to Germany, he has little recollection of encounters with racism, if there were any at all, early on in life. His first experience with it was when his family moved to a majority-white suburb in Iowa.
“I was in ninth or 10th grade and I was riding my bicycle from my friend’s house; it was like, eight at night,” Hicks said. “That’s why my mom is super overprotective, because you really have to be when you’re Black and you live in the area we live in. This car with three white dudes pulled up, they lowered their window, and they screamed the ‘n-word’ at me.”
Other students expressed experiences with teachers or friends making microaggressions or tensions with neighbors toward their families. And still, others reported practically no experiences with racism, due to growing up in predominantly Black neighborhoods. LSA sophomore Carlena Toombs grew up in Detroit and Southfield.
“I wouldn’t say I experienced racism,” Toombs said. “I was always around my people. In Detroit, I was surrounded by Black people most of the time. In Southfield, even though it was a suburban area, my community was predominantly Black.”
LSA junior Kayla McKinney also grew up in Southfield and said when race was discussed, it was more about celebrating her Black culture.
“Race wasn’t really talked about,” McKinney said. “We talked about in a sense of celebrating our history and our culture, but not in a sense that there was any negative thing to worry about.”
For these students especially and coming from places with large Black communities entering the University, with only 4.96 percent of the student body being Black, can be a shock. McKinney said entering the University freshman year, there’s always some sort of incident making Black students feel isolated.
“What’s funny is that as a Black person freshman year, something lets you know, ‘oh this campus is racist,’” McKinney said. “Me in particular, my instance was we had this UMich 2019 chat. It was filled with a whole bunch of people and then one day someone just kicked out all the Black people.”
LSA freshman Dylan Gilbert experienced this shock even though she comes from Ann Arbor, which is often perceived as more liberal and welcoming. Gilbert wrote an article detailing racism she experienced as soon as she entered the University. At her first football game, she and her friends asked a group of white students to pet their dog, only to be met with a gesture to Gilbert and the response, “If I can pet yours.” Gilbert said she did not experience this type of racism growing up in Ann Arbor.
Having to constantly consider race on campus can be exhausting, LSA senior Damaris Doss said. She expressed the relief that comes with being back with her own community in Detroit.
“Race is talked about a lot here,” Doss said. “And when I’m back home, it’s not talked about in the same manner that it is here. It’s something I don’t have to think about all the time. When I’m on campus, I’m constantly thinking about what other people are thinking of me, I’m afraid if I don’t do a reading that people are going to question if I’m smart. I remember just being back home in Detroit just sitting on a bus, or walking down the street, and I feel so relieved after an entire semester of being under that pressure.”
In Classrooms and Conversation
“Being one of the only Black students in the classroom has happened to me probably every semester,” Doss said.
This was an experience shared by all of the Black students interviewed. LSA sophomore Pascal Casimier said when this happens with him, he feels more comfortable when it is not addressed. He doesn’t want people to ask him to speak on behalf of the whole Black community.
“I feel like in my experience, a lot of the time it’s better to not bring up the elephant in the room,” Casimier said. “In groups I’m a part of when I’m often the only Black person there, when they acknowledge the fact that I’m the only Black person, that’s when I feel on the outside of a group.”
But, even if their Blackness wasn’t explicitly addressed, many students felt the effect of their race on teachers’ and students’ interactions with them. Gilbert reported one of her teachers continuously standing behind her and touching her hair during class. Toombs said a GSI once refused to answer her question in office hours, though he answered every white person whose hand was raised. LSA sophomore Sydni Warner said she was once rejected by students when she asked to join their group project.
“We were supposed to do a group work, and I asked to join a group and they just straight up told me no,” Warner said. “Didn’t give me a reason, didn’t give me any type of explanation.”
Toombs attributes this avoidance of Black students to fear.
“What I notice, and a lot of my friends notice is people avoid us more so than approaching us,” Toombs said. “Like do you want to pick me to be your partner in class. Or if you look uneasy when I’m walking past you. I notice people tend to be more afraid of us, and the only time they really have anything to say is when they’re under an influence or they’re with their friends.”
