Being A Low-Income Black Student At A Predominantly White Institution

I transferred to the University of Michigan well aware of the challenges students of color face while attending predominantly white institutions (PWIs), but I enrolled anyway. A lot of people had invested in me; I felt like I owed it to my community to make something happen. An acquaintance even paid the $300 enrollment deposit I didn’t have.

I had to move forward. What was the worst that could happen?

Growing up in the inner city, the police patrolling my neighborhood didn’t look like me, the business owners didn’t look like me nor did the majority of landlords or educators. I had been surrounded by white people my whole life, why would college be any different?

As optimistic as I tried to be, I found myself trying to salvage my emotional stability, as I dealt with some of the same psychological turbulence others had warned me about while attending PWIs. Some days I retreated to my dorm and pored myself into my thoughts for hours. I hadn’t faced any overt racism (yet), but the micro-aggressions mounted up daily. Although this was discouraging, it wasn’t enough to derail me altogether. I had dealt with this before, I thought.

But…

This time I was being exposed to the intersection of both race and class. For the first time in my life it wasn’t guaranteed I would be able to relate to the nearest Black person in the room. Not everyone was privy to certain colloquialisms I used or the cultural references I cited. The conditions I was reared in socialized me to believe struggle was a requisite component for Blackness. I had grown up boiling water to take baths, using extension cords to transfer electricity from our neighbor’s house to ours, and huddling around space heaters in the winter.

I thought that was the norm.

I later realized my litmus test for Blackness had been one dimensional.

Prior to attending college, my encounters with the Black middle class had been infrequent. I noticed that many middle class Black folks distanced themselves from anything reminiscent of the negative stereotypes associated with Blacks in America. My class experience was dismissed at times as affluent Black students vied for acceptance from their white counterparts. I found myself often contemplating when (or if) it was appropriate to debate with them in front of our white peers. Sometimes their classist undertones (unintentionally) communicated to others that only certain Black people were worthy of respect, and that it was okay to dehumanize others.

Social class aside, the thing the majority of Black people had in common was our discontent with campus climate at a PWI.

Being Black at a PWI was one thing, but coming from an impoverished community added another layer to my experience.

I had never been around people with so much money, there were signals of wealth everywhere. The troop of prospective yuppies, adorned in Canada goose jackets became the epitome of the idiom “birds of a feather flock together.” Casual scrolls through Facebook would further communicate to me that I was in new territory.

Back home, someone would be celebrating an offer they received from a temporary staffing agency.

At school, someone would be celebrating a paid internship offer they received.

I also noticed that upper class students had the privilege of fully embracing individualism, because they had all the resources they needed. They didn’t have to maintain relationships with people who didn’t have as much. The majority of my encounters with them occurred in passing, and were as brief as shuffling through a revolving door. They were often elusive until they needed a favor. Witnessing others use people as a means to an end was uninviting.

Or maybe I just didn’t understand networking.

Down the line I developed closer ties with middle and upper middle class students.

I noticed that many first and second generation immigrants maintained humility, even given their class privilege. My encounters with them, along with white students from rural areas challenged the cynical viewpoints I held towards others. I eventually found community, but by no means did I solve anything. At times I was still a bit jaded, still processing, still trying to figure out where I fit.

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