In a viewpoint I wrote for the Daily last semester (My black experience at the U, 12/14/2009), I called out the University for its subtle racist culture and called for an honest discourse on campus diversity. What I failed to address was how I manage to cope in the University’s hostile environment. Though instances of racial polarization can be hard to navigate as a person of color, I have identified resources that have allowed to me understand that my experience at this University isn’t a handicap, but instead perhaps a blessing in disguise.

Initially, my experience at the University was that it isn’t inclusive. I experience a segregationist norm that is apparent in student social groups, voiced by students in the classroom and reinforced by some University departments. The climate on this campus is so strong that I once began to think that something was wrong with me because I wasn’t able to rationalize campus discrimination. In reality, there is no rational explanation for any sort of discrimination. There was a point where I began to believe that the culture of entitlement to which I was not privileged made it acceptable for me to believe that my power was limited. What I failed to realize — but now acknowledge — is that while my threshold for preconceived judgments regarding who I am and what I am capable of is low, my willpower is much greater.

Women like my mother and surrogate mothers, who I affectionately call Momma Lewis and Momma Brooks, have validated my individuality when those within the classroom struggle to notice. While there are many women who I have met on campus, I have personally connected with a few. I am encouraged by women like University Vice President E. Royster Harper, Professor Patricia Coleman-Burns, and Ph.D. student Tayana Hardin whose positions in the University have inspired me. These women have enlivened my spirit and helped to change the direction of my internal conversation from “Do I deserve to be here?” to “Do I want to be here?” Academic women like Professors Lisa Disch, Janet Gerson and Denise Lee have gone above and beyond their job descriptions. These women have encouraged my academic performance in their classroom, and they asked for only one thing asked in return: that I tune out the labels that have been placed on me and define my own identity.

While women of color often receive little attention in the media for their contributions to research and education, it is people like my academic advisor Dr. Jennifer Myers who have supported my ambitions and dispelled a sense of detachment that I sometimes feel at the University. It is because of student leaders like my Leaders and Best mentor Beatrice Elizabeth-Ann Hinton that I feel socially connected to campus life in an environment where I felt isolated from the campus community. If there was any self-doubt that I would be unable to combat ignorance in a place where I feel like prejudice is preserved, Assistant Dean of Students Monita Thompson has been my backbone and strategist. She has helped me to identify opportunities for growth amidst situations where I feel like I am fighting against a current.

The list of people who have motivated me doesn’t end there. From the very beginning that I set foot on this campus, Comprehensive Studies Program Academic Advisor Dr. Dwight Fontenot believed in my potential and supported my interests when I felt like other academics at the University simply didn’t. The people at the Office of Multi-ethnic Student Affairs have held me up when I felt let down by the “Diversity Matters” mantra at the University.

While there is doubt that the racial climate will get less tense, it helps to know that people like Director of Multicultural Affairs Program Robbie Townsel-Dye is willing to extend a helping hand and walk that road with me and find solutions to the conflicts that I have. Now, when I am told “no,” I am equally motivated by people like Honors College Academic Advisor Maria Gonzalez and Assistant Dean of the Office of Student Academic Affairs Esrold Nurse who tell me “yes.” And the list goes on.

All of these people have helped me see that it’s not a matter of “Can you do the work that is asked of you as a University student?” but instead “Will you do the work?”

So, to students beginning to feel that self-doubt, I advise you to identify people on campus who are willing to affirm your struggles and your greatness. This person should be able to acknowledge your flaws, work with you towards strengthening your weakness and see that you are capable of more than you imagine. You may doubt your hidden talents because your greatness hasn’t been recognized, but mentors will help you to identify them.

Lastly, I ask that you work on getting the confidence to walk and talk as if you deserve to be here. After all, as the saying goes, “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”

Brittany Smith can be reached at smitbrit@umich.edu.

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