I grew up in a green and white singlewide, tin can of a trailer and attended a rural, almost all-black high school so poor it couldn’t afford real science labs, let alone AP courses.
My mother was barely a teenager when she married a man old enough to be her father, a man who would become a drunk and beat her.
I have eight brothers, and a nephew raised like one, and of the 10 of us, 5 have served significant time in jail and prison, including one released last year after 32 years on a murder conviction and another facing a bevy of charges right now.
We relied upon food stamps, the WIC program and free lunch.
But here’s one thing I know for certain: I’m one of the most privileged human beings to have ever lived, in large part because I was accepted into and graduated from Davidson College, maybe the nation’s top liberal arts college. And I was recently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. (Harvard has more smart people than Davidson, but not smarter people, the difference between a college and a university.)
I didn’t fully understand how privileged I was as a student at Davidson in the early ’90s. There were times I was so caught up in the slights it was hard to notice. I didn’t realize until years later that while the comforts Davidson designed to make students like me feel at home helped me be a better student, it was the daily challenges I faced, which sometimes left psychic scars, that prepared me best for life after college. Being able to thrive in that environment convinced me that I could compete with the best and brightest anywhere, no matter the obstacles.
During the ongoing racial unrest on college campuses, such as at Yale and the University of Missouri, I’m hoping the students leading the charge don’t ignore that truth.
Students should challenge authority and demand better. They should not allow administrators and professors to ignore their concerns. They should shout as loud and as long as necessary to be heard, though with a level of respect that was absent in a recent encounter between a Yale student and professor caught on video.
Their concerns aren’t trivial, even if those who’ve never experienced the sometimes overt, sometimes unspoken, pressure that comes with being a minority member on an elite, predominantly white campus don’t understand. Micro aggressions – having to represent your entire race in class, hearing, or hearing about, the occasional racial epithet, being labeled an unqualified affirmative action admit, not seeing administrators or professors who look like you – wouldn’t sting as much if they weren’t accompanied by broader societal structural problems that have led to deeply rooted racial disparities in seemingly every walk of life.
The danger, though, is that if they aren’t careful, students may allow those legitimate concerns to blind them to the unmistakable privilege from which they daily benefit. The social life might be less than ideal on campus; it may feel demeaning to have to expend mental energy wondering about the fraternity celebrating Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee; or who scrawled “nigger” on the bathroom wall.
But those students must remember that even given those struggles, they are still among the select few who have access to unmatched resources at some of the world’s finest institutions.
Students on elite campuses have every right, and even a responsibility, to make sure those in power listen. But that doesn’t mean they, no matter their background, shouldn’t be willing to listen, too.
Bailey is a former columnist and editor for the (Myrtle Beach) Sun News. On Twitter: @ijbailey