By Jasmine Huang
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.