After seeing the election of the first black President of the United States, I’m sure all African Americans would agree with me if I said, “It’s a good day to be to be a black in America.”
But would African American students agree with me if I said the same thing about what it felt like to be a black at Northwestern?
This is the question Communication sophomore Marcus Shepard sought to answer with his film, Divorcing the History, an investigative documentary about what it is like to be black at Northwestern. The film premiered to a diverse crowd of students in Harris Hall on November 5th. Certainly many students were lured by the free food and drinks, but all of them stuck around for the penetrating examination of black student life at Northwestern.
Shepard used the voices of African American students and faculty to build a mosaic of the different experiences black students have at Northwestern. The film addresses several key issues, such as the exclusive nature of the black student community, the challenge of improving minority enrollment, Multicultural Greek life, and, of course, discrimination. Unfortunately, when the lights came on and the discussion ended after only two questions, I was left sorely disappointed. Shepard only managed to scratch the surface, ignoring some important issues that affect black Northwestern students and leaving many questions unanswered.
Divorcing the History reduces the African American experience at Northwestern to one of constant paranoia: four years of being confined to a social group defined only by race to avoid harassment. We’re forced to prove that we’re “black enough” be considered a part of the minority student scene, a safe haven from the atmosphere of discrimination. It’s a bleak view of black student life, and it couldn’t be any further from what I’ve experienced since coming to Northwestern a year ago.
My time at Northwestern has been nothing short of phenomenal. I’ve developed an extensive, diverse network of friends, and never felt any hint of discrimination or animosity from any of my fellow students. I never felt any desire to surround myself only with friends who shared the same color of skin, nor do I feel any strong connection to the African American scene on campus. It was easy for me to adapt to life at Northwestern, and I’m sure I’m not the only minority student who has had this experience. I’m not the only one who feels this indifferent about being black at Northwestern, and that’s where the film — and many students’ perception of African American life at Northwestern — fails.
I was then forced to ask myself: why isn’t my experience like so many other black students’ at Northwestern? While the documentary undoubtedly does capture the way many black students feel, it misses out on representing students like me.
When I take a look at my background, it makes sense why I thrive at Northwestern while so many other black students feel alienated and suspicious wherever they go. I was raised in a middle-class family in one of the most diverse, liberal cities on the planet: New Orleans. For half of my life, I’ve attended overwhelmingly white parochial high schools and had only white friends. Divorcing the History fails to see that not all black students are alike. We have all had many different experiences, different backgrounds before enrolling at Northwestern. These differences have an enormous impact on how black students adapt to life at Northwestern as individuals, how strongly tied they feel to the black community, how they define discrimination, and even how they interact with other black students on campus.
Divorcing the History also doesn’t recognize that some black students prefer to ignore the black scene on campus altogether to avoid being pigeonholed, or to escape being trapped in a narrow social network. Many students simply find it impossible to identify with the conventions and culture of stereotypical African American life. We choose instead to escape our skin by taking a colorblind approach and rejecting all preconceived notions of racial incompatibility in social situations. This may not be easy to understand, but that’s the problem with Shepard’s film: it makes the race game seem too simple and too universal to every black student. It’s easy to take a handful of racist incidents like hearing someone yell racist slurs at a party or being told to “go back home” by a random stranger as meaning that every black student faces enduring racism. On the other hand, it’s much harder to explain why there are black students who don’t think of their race as a major part of their identity. I urge Northwestern students not to assume that all black students feel as victimized as the documentary, and some campus sentiments, would suggest.
Where Shepard’s film does manage to succeed is in recognizing that diversity means more than recruiting only black students to enroll at Northwestern. Diversity does not pertain exclusively to one race but also to creed, nationality and sexuality. Why not try to get more Scandinavians to come to Northwestern? More people who are gay? How about focusing more efforts on attracting more Native Americans to enroll? Don’t we want all of them to be a part of our experience too?
In the end, it would be unfair to assume that all black students at Northwestern are represented by the sentiment behind Shepard’s documentary. Such a generalization would only add to false stereotypes, negating the goal of the film and other efforts to raise awareness about racism and diversity on campus. It’s important to remember that there are differences within races as well as between them.