Power in Numbers

Chelsea Gardner | Staff Writer

I never imagined I would feel singled out in college, especially at one with approximately 34,000 students. However, I now realize this experience can and will occur no matter the size, diversity in students, or other various factors. On numerous occasions, I have been the only African American in my class. Growing up, I was the only African American female in majority of the advanced courses. At first, I was bothered by the predicament because most of my African American peers seemed to let the possibility of failure stand in the way of taking challenging courses. As time went by, I grew accustomed to the situation because I knew that I wanted to be at the top academically and this was the only way to get there. I knew as soon as I got to college, I would never have to face this classroom experience again. This was an obvious fallacy, as I have yet again stepped into the role of being the “only one.”

It was not until recently that this “only one” experience made me feel uncomfortable. During a class discussion, regarding race, several students provided feedback on the n-word and things “blacks” get away with saying to each other that other races cannot say to “blacks.” Yes, the term “blacks” was used as the description and, I personally felt like there was some bite behind it. During the discussion, I couldn’t help but think, if someone is not an African American, how can they possibly tell me what I should and should not be offended by? You have never walked in my shoes. Nevertheless, this was the first time I experienced what many minorities have expressed feeling in their classes.

At that moment, I literally felt like I had a stamp on my forehead that said, “you must constantly defend, explain and represent your entire race.” When this situation occurred in class, I felt like everyone suddenly realized that I was the only African American. Before this, I don’t even think they had any regard that the ratio was as such.

When I am literally the only one in a class of approximately 40 or more students and  race is being discussed, I instantly feel compelled to speak on behalf of every African American. Moreover, I feel like I am constantly put on the spot to explain my race. I feel like I have to have a rebuttal for anything anyone says about African Americans, because if I don’t – who else will?

As many of you may know, it is a daunting task because some people say things that could be deemed inappropriate or just out-right irrelevant and pointless. However, unlike them, I don’t get a choice to not speak…I have to. It is a conflicting situation because I don’t want the responsibility but I owe it to myself to speak. If I don’t speak, I will walk around all day wondering what I could have said to feel at peace with myself. On the other hand, if I decide to say something and become passionate while speaking, people start to think I’m too sensitive or everything offends me. There is no happy medium.

Since this experience, I have wondered how I would be able to deal with more situations like this in class. I cannot rely on power in numbers because I am the only number. The numbers will not always be there. You can look in the classroom and see this, solely based on the number of African American students and faculty. As the “only one,” you have to empower yourself to make the right choice for you.

Ultimately, I do have a choice and I should not be singled out even if it is unintentional. If I want to express myself on my own behalf, then I will. No teacher or student should practically beg me to respond because of my race or ethnicity. Therefore, before I speak I have to remind myself that I am an individual and everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions. Sometimes the ratio is not fair, but it comes with the territory of being the “only one.”

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