The Thrill is proud to feature personal narratives courtesy of the Project for Open Voices. Today’s essay was published anonymously in POV’s first publication.
There is a lack of dialogue about diversity issues on this campus. As a student of color from a working-class family background, there are times when I feel like an Other because of instances of discrimination, racism, classism, or sheer ignorance that go unnoticed and are not discussed, as if this silence was a form of tacit acceptance. The fact that I notice how problematic such remarks are sets me apart; unless, that is, I’m with friends who recognize what’s wrong with things we often see and hear. Here are a few examples.
In a class, for a project, someone compiled her friend’s bucket lists and added illustrations and names. On the list of a male friend was “hook up with a black girl.” The quote reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s description of a native woman in the Belgian Congo in Heart of Darkness: “And from right to left along the lighted shore moved a wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman…She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress.” Like Conrad, this individual depicted black girls as sexual objects he was keen to explore. Even if the list hadn’t been taken seriously, the attempt to present such a comment as humorous reveals the author’s ignorance of its racist, imperialist, sexist and oppressive connotations.
Aside from this individual’s ignorance, the silence regarding the entry in class was astounding. It’s not simply a matter of one person’s stupid remark. The student who compiled the book rewrote the entry; other classmates and the professor read it, and yet no one even mentioned it. I brought it up with a friend in class who shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess that is wrong” and then asked me about an upcoming deadline. The silence made me feel like the only person who realized how offensive that statement was. I wanted someone else to recognize it as degrading, making me feel like an exotic sexual object any time a man’s gaze lingers on my face or body, causing me to hate walking through upper Dempsey and thinking that any male who glances at me is only doing so because of my race, because my brown skin and black hair set me apart on this campus, because I’m so exotic, some kind of “wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman”, something to be explored and then tossed away because at the end of the day, the savage outweighs the superb.
I wanted someone besides myself and my friends to acknowledge how dehumanizing that statement was. I wanted to have a conversation about that attitude and how it is the reason why I can never have a random hook-up with a white male on this campus. I’m not assuming all white men are racist. I know not all white men see women of color in that way. I fear someone I’m hooking up with sees me as “wild-eyed and magnificent” or an item to cross off of a bucket list.
I tried hooking up. He was a gorgeous (white) upperclassman, and I was a first-year astounded that he started flirting with me, asking me if I wanted to go talk somewhere quieter. A few nights later it was over. I had learned his ex-girlfriend was Asian and the girl that came after me was Latina. Coincidence? Kenyon’s student body is 17% students of color with an even smaller percentage of women of color. It would be extremely difficult to randomly develop such a dating history. I figured you were Indian or something like that, he had told me the first night we met. That should’ve been my cue to run. Instead, I stuck around, ecstatic that such a gorgeous senior was into me, but after seeing who came after and realizing it was just a matter of skin tone and hair color and certain features, that quickly changed. It wasn’t the same way I viewed him. He wasn’t into me just because he found me attractive; he thought I was attractive because of my race. It may seem like a subtle difference, but if your race ever comes to define you, it escapes your control. I can’t decide to wake up one morning and look like everyone else. I can try to blend in – dress a certain way, dye my hair a light color, but it won’t work because I’m not white; I’m really easy to spot in Peirce, I’m exotic, I’m savage. He made me feel like an erotic object that exists solely for white men’s entertainment; perceived no differently that a beautiful savage in colonial Africa.