This article was originally supposed to focus on the events Mercyhurst is putting on to celebrate Black History Month. However, with everything that has been happening on campus recently, this article will instead focus on what it is like to be Black at a predominately white institution, specifically at Mercyhurst University.
For this article, I interviewed Janiece Withers, a Black student on campus. Withers is a senior Fashion Merchandising major. Before we get into the interview questions, Withers has a message she wants all students, professors, and other faculty members to read. I have not edited anything that Withers wrote, as too often students of color oncampus are silenced. It is time for that silence to come to an end.
Withers said: “This article is a combination of what my friends and the POC community feel and have experienced on this campus.
I try my best to create a safe space for all POC to get together and relax. However, it’s hard to accomplish this with our conflicting schedules.
Being the face or token girl on campus is highly uncomfortable. I have friends from my underclassmen years who walk right past me with no acknowledgment. I guess me speaking out about the injustices I face restrict them from seeing me as a friend any longer. But there are also ‘friends’ I refuse to look at when crossing campus. The ones with the flags on their masks, shirts and trucks. It’s funny because I never noticed the dedication to that flag until after Summer 2020.
It’s always fun to start my mornings by passing a bright red truck with the confederate flag parked outside of Ryan Hall.
One of the obvious safe spaces I tried to give my community was the Black Lives Matter march, ‘Mercy March.’ But of course, many Black students informed me that they did not feel safe attending. In fact, one of my closest friends did attend and expressed a large amount of discomfort. Why? Well, many of the white students were there for extra credit or an assignment.
Professors did not stop to think that maybe their students would call out inappropriate words during speeches. Well, they did. Not to mention the number of athletes who we have heard say the N word proudly at parties, in the locker room and more. Remember Lakers, one Black person letting it slide does not give you the right to say it consistently around all your Black teammates, classmates and ‘friends.’
Let’s chat about the N word. Since it’s ‘just a word’ what does it mean to you, a white person? And if your parents say it, what does that word mean to them? How many times did your grandparents say it, and when they did call a person the N word, was it in a friendly buddy-to-buddy way?
Well, how about our lovely professors. Both ‘woke’ and not. What do you mean when you say the N word in class? Is it really for educational purposes? I’m not sure any of you have noticed, but I have been consistently writing ‘the N word,’ and I can say that word because I am Black.
I’m here to let you know that you no longer have the right to use this word in your classrooms. Not only does it serve no purpose, but the only thing you are teaching is that white people can say the N word based on their intentions. We don’t care if you intend to educate, or if you intend to bond with us, or if you intend to sing the song word for word. Your intentions do not give you any right to say these words in private, in public, and never in our faces.
I can’t imagine being called the N word to my face. But my friend has, last semester by her own roommate. And I can tell you the intention was not to sound cool or to bond. Her intention was to degrade her Black roommate. I think if there was anything to truly break my heart, it would be getting called the N word in my face and not allowed to retaliate in any way.
It’s what happened in the beginning of slavery, our people were constantly degraded and had to absorb it or lose their lives. But it looks like not much has changed.
You see, my friend was FINED and CHARGED for responding to her roommate in anger and saying, ‘You are a Privileged White B***h.’
If someone called me a privileged white person, I’d take that as a compliment. But instead, she cried to Police and Safety, and of course, the police here love to support and protect their students. So much so that they defended her in court against my Black friend who was a victim of racism.
Now when I first got to this school, I was cool with P&S. They let me into my room when I was locked out, and that’s pretty much it. But you see all cops are great at doing their jobs, the question becomes, what do they do in a situation when a student experiences racism?
Maybe they don’t like us, well I know at least one of them does not like me. But I’m smart enough to not share that story, as I know their student friends will not be so happy. But I must say, it’s nice to know that if I throw a party in a pandemic, they will laugh and joke with me. But if I need help and assistance, they will show up with no greetings and no eye contact.
However, I’m Black and the girls who throw the parties are not. No hate to the pretty white girls though, I envy your ability to have pleasant interactions with our campus police.
I have been here for three years and ongoing. Let’s just say I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen Black students come and go. Each year I tearfully say goodbye to a friend who just can’t stay on this campus any longer. I can’t blame them, because if I did not love my classes, I would leave too. I would transfer in a heartbeat. Why? Because when half the school reads this, they will say ‘then go, BYE. Leave if it’s so bad.’ And only a couple handfuls will say, ‘I’m sorry you feel so uncomfortable every day on our campus, how can we help?’
You know what I say to my community at BSU meetings (which most of you still don’t know what it stands for)? I tell them, ‘I know it’s hard being here, only having a few people who can relate to you. Sitting through history classes and being the only Black student…sucks. Especially when others take notes and move along with their day, but you…you look at those graphics and see your family, your people, then you go about your day trying your best to shake that feeling off.’
I validate my peoples’ feelings, because when they express their concerns, white people try to crack a joke or change the subject.
You love our music, culture, and entertainment. You love dancing with us and laughing at our jokes. However, do you care about our comfort? Our entertainment? Or do you just love mimicking and flaunting your ‘first Black friend?’ Does this school care about us? Or do they love how progressive they are being?
