Yea Sewanee’s Right, but it’s also a predominantly white institution

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Photo courtesy of Google Images.

By Jasmine Huang

Junior Editor

Whenever I returned home from university, people would ask me the same question: “How’s Sewanee?” My old teachers and mentors would do so cautiously while looking reassuringly at me, having listened to enough college freshmen to understand their typical struggles. Others simply threw the question out of their mouths as a greeting, like “Hello,” or “How are you?”

I’d usually sincerely tell them that I was happy, that I had a good year. And this was true: who else could revel in the flushed sunsets that graced this place? I’d found people I could call family, folks I could break bread with before having our own unholy communion as we sat on the musty floor of our dorm rooms, clear Aristocrat our substitute for sacramental wine (and by no means a substitute for church). As the story goes, just as we drank together, so did we laugh, cry, and live together.

But for the most part, I withheld the complete answer, a more difficult one that added another perspective to the isolated bliss of “the Sewanee bubble.”

How do you tell someone from back home that your entire perception of life has been permanently altered by the thick, unwavering lens of race because of your first year of college at a predominantly white institution? That although you’d always known of these concepts from the prejudice thrown towards your family while living in the great American South, now it was irrevocably ingrained into your mind, permanently forced on the top of its priority list. You didn’t know what life was like without these issues constantly prodding yours and others’ backs as if you all were like cattle, but you did know what respite from them felt like.

Now, you don’t. You are, as they say, hyper-aware; and it sucks, ‘cause you’ll never be able to go back. The minute you walk into any place, you take note: are the people white or people of color? Nice or hostile-looking? Is this an affluent setting? Are they looking at you funny because of your skin color, your style, or something else?

You’re like a government census, always registering demographics, always colliding head on with these two, diverged worlds of white versus non-white. When you file away your observations, the question you’re answering isn’t simply, “Where do you belong?” It’s where do you feel safe?

While driving a van for a shuttle service, I had my first encounter in late May with the Monteagle Sunday School Assembly, a hidden maze of dainty Southern cottages.

The Assembly was a whole other world, teeming with Sewanee alumni, parents, and students, completely unknown to me. And when I stepped through its gates, I saw, with a flinch of realization, that it was a white, wealthy one. The thought was echoed by a friend and fellow person of color (POC), both of us itching with the understanding that we were dots on a blank sheet of paper, disturbances on its bleached surface.

Just as the majority of Sewanee’s 83 percent white student body had no idea of the dimensions and structures that made up the inside of the POC world, so too did we exist completely unaware of theirs.

Presently, the more I look at my institution, the more I perceive the gap between these two sides. Throughout the school year, I organized events and outings secretly with the hopes of seeing some sort of “unity,” when, ironically, all I could notice in my own head were the two group’s vast differences.

Perhaps these functions were merely an attempt to change not just the school, but myself. Because since the first day of orientation, the following questions have pervaded my conscience, leaving no room for other thought:

Do most students have to cope with the fear of walking around campus as a result of cars from god-knows-where driving past them just to spit out racial slurs as they’re walking to class? Have they had to explain to the very classmate who used hateful, degrading expressions against their cultural community as to why his actions were wrong? Have they tasted the bitter flavor of failure when their attempts to engage in “productive conversation” were rebuffed or ignored?

Have they gone to the administration and tried the formal procedures to handle such prejudiced instances, only to discover that nothing can be done besides having the student write a formal apology? Have most first-years witnessed their friends break down from the sheer weight of attending a predominantly white institution, one that maintains a culture inaccessible to so many marginalized students?

Have they seen the incompetence of the police, called because your friend had just been hurt with the N-word and the sound of its hard, unwavering R? Have they watched them arrive and instead racially profile your male peers, targeting them out of a crowd of more than 80 people? Have they yelled repeatedly to the officers, afraid and paranoid they’d hurt the two other multicultural students on scene, “They are not the problem! They are not the problem!”

Then a final thought: how many people see this side of the school? How many people take into account that this is what dominates the reality for some of us––not continuous warm summer nights spent drinking beer around a bonfire, happy sappy frat parties, or clear blue skies, but a staccato of it all.

Warm summers grinding to a sharp halt as the bitter taste of hate cleaves the sound of our laughter in two; crazed dancing during the late hours of the night interrupted by the ignorant remarks of another person. These are daily efforts to maintain a simple, steady college experience. Only, they’re then cut and marked once, twice, thrice, until an innumerable count of moments (short in time span, but heavy in weight) carefully piece apart our days here.

Every second I attempt to live a life of normalcy with my POC friends, it seems as though the world feels obligated to remind us that we are not white, and thus insignificant. Over and over again, I wonder: how much of myself do I have to give up in order to make my words, my life, my identity, matter?

