Surviving a Predominantly White Institution – a black girl’s memoirs

by guest blogger Valerie Ntinu

Valerie is a recently graduated Media, Culture and Society wiz. If she’s not out writing your next fave article, you can find her scrolling through the Netflix-verse, binge-watching your favourite rom-com series.

“College is going to be the best years of your life”.

These words echo in my head in the voices of the many actors and actresses that impassionedly exclaimed them in many US teenage cult films. And that is what I rightfully believed would be true throughout my uneventful and friendless adolescence. At one point, it became a coping mechanism for me all through high school. It was okay that I spent most weekends at home, alone with nothing but my TV, because I would eventually be acquainted with the best years of my life. However, what they forgot to mention in these iconic blockbusters (Elle Woods from Legally Blonde was a guilty aspiration), was that you could only really enjoy house parties, hangovers and all-nighters if identity politics weren’t involved. Rather than what the movies show, my university experience was a constant battle to assert myself as a proud, no-nonsense taking black woman, and still make friends in a predominantly white institution (PWI).

I didn’t necessarily consider myself as socially conscious when I joined university in the Netherlands over three years ago. I am originally from a country where over 90% of the population is black, so race politics is not an issue that comes up often. My blackness was the norm and I had the privilege of navigating that world with very little reason to constantly declare my existence or – in other words – clapback at someone for coming at me sideways. But here I was, at university, a minority. But given my social ignorance, I believed my experiences would be like “Elle’s” or “Teddy’s” university experiences, which it eventually proved not to be.

It was okay at first. I Tiger Woods’ed myself through every house party, enjoying the white gaze and consequent praise. I thought all of it was innocent: “You’re pretty for a black girl…”, “You look like Azealia Banks…”, and “I know it’s weird but can I touch your hair?” I really was convinced that these phrases did not come from a place of ignorance or malice but rather from a place of innocent admiration and it thrilled me! They loved me – an appreciation I hadn’t received throughout my teenage years. I was making friends – that’s all that mattered – I was making friends.

I am still yet to identify what switched in me, but one day I parted with my bed and walked into school unapologetically black and intolerant of any racially swayed comments or remarks. My sudden self-awareness was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing in the way that I was able to find myself, following years of rejecting a crucial part of my exterior identity. However, it was a curse because now I was aware, every single comment rang with more intensity and provoked more rage. This is where the microaggressions targeted at me came to play a more significant role in the way I interacted with people around me. I mean, I had always had to deal with microaggressions, but now it was different. They were no longer innocent and isolated comments, they were hurtful verbal gashes that were most evidently spoken from a place of both ignorance and privilege.

On more than one occasion I was compared to Danai Gurira’s character “Michonne” from the Walking Dead, knowing damn good and well that we look nothing alike and sharing zero similarities – except our melaninated skin tones. At one house gathering, a joint was being passed around and it was my turn (pray to God my mother doesn’t read this, or the police!), and the white woman that was passing the joint around loudly asked who wanted it next. I offered my lungs as tribute and lo’ and behold, “Bitchy Becky” thought it would be comical or appropriate to motion towards my box braids and exclaim “Of course you would!”. Both times, I sat there dumbfounded, almost naively waiting for my other white friends to speak up for me, but nothing. They either laughed it off or agreed with it. I was now proud to be black but I hadn’t said anything – I had let them have their way and they had won. I was too scared of confrontation, I was one black person against 10 non-black people; a frequent dynamic in PWIs. It was easy for them to switch the narrative and paint me out to be the sensitive and angry black woman – as white people have done for eons. Once again, I had failed to stand up for myself, my people and my failures only further added to existing traumas of being one of the only black people in a white world.

My blockage in combating microaggressions culminated in an event that happened nearly 4 years ago, at the end of my second year of university. It was a Friday evening – wash day. I was twirling my hair in small twist-ins coated with leave in conditioner when I grabbed my phone and made my nightly visit to Snapchat. I was scrolling down my friends’ stories, coming across the usual: Friday drinks, dinners and movies, when I suddenly clicked open the most despicable and grotesque story I had yet to see since Snapchat’s conception. It was a group of people from my school, two white girls, one with her backside stuffed with a pillow attempting a pitiful twerk. It was all fun and games until I read the caption: “How to be a black woman”. In a separate video, once the white girl on screen had “succeeded” in what she believed was a twerk, the caption read “Success”. I was enraged. I called my closest black girlfriends and described the video to them, and they were equally enraged. The more I watched the video, the more hurt I became and the more I cursed. I was not going to this let go!

I uploaded the video on Facebook, blurring the identities of the people involved, and included an emotional caption alongside it regarding the continuing hypersexualisation of black female bodies. What happened next was predictable, white people including “friends” took the aggressor’s side, my actions were criticised, I was threatened with police action and Mark Zuckerberg took my post down. And just like that, it was – apparently – over. These people were never truly my friends. They were my “friends” until I was black. They had turned away from me the minute their positions of power and privilege were put into question. What I had feared for so long had finally happened, but instead of a feeling of dread I was so, so proud. This was finally the end to years of trauma at the hands of problematic non-black people.


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