We don’t often complain, but when we do, we get silenced and brushed off. If you learned nothing from me briefly sharing some students’ experiences, know this: We are strong, powerful, and smart individuals. But we won’t lose our jokes and pride. Each one of us will gladly take this diploma and become successful Black adults. You will know our full names and how to correctly pronounce them.”
The following questions were asked and responded to by Withers. Once again, none of Withers’ words have been edited. The questions have been marked with a “V” for Vydalia, and Withers’ responses have been marked with a “J” for Janiece.
V: What made you decide to go to a predominately white institution over a historically Black institution?
J: I figured since I went to a predominantly white high school, it would be alright. I wanted to pick the best Fashion program for me, which was here. However, this place is much different than a suburb 45 minutes away from Chicago.
V: As a Black student at a PWI, did you have any difficulties making friends?
J: It was easy making friends and talking to people because I am very social. However, it was hard to find real friends. I’ve often found that people only wanted me to be their ‘first Black friend’ as they would tell me. I don’t know why they insist on telling me that. I’ve had a lot of fake friends who did not respect me as a Black person and more as a box to check off.
V: Have you ever faced a microaggression or worse on campus? If so, what was that experience like for you? How did you handle it? Was the university made aware?
J: I have experienced an excessive amount of microaggressions and pure ignorance from classmates, friends, teammates and professors. Each experience was gagging for me. I felt like I had no voice. Because I knew that people don’t understand what their words feel like.
And who wants to tell their favorite professor that what they just said ruined your day? I want to say that I would alert the campus, but I never do. I have reported something once or twice but typically there is nothing they can do, and no proof of what happened.
Also, there is not a Black person to report to who understands why a word or phrase is disrespectful. Each time I have found a person of color to confide in, they leave Mercyhurst for several reasons.
V: Why is it important that the university has a Black Students For Unity organization?
J: Because the administration lacks people of color in power. This club gives validation to the students who constantly deal with feeling neglected, disrespected, or unheard on this campus. Black students are very separated on this campus due to sports, schedules or simply never crossing paths enough to become friends. This is our way to say, ‘let’s get together and hear each other’s stories and empower them.’
V: What is the one thing that you believe the university can do to make it a more welcoming environment for students of color?
J: Hold people accountable. Listen to us when we tell stories of discomfort and do something. Bring people of color on campus for events, performances or to speak. Limit the confederate flags hung in windows and plastered on cars.
Give us the freedom to be excused from explicit lectures. (We know what happened, it happened to our family and still happens in the modern day). Remember what BSU stands for (it’s not difficult, most colleges have a BSU).
The ONE thing the school can do is show the students that they are putting their foot down. It’s not enough to have meetings behind the scenes. Tell the whole campus that you support us and that you want us here more than to fill a quota. Show the athletes that they matter on this campus more than just entertainment. And REWARD the students you consistently use for diverse publicity points.
V: Knowing that you are involved in a lot on campus and very vocal about issues involving Black people, do you ever feel as if you are the “token” Black student?
J: There is not ONE organization I am a part of that I have not felt like I was the “token” Black student. In each setting on campus, I am always the only one who looks like me, and it is hard.
From things as simple as not having uniformed hair and makeup like the rest of the dance team, to being in a Eboard meeting and having to consistently remind people to think of the diverse community.
Often, I feel like if I don’t speak up for us, no one else will. If I don’t remind my peers that we need to be inclusive, then it won’t happen.
Not only have I been the token for this school, but I get stared at by so many people who disagree with my efforts. Not only have I run around campus like a headless chicken trying to do what everyone asks of me, but I have nothing to show for it. No scholarships, acknowledgment or credit. One day Sister Natalie told me she worries I give too much to this school, so I started saying no. I started having more time to study and hang out with my friends.
V: Overall, what is it like being a Black student at a PWI?
J: It’s hard. It is very hard. My junior year was the worst. I remember crying behind my masks in class after the teacher joked about Breonna Taylor. I remember shaking in anger when I heard of another death while sitting in a 2hour class.
I remember having a MAC/SAC event for Black History Month and the other programmers not engaging, and the chair called off. The times supervisors have touched my hair. The times people have told me to calm down before I had the chance to respond. I remember how my stomach turns around at the beginning of each Ambassador tour I give because you never know which family wishes they had a white tour guide.
I can still feel the anxiety attack I had at the first Mercy March but spoke through anyway because I knew I had to speak up for us all.
Sometimes it’s fun…like when my history class professor told us we would get extra credit for dressing up as a historical person for Halloween. My classmates had so many options of white people to dress up as. But who was Black during this time? You have me messed up if you think the only Black girl in class is coming dressed as a slave. Instead, I wore 3 white articles of clothing and two black clothing items. “What`s your costume?” I stunned the class by saying “I am the “3/5th compromise.” I’m proud to say I got extra credit.
I want to end this article with a few thoughts of my own. Mercyhurst must do better to protect their Black students and make it a welcoming environment for them to receive their education. Mercyhurst must hold those accountable that bring harm to students of color on campus whether that is physically, verbally, or emotionally. Finally, everyday of Black History Month should be acknowledged and celebrated on campus, not just a handful of selective days.