“Where are all the black people?” asked sophomore Sally Nuamah. “How does this relate to me?”
Nuamah was referring to the subject matter of her class on U.S. Diplomacy. But it’s a question she and other black students ask frequently – sometimes in class, but often just walking around a campus they say can feel isolating.
GW multicultural leaders said it is a perennial struggle to make black students feel more comfortable on campus – a balance between educating the community about black culture and providing a forum for black students to come together. And as Black History Month draws to a close, they must work extra hard to ensure that mission – celebrated during February – is not forgotten.
The undergraduate student body at GW is 7 percent black, according to the office of Institutional Research and Planning – higher than that of American, Georgetown and New York universities. But black students remain outnumbered by their white counterparts at GW by nearly 9 to 1, and many said in interviews that the disparity causes feelings of separation inside and outside the classroom.
“After [Colonial Inauguration], I was like, ‘I want to transfer,’ ” said junior, Jordan Chisolm, president of the Black Student Union. “I’m naturally an introverted person and the culmination of seeing nobody else like me made my first year really hard. I went home a lot.”
GW’s black student enrollment may be higher than at comparable universities, but students interviewed said their classes typically only have about three black students – if any. And for those students, inside the classroom is where they realize their minority status the most.
“When you’re the only black person in the room, you feel like students and professors look at you to give the ‘black opinion,’ ” said Gabrielle Bass, event coordinator for the George Washington Williams House, a Living and Learning Cohort aimed at promoting black unity. “Honestly, sometimes I don’t have an opinion on a subject, and when I do, I can’t speak for all black people. I can only speak for myself.”
Catherine Davis, vice president of the Black Student Union, said she remembers being directly pointed out during her freshman year.
“My University Writing professor specifically asked me what black people thought about Spike Lee. I’m like, ‘I grew up in the suburbs; I probably have the same view of him as you.’ “
In addition to the student body, students said the University needs a more accurate minority representation among the faculty. About 80 percent of the University’s faculty are white and less than five percent are black.
“Considering how many black people now have master’s and doctoral degrees, it’s strange that I’ve only had one professor of color – an adjunct,” Nuamah said.
Particularly in the social sciences, several black students said they find themselves being taught black history funneled through a white outlook.
“Professors try to speak about the black experience without really walking in those shoes,” said junior Sizwe Mankazana, a Williams House resident.
Outside of the classroom, black students can find a greater sense of community through the Multicultural Student Services Center and a variety of multicultural student organizations. Members of these groups said that these outlets greatly enhance social life, but there is still a sense of not being able to fully adjust to the wider GW community.
And organizing by culture may seem like a further division, but minority students said these associations are a helpful way to adjust to university life.
“It’s easy to say that people shouldn’t separate themselves when in the minority, but it’s important to have spaces available with people who have been in similar positions to help you stay here and get the most out of college,” Mankazana said.
Michael Tapscott, director of the Multicultural Student Services Center, asserted that non-black GW students are not racist but may sometimes be ignorant to the nuances of minority cultures.
“There are things the majority population just doesn’t know about black culture,” he said. “But when those questions come up it’s important to be able to answer them without being defensive and when asking a question, not to have your own answer to it anyway.”
Speech is a common misunderstanding, students said, noting how people sometimes use of the term ‘ghetto’ to refer to someone using slang.
“People define what you are without even speaking to you just by the way you talk or walk,” said Jacqueline Mitchell, president of the Caribbean Student Association. “When speaking casually with my friends, I do tend to leave off the ‘g’ on the end of my words sometimes because that’s just the way we talk outside of a professional setting. It’s part of how I grew up. It doesn’t mean I’m ‘ghetto.’ “
A major problem that GW and other colleges face concerning racial discrepancies is low retention rates among the black population, particularly among males. Nationally, about 44 percent of black males graduate college, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.
Programs like the Black Men’s Initiative, which supports the social and intellectual development of black males on campus, work to combat this statistic, but more student and administrative efforts are needed to bridge the gap.
“We need more advisors and tutors,” said Student Association Executive Vice President Kyle Boyer, a member of the Black Men’s Initiative. “With more resources, we will have higher graduation rates and they are very, very low right now.”
Issues concerning diversity, however, fall in great part on the students who, despite wanting to reach out, are often hesitant to make the connection.
“I would love for students of all backgrounds to come out to our events and celebrate Black History Month together, but I can’t really say I’ve made my way over to Hillel either,” Bass said. “People get way too comfortable being around people that look just like them so individually we have a responsibility to reach out to each other.”