Open letter to black college freshmen

August 31, 1994|By Wanda L. Ruffin

AS AN AFRICAN-American college freshman on a predominantly white campus you'll learn an important and startling lesson before you ever pick up a book: That you will still be judged as much by the color or your skin as by the content of your character.

You may find this hard to reconcile with what you know about the civil rights victories of the 1960s. And you -- taking justifiable umbrage at this institutional hypocrisy -- may be seduced into a righteous battle to redress it.

But, before taking to the battlefield, know that getting too involved in issues facing African-American students could jeopardize your academic standing and interfere with the real reason that you are on campus -- to earn your degree.

Many promising African-American freshmen are still derailed by arcane negative stereotypes -- that they are academically inferior, for instance -- and by the persistent racial fears, ignorance and apprehensions on predominantly white campuses.

For some, the realization that our campuses have become the unintentional breeding ground for racial tensions, isolation and separation can be a test of resolve.

For instance, African-American students tell of how their white friends will socialize with them in the privacy of a dorm room but may avoid them in public. How would you react to an unreturned smile or wave?

A natural reaction might include disgust or anger. But, even at the end of the worst of these confusing and frustrating days, your term paper is still due. Your laundry still needs to be done. And you still have to read five chapters. So, do it -- with a vengeance. Do it well. Excel.

There are other things you, as an African-American student, can do to stay focused on your studies:

* Don't act as if you are a guest on someone else's turf. It is your college. Get involved, reach out for academic help if needed, flow easily between all students and become a leader. But also report acts of racism to the appropriate authorities.

* Congregate and identify with other African-American students on issues that interest you. But don't let accusations that you're not race conscious enough goad you into doing things that detract from your studies or that make you uncomfortable.

* Accept that, as an African-American student, you will be competing with other minority students who are petitioning for scarce "minority support" dollars. Don't be surprised if this causes some tension.

* Realize that some will see your presence on campus as fulfilling some quota and as lowering standards. Don't be intimidated or sidetracked by this. Your first responsibility is to your own success. If you do become discouraged, find out what support is available on campus, in the African-American community around campus, at home and with friends. Believe in yourself even if it seems that no one else does.

* Anticipate that your college will be a microcosm of our society, in which race still matters. Understand -- not condone -- that racial fears and stereotypes may be shifted to the individual pTC viewed as representing an entire race.

* Most importantly, do not let how others feel about the color of your skin rob you of the benefits of being successful in college and, eventually, your chosen career.

Wanda L. Ruffin, a professor of psychology at Hood College in Frederick, currently is researching achievements of African-American students on predominantly white campuses.

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