In high school I daydreamed about classes in college. I imagined less rowdy students that looked a lot older and taller. I imagined going to classes that fit my schedule. I imagined freedom… I came to realize however that freedom I imagined wasn’t so colorful. My college fantasy was filled with a lot of maturity, but that maturity lacked any identity similar to mine.
Hailing from the city of Chicago, I grew accustomed to living in a world with different races and ethnicities everywhere, including my own. My high school was predominantly Hispanic/Latino. However, the color in my high school still shined vibrantly—especially when I look back on it now. Living in Chicago also allowed me to see a lot of different races and ethnicities, so my idea of college included all different sorts of people.
My choice to go to the University of Iowa had nothing to do with diversity, but I didn’t think it would become a major problem.
I figured that in a huge school of over 30,000 students, there’s no way I’d feel alone in my identity and race.
Unfortunately, I thought wrong. I never imagined I’d hold the spot of the only person of color in a classroom. It seemed so ridiculous that I didn’t even consider it until I went to my first non-lecture class. I sat in a room with 35 freshmen. I became completely aware that I was the only black student in the room. I sat down and realized no one else planned on entering the class. I sat stagnant in class that day. I was the only body of melanin occupying space in the room. The only body that had lived a completely different experience.
So it turned out that I was just another chocolate chip in a sea of white milk. I was the only black student in my class once again. It made me feel like a quota or some sort of percentage for the diversity pool—like I was the university’s one and done. The university that I thought taught so many students and different people from all over just turned out to be made up of 97 percent white people… at least from my standpoint.
Out of all my years in university I can honestly say I am often the only person of color in class. And if I’m not, I can count who the bright, warm faces are on one hand. I felt like a dot on a sheet of white paper, always standing out for just simply existing in that space. The most difficult part of being that dot on a white sheet had to be the dreaded and tedious icebreakers. I felt like I couldn’t possibly relate to anybody else in the class because of the obvious difference. That made it hard for me to even connect with anyone in class.
When it came to class discussions, especially discussions that related back to society and our social climate regarding race, it feels like a spotlight shines on you, like you’re the voice of all reasoning. You see the professor look at you during this bit about race and you know this professor wants you to speak up because you’re the only one in class who could relate or resonate with the lecture. That’s where I usually look down at my notes to make it look like my wheels were turning. But really, I couldn’t handle the pressure of speaking for a whole race—especially, in a class where the only one to represent that race was me.
Something about that seemed kind of wrong—I could speak for myself and how I felt, but it didn’t mean I knew exactly how a whole race felt. But I also knew in the back of my mind that my voice was exactly what classes like that need. At least they’d get to see a slight perspective. Imagine always going through that for the five to six classes you take each semester. It was just a recipe for a shy writer like me to get drowned out by a sea of white noise.
Three-and-a-half years of university taught me that being the only black person in the room is inevitable at a predominantly white institution. Not all black people will find it hard. Some might not even care. But I do know that a black person will notice their telling displacement.
Holding that role as the only black person in class bothered me. But eventually I grew immune to the feeling. I accepted that in the real world, diversity isn’t as commonplace as I imagined. Sometimes I feel invisible in all of my classes because of this role. Now I realize that my “invisibility” actually speaks volumes to the lack of diversity. But if I learned anything about being the only black person in class, it’s that your professor will always know if you miss a day.