Other times, though, Hicks observed how comfortable people are approaching him and talking to him about his experiences and being Black.
“People have come up to me and if they have some story that has to do with Black people, they feel like it’s cool to come up to me and tell me about how it is being Black,” Hicks said.
Another assumption people feel comfortable making is that Black students are at the University as athletes. Warner said when she lived in South Quad Residence Hall last year, she was constantly asked if she was an athlete. The anonymous LSA sophomore said he was at BTB Burrito recently when a white woman asked him if he played on the football team. Toombs observed Black athletes are respected by white people in a way that does not translate to other Black students.
“It’s funny, white people will treat Black people like they’re nothing unless the Black person is on a sports team,” Toombs said. “Regular Black man or woman, your opinion doesn’t matter, if you sit down in class, I won’t sit next to you, I don’t want to be your partner. Any Black athlete, they’re honestly kissing ass.”
In general, these students said they are made to feel they don’t belong at the University, or they didn’t earn their acceptances through their own efforts or intelligence. Warner said people have told her she was only accepted to the University because of affirmative action — something the University does not use. Hicks said he still is met with surprise when he tells people he attends the University.
“When I got into U-M, anytime someone found out in my high school that I knew was a bigot, they would act all surprised,” Hicks said. “To this day, people are like ‘Oh you go to Michigan?’ because I’m a Black man, that’s something I’ve had to deal with.”
Gilbert attended fraternity parties earlier this year, just trying to relax and have fun with her friends. But she found fraternity members and other white male partygoers reacted to her presence with hateful, racist behaviors. She said males would mimic animal noises in her direction, pull her hair while dancing with her or lock eyes with her while shouting the “n-word” in songs. In her article, she wrote about a student asking to dance with her. When she declined, he responded, “Fine, I don’t like n---ers anyway.”
“I feel white men are at this weird point of fetishizing me but also hating me, and that comes out a lot at frat parties,” Gilbert said. “Which is why I don’t go to white frat parties anymore. It’s either them hypersexualizing me or being blatantly aggressive toward me, or both.”
Other students described similar behavior, if at times less extreme. Warner said she feels male students avoid her at parties and has noticed white fraternity brothers trying to hook her up with the only other Black people in the room. At other times, though, she found herself being fetishized with comments like, “I’ve never hooked up with a Black girl before.”
Fraternities already have a history of being involved with high numbers of sexual misconduct cases, one of the reasons for their shutdown last semester, and the fetishizing of Black women make this issue even more prevalent for them. LSA junior Joy Boakye expressed the difficulties associated with being a Black woman.
“Identifying as a Black woman is honestly its own double-edged sword, because the experiences of Black men are very different, and the experiences of non-Black women are very different,” Boakye said. “It’s a thing of being fetishized and hypersexualized, but also, statistically, receiving the least romantic interest of all racial groups for women. It’s really just a shit show, to be honest, being a black woman.”
Though Black women especially are targeted at fraternity parties, all Black student interviewees reported feeling unwelcome. The anonymous LSA sophomore said during his freshman year, he and his friends tried to get into a fraternity party but were told to wait off to the side. After waiting over an hour while others entered the party, they left. McKinney said she was told by older Black students not to attend white fraternity parties for this reason. At Black fraternity parties, though, she feels safe.
“It’s weird because you never hear women say I feel safe at a frat house, but I do feel safe at our frat house, because I know them,” McKinney said. “I love them, they’re my friends. I’ve been to a few white frat parties and the atmosphere is different. It’s not welcoming.”
Doss echoed this sentiment, saying she feels comfortable at Black fraternities, though they are consistently shut down by the police — which is not the case at white fraternities.
“I don’t feel any danger when I’m at a Black party, which I think is very interesting because one thing that always happens when I go to a Black party, especially at a house, is that the police are always called,” Doss said. “With white frats, the police are never there, especially with sexual assault, which is really unfortunate.”