As I look back on what I’ve written, I can’t help but hear myself sound worn––and perhaps it’s because a part of me is. I’m thankful to Sewanee, and always will be, for the freedom, education, and immeasurable opportunity it’s given me and will continue to give. If there’s any more I can do for this school, I will. But during the brief calm I have amidst the busyness of life, I will claim this time (as I sit on the porch of Stirling’s, trying my best to ignore the little bugs flying so close to my ear) for myself.

It’s unfair to say my “Sewanee Experience” has been defined by the negative moments that’ve pricked through the rosy veil of this place, but it’s also unfair to ignore the scratches they’ve made. After using much of my voice to champion the school when people have asked, “How was Sewanee?” I now present my complete, honest response. Not just to the question, or to the person––but to it all. To this year. Cheers.

8 comments

  1. Although I am pained by the burden inflected in your writing, I have no doubt that your words and your life already matter. Should that more of us speak with humility and intentional kindness.

  2. This column is just so sad.

    The author is so obsessed with race that she can’t live her life without dwelling upon it. I do not hail from the south and, sadly, do not come from any source of wealth or privilege. I have been all over the United States and can declare affirmatively, without reservation, that Sewanee is one of the most welcoming places that I have ever been to.

    I believe the author’s perceptions of exclusion and privilege and “self suffering” are purely self imposed. I have to wonder what events did the author organize to “foster unity”? Was the theme that whites have unearned privilege and exert it over “marginalized” persons? Assuming that might be at least partially true … you would be surprised that most of us don’t like to be told we are awful people, even if only subconsciously.

    I do wonder how a young person become this jaded. And, I recall the book all freshman were assigned to read before setting foot on campus as freshmen. Maybe, you should examine the idea of assigning “Between the World and Me” as a mandatory first year seminar topic. Nothing like indoctrinating the world view of the students as early as possible!

    But, you have chosen to have that be the first thing that the incoming class reads as freshman. Perhaps, this obsession with race and privilege and perceived injustice is the result.

    You reap what you sow.

    1. You have completely missed the point of this article. As a person of color who is a recent graduate of Sewanee, grew up in a predominately white community, and has experienced overt racism on and off the domain, the author is speaking to the experience of a POC at the University and how the pre-dominately white population makes you hypersensitive to your surroundings. The author of this article clearly said she champions the university and the educational experience it has given her, and will continue to give her throughout her next 3 years on the domain. I too would champion for the university, as the relationships I built with professors, faculty, staff, and students were the most important things I will take away with me after my four years. That being said, unfortunately not all students at the university are “woke” to the issues and injustices that surround POC today. And sometimes, not only are they blind to the cultural spectrum, but they are also sometimes outwardly racist. Now, I wouldn’t speak this to most of the student body, but enough of it is like this for it to be impossible to ignore as a POC. And it’s clear in the large divide shown between the POC and other students on campus. I once had a good friend of mine, who is caucasian and one of my sorority sisters, tell me that she wanted to sit with me at lunch every day, but was too scared because I sat with the POC every day. And I know she didn’t mean it in a malicious way, but it is instances like these that make it impossible to ignore. I think the author was trying to represent exactly what it’s like to be a student of color on a predominately white campus such as Sewanee, and was well-spoken and just in her facts. She’s not putting down the university, she’s using her platform to make people more aware of the growing issues happening within the Sewanee community and student body.

    2. It would be nice if “Sewanee Dad” would use his real name, as has everyone else who’s commented.

    3. As a graduate of this university, I can promise you the author’s reflections are very real and not self-imposed. I lived the experience shared and it disturbs me that after 7 years from my departures, students still feel this way. I appreciate the author using this platform to express herself and you have not right to try to discredit her feelings. Do not speak to what you do not know.

  3. As one of the “Owning Bishops” of Sewanee, I profoundly disagree with what “Tiger Dad” wrote. I also want to commend Ms. Huang for her thoughtful and generous writing. I heard in her words both a deep thankfulness for her education as well as a hope for what might be someday. She is why I am proud of Sewanee and continue to support the school. Her reflections are also why Sewanee must change. I am hopeful it will.

    Bishop Scott Benhase

  4. Such beautiful writing but heartbreaking words. How disturbing to think Sewanee still has so far to go. I hope all who are affected keep speaking out.

  5. Jasmine, keep speaking out and raising your voice!! The Sewanee community I know does not share these horrible attitudes of racial fear and bias, though it obviously exists as evidenced by your article. To keep you and the rest of the campus safe, those in power must not tolerate this reprehensible behavior, either in the scenarios you have decribed or in the form of hurtful comments posted here and elsewhere from alum, parents, etc. You are a valuable human being with much to teach others in the face of fear and ignorance.

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