This time last year, I was in the middle of my fourth semester of college. I had recently declared a major in gender studies, and I was trying to figure out how to incorporate the Black studies I loved into my classwork. I spent my weekdays rushing from crowded seminar room to crowded dining hall to crowded subway car as I frantically tried to balance my four classes, work-study, extracurriculars, and babysitting jobs.
No matter how tired I was, I kept trying to power my way through, reminding myself that the academic year would be over in just a few months.
A large part of my exhaustion came from the fact that I was really starting to hate my classes. It wasn’t the professors (most of the time), the readings, or the assignments. I genuinely enjoyed what I was learning, no matter how time-consuming the work was. The problem was the classroom itself.
In my post-2020 clarity, I am now completely unsurprised by the fact that racism could have such a strong hold on my women’s liberal arts college. Racism in classrooms is just one manifestation of the school’s complex relationship with race. My school, which is about 5% Black, is located in gentrified Harlem, which is 60% Black.
Every time I came to class, I knew it was about to be something. I got dressed in the morning to go to campus and battle with the white girl who went to private school in Vermont and didn’t see a Black person in real life until orientation. My hand shot into the air when a classmate complained that it wasn’t fair Black Lives Matter took up so much attention when other racial minorities didn’t have that. I pretended to yawn to cover my laughter when someone announced that doing the week’s reading assignment was the first time that she’d realized enslaved people were consciously aware that they were enslaved.
All of this was exhausting.
I couldn’t just come to class. I had to be subjected to racist rhetoric that was very rarely addressed by professors or teaching assistants, particularly by non-Black professors and TAs. Most professors I spoke to about these issues (which they had somehow missed despite being present in the classroom) said there was nothing they could do.
I had to be understanding that everyone (i.e., my non-Black classmates) was not starting at the same place I was. My discomfort in the classroom was acceptable, and even expected, as long as it meant someone else was learning.
I eventually made the decision to disengage in several of my classes. I would come and speak just enough to earn my participation points, but not enough to be the target for more racist comments.
A few weeks into my master plan, my school closed because of COVID-19. Even after almost a full year of trying to process what happened, those last days on campus feel like something out of a dream. I still cannot wrap my mind around how it seems like only a few seconds passed between having Sunday brunch with my friends to turning in my dorm key to Residential Life the next week.
What is hardest to understand is how disconnected I felt from everyone else on campus that week. Everyone I knew was in mourning, and I was basically fine. The one time I cried that week was saying goodbye to one of my best friends. Even still, I felt like I was sad I wouldn’t see her for a while, not sad that I was leaving campus.
I watched other people cry nonstop, and I wondered what in the world was wrong that I didn’t feel that same devastation. I flew home only four days before New York was placed on lockdown. When I arrived at the airport with nothing but my suitcases and some spare Clorox wipes, I realized I was genuinely excited to be headed home. I was surprised to feel that way, seeing as I was the same person who had been absolutely desperate to leave home only a year and a half earlier.
About a week after I got home, classes began again. Every class was basically the same: The professor asked how everyone was doing, and we were either completely silent or someone started telling us something that probably should have been saved for therapy.
Then, we went to a breakout room for an obscene amount of time, and everyone said some variation of “I didn’t even do this reading.” We asked questions about the objects in people’s backgrounds, and then muted ourselves and turned our cameras off until it was time to go back into the main session.
Beyond the awkwardness, fatigue, and stress being at an all-time high, there was something else distinctly different about these classes. Regardless of whether the professor was trying to carry on like everything was normal, it simply wasn’t normal. For me, that meant that the normalcy of racism in the classroom was all but gone, too.
For the rest of the spring, we all did our best to just make it to class and turn in whatever assignments were still required. There were not as many in-depth discussions about the reading as would normally be expected because hardly anyone had done them. Even in the moments where a few questionable remarks were made, I made use of one of Zoom’s best features: I simply turned off my camera.
This realization that I had the power to basically leave class without actually leaving was honestly game-changing. The classroom environment was no longer terrible because it didn’t exist. We weren’t all in the same space anymore, so I no longer had to be on my best behavior. I didn’t have to come up with a five-paragraph essay to basically say, “That was racist. Please stop talking.” No one was expecting me to combat every single off-putting comment because expectations were almost completely gone.
My classmates’ ability to cause harm was limited to my engagement with them. I could turn the audio off, carry my laptop outside, and go play with my dog. My campus’s racism was out of sight and out of mind.
This is not me being one of those “bright side of the pandemic” people. I really cannot stand sitting at my laptop all day. I miss my friends, I miss the kids I used to babysit, and I miss normal life, just like everyone else. But all of this chaos has forced me to interrogate my relationship with my college and my college experience for the first time.
Last March, I realized that Zoom gave me the option to say, “I’m not dealing with this right now.” By the end of the semester, I was asking myself, “Why am I dealing with this at all?” I changed my major and began more classes with Black and Latinx professors. I found a new campus job. I even decided to graduate early during a recession (which should really put my experience in perspective).
After two years of mess, I have finally been able to genuinely enjoy my college experience in a way that would have continued to be impossible in person.
The shift to online learning didn’t eliminate racism on campus, but it did ensure that I no longer had to deal with it in the same way. Zoom gave me a much-needed path out of the place that was causing me harm, even if that path is just my daily roll-from-bed-to-chair two minutes before classes start.