Toombs tries not to interact with white students while they are intoxicated. She’s also had her hair tugged on at clubs, and had a married man hit on her with the justification that he’s “never been with a Black girl.”
“I don’t trust white people under the influence,” Toombs said. “A white person is smart. They calculate, they’re very manipulative when it comes to being sober. But when a white person gets drunk, all of that goes out the window.”
What the University Can and Can’t Do
In response to the racism that persists at the University, the Black student community has taken a stand, time and time again. At the beginning of this school year especially, students expressed dissatisfaction with University President Mark Schlissel’s response to racist incidents such as the graffiti in West Quad Residence Hall, urging him to address the situation more publicly. McKinney, a member of the executive board of the Black Student Union and the organization’s incoming speaker, said she’s done protesting.
“I don’t do protests anymore,” McKinney said. “We’ve stormed Schlissel’s house about three times, nothing has come out of it, so I don’t go and do it anymore. At the end of the day, the main focus is you’re here to get your degree. I can’t spend all my time trying to change campus climate.”
McKinney described that when a racist incident happens, members of the Black community try to use as many resources on campus as possible: staff at the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, executive board members of BSU and NAACP, resident advisors in dorms and more. She said they meet with the administration right away. But because the administration focuses more on educating the perpetrators rather than punishing them, others feel as if they can get away with similar things, McKinney said.
“The reason they keep continuing is that there’s really no punishment that happens,” McKinney said. “If anything the school is more like, ‘Let’s educate the person who committed the bias incident instead of punishing them.’ There’s really no policy to suspend a person based on a bias incident.”
In a recent interview with Schlissel, he said he responds to racist incidents by using existing University policies.
“My job is to make sure that we have structures established and the right set of rules to make sure when bad events do happen, we can investigate them, attempt to figure out who’s responsible and then, once we’ve done that, find the appropriate punishment, be it restorative justice or, on the other extreme, sanctions against the people who are responsible,” Schlissel said.
Boakye echoed McKinney’s sentiments, saying the people who commit these acts need to be held accountable. She further emphasized the need for more comprehensive Race and Ethnicity requirements, and making Intergroup Relations workshops mandatory.
“Being more direct in the fact that systems of oppression are upheld through neutrality and not just overt acts (is necessary),” she said. “That’s also really hard to swallow, that really makes a lot of people uncomfortable and really withdrawn in hearing that.”
Gilbert also implored the University to further work on diversifying the student body. Focusing on reaching out to Black high school students beyond programs such as HAIL Scholars and Wolverine Pathways, and then accepting these students would help empower more Black students on campus. Hicks agreed, saying his increasing involvement with Black communities on campus has helped him feel more at home.
However, many students say there’s only so much the University can do to prevent, or even end, racism on campus. Toombs emphasized how it’s the responsibility of each individual student to educate themselves and learn acceptance.
“Acts of racism are really a personal choice,” Toombs said. “I don’t care how many Change It Ups, how many seminars the school puts on. If you go to that and you’re honestly not willing to learn about somebody else, it’s the same thing.”
Toombs said she can’t blame students for not understanding Black students. If she absorbed all of the stereotypes the media portrays Black people to be, she said she, too, would be uncomfortable around her community. However, Toombs thinks people are intrigued by the Black community.
“I think people are just curious about us,” Toombs said. “They low-key, deep down, have this certain reverence for Black people. But society doesn’t tell them it’s okay to respect us in a way that they really do.”
But, with all the hardships and limitations Black people face in America, with the avoidance and fetishizing and the necessity of the double-consciousness, Toombs said there is more non-Black students will never understand.
“Unless you’ve been a Black person in America, you will never honestly truly understand my feelings,” Toombs said. “I can sit here and tell you, you can read an article that makes you cry, but after you read that article that makes you cry, you can still wipe your eyes and go walk in and get that job I can’t get. You will never really understand.”