Chelsi Arellano On Dealing with Racism in the University

This monument is of Francis W. Eppes, an avid slave owner from the nineteenth century, and sits behind the Criminology building at Florida State University. Despite students and Tallahassee community members advocating for the removal of this figure, the statue still remains to this day. A constant reminder to students for where the university’s loyalties really lie.

When people talk about racism in America, they often refer to it as an institution. The University system, from its beginnings, has always been complicit at best and active at worst in this institution. Racism at a university is a known issue that all minority students will have to deal with. Perhaps it is better at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) but my experience has been at predominately white institutions (PWIs). Dealing with racism, surviving, and reaching a place where you can thrive in an environment that was built to oppress, is the topic of this post.

In my MA program, I was the only Black student and the only Hispanic student in my cohort. I did not get funding as a MA, as only one other woman out of the cohort did. I worked throughout my first year, smiling in the face of people who went to confederate reenactments on the weekend and wrote about the US South while erasing black lives that existed there. I was constantly told I was too loud, too passionate and didn’t have any black faculty to look up to. The institution was not made for me or people like me. I didn’t fight back, where others might have and where some probably believe I should have. That was survival for me, protecting at least my right to be there, while actively trying to build a community that was more accepting. In my second year, I was first denied funding, but after my advisor fought tooth and nail for me, I had a job with the department and could finally take a breath. I hosted events as an organization’s president, invited faculty and students, and tried to show that I wasn’t a threat to the community but a boon. At every turn, there was pushback and denial that someone like me could ever do anything good.

Even in the hostility, though, there were a select few people, who were fighting just like me, or at the very least supported me through it all. In the cohort above me, there was a Black and Hispanic woman who knew exactly what I would have to go through. I thank her everyday for the mentorship that she provided—while also cursing that she had to be forced in that position. The friends that I made, who write this blog with me and others, sometimes pushed back in my stead, when I was tired and couldn’t anymore. Other times, they stood behind me and supported everything I was trying to do. The office staff, my advisor, and a few professors I worked with, knew the problems with the department, either chose not to change it or couldn’t but still stood behind me in some way. I found a small overlooked niche to exist in that others helped me protect.

In my PhD program, where I am now one of the highest paid students, where there are black faculty and black courses, where I am no longer the only Black student in my cohort, all of these problems still exist. I changed universities to go somewhere better, but I knew that it could never escape from it’s racist roots. I’m still clearing out that niche for myself to exist in, but my breathing has gotten a little easier, because I know the steps I have to take. I wasn’t forced to change who I was or conform to a racist idea of what I should be. There was an overwhelming force trying to make me do so, but I persisted for a series of reasons, but mostly for myself. Find friends, whether they are white allies that put their money where their mouth is or other minorities that understand the struggle. Find professors and staff that will support you despite what others may say. Find a spot to survive and then find a way to survive. This is how I learned to later thrive. I am still learning, but every day, my breath is easier.

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