IMPROMPTU POST: When the Top Isn’t For You

I write this excited to realign my values. I write this grateful for everything I have learned but even more eager for what is to come – from the better things to come. I write this ready to continue my education in the type of community that I will be able to do great work in.

I have been dragging out a decision for a several months now. I should have known my decision when I had my first nervous breakdown of the year or even my second. I should have known when I realized that taking a break from school and moving half-way across the nation was infinitely more satisfying than even the thought of returning to my old situation. I should have known when I realized that the only reason I was still there was because I had a good job or that living with my god-sister was fun. Instead I dragged out my decision for several months, ignoring my body’s physical rejection of my situation.

Until the straw broke the camel’s back.

I used to be a part of the 2014-16 class of University of Missouri J-School Masters students. But I’m not anymore.

Mizzou was always somewhat overwhelming for me. I came from a small college, probably about the size of only one of Mizzou’s many departments. The campus itself was overwhelming let alone when it was covered in students.

My arrival on campus was after my classmates because I was trying to get the most out of an internship in Montana. I knew I wouldn’t have as much time to acclimate to my new surroundings as the j-school advised but I felt I didn’t need it. I’d acclimated to a foreign country, several new cities and a ranch in a three month period so moving to a semi-large city in my home state, two hours from my hometown of St. Louis MO shouldn’t have been too hard on me.

When class started, all my classmates knew each other already and most of the faculty as well. They had time to hang out at bars and explore the town together. It added onto the already slight divide between me and my mostly white peers.

I eventually found out that I was the only African American female in my entire class. There were a couple in the class above me but they were largely working on their exit strategies and in different places than I was. I spent much of my first semester wondering if I was quota, afraid to speak in class because I imagined being called into the Dean’s office and told that as it turned out, I was not actually J-school material. So I mostly listened, and made critiques in my head to some of the insensitive comments made in class and tried to contribute enough to maintain a participation grade.

In one of my classes, it wasn’t until the end of the semester that my professor told me that he wished I had spoken more in class. Who knew anyone was listening for what I had to say. I dropped another class because I felt overlooked and thus didn’t get as much out of it as I knew I could. I didn’t want to be average in my program, I wanted to prove I had every right to be there. I decided I would try again next semester; start out stronger and hit the ground running.

Before I dropped the class, I saw the two other black students in the class who seemed to be thriving. They both were from other departments and had been in their graduate schools a lot longer than I had. I wondered where their confidence came from and how they tapped into it. Because I was never around other black graduate students in my department, I ended up getting to know a lot black undergraduates. They were in a completely different stage from me though and I knew it was passing. So I looked into joining the Association of Black Graduate Students. The group was small but professional and yet very familiar with each other. I was the only black student from the journalism department and also the only one pursuing a two year degree. My attendance was irregular as a reporter’s schedule usually is and I began to feel self-conscious about how much I could bring to the table for this group in a measly two years on an inconsistent basis when everyone else was pursuing their Ph.D’s.

As my purpose in my degree program continued to make me anxious, I started to cling to work. I had much better relationships with my those at my assistantship than in my degree program or anywhere else. This stuck out to me because my assistantship was completely outside of my degree program. As the semester went on, my relationships at my job continued to flourish and thus it became my primary focus. I would occasionally work on weekends and after office hours because that’s where I felt the most affirmed until my supervisor told me that was neither necessary nor was it policy.

Before the semester was up, I’d taken on another job. Even though I was working a 20-hour assistantship (a lot for GRA, especially in the J-school where they apparently had advised other students not to do so) I was still falling behind on bills and couldn’t cut anymore corners. I didn’t have a car note, I had a pay as you go phone and lived off campus to save on rent.

The second job was a God-send. It relieved a large amount of pressure and gave my mind time to unwind but left me going to grad school full time and working 35 hours a week as well.

When the semester finally ended and winter break kicked in, I ended up working and picking up an extra class I needed to take. The class was small, me and three white males who usually found their way to the bar afterwards.

When school started back up, I was in for a rude awakening. I would later find out (too late) that I had overloaded myself with an impossible schedule. A friend of mine would tell me at the end of the semester that the class schedule I had designed for myself was unsustainable, especially with a 20-hour assistantship and that most people in the J-school knew that. I did not. So I bowed out and lightened my load in order to preserve my GPA.

I had gone into the spring semester focusing on what I wanted out of the J-school instead of what it wanted out of me. I wanted to know who else in Columbia MO felt as disjointed and disconnected as I did. There were plenty, especially with the racial tensions deepening the divide and exploding the segregation on campus. As I tried to come to terms with my duty as a reporter to remain unbiased and un-invested, my own interactions with racism made it harder and harder to stay silent. The consequences of racism are deep, much like when someone reaches out to you and you flinch, not knowing if they’re about to stroke your cheek or hit you in the eye.

Walking across the campus did not just carry with it the time removed memories of being called a coon or being seen as a one dimensional “ghetto” character by white friends who lived in an all white town. It carried the all too current ones of being deragotively called a “Ferg-onite” by a co-worker because I was from Ferguson or being told to “go through the back” when I approached a bar with my black friends, a bar that had no back entrance mind you.

Eventually I realized that I could not disjoint myself from what was happening on campus. I couldn’t do much when there was only half of me available. W.E.B. DuBois talks about the dual consciousness of black people. It is imperative to understand that this dual consciousness can be detrimental and most of the time it is exactly that. It’s a survival method, much like taking yourself to another place while you are experiencing something traumatic. It is a symptom that something horrid has happened to you.

The only place I found solace was in a class that allowed me to seek out stories of my own interest. I was given a significant amount of freedom and used it to explore the campus’ race climate, finding out what experiences were relatively normal, which were extreme and the various coping mechanisms. Despite that class which kept my spirits afloat for five months, I ended the semester among health issues wondering how much of a failure was too much before deciding to take time off from grad school. I wanted to know if the real world was really about being this overworked and overlooked. But I also wanted to stop being disjointed. I wanted to take myself out of the place that was traumatizing me and keeping me in survival mode long enough to reconnect with myself. So I left Missouri completely and I went to Seattle.

That was in May. It is now November. For most of that time, I was on the fence about going back. I wanted to go back. I wanted to be strong enough to go back. But everything in my body told me not to do it. I told myself that Mizzou is no worse than anywhere else. Even my tiny college in Illinois that I love to this day had incredibly racist moments that made local news and required acknowledgement. But I could not love Mizzou the way I loved Augustana. And I couldn’t quite understand why, until the events of the past few days unfolded.

As Mizzou made national limelight and many changes were made swiftly, one incident solidified in my mind my decision to leave it behind.

There is a video during a protest by the concernedStudent1950 protest of students, adults and some employed by the university refusing access to reporters on the scene. I watched as reporters and faculty from my class all condemned the actions of the protesters claiming infringement on the 1st Amendment right. And in that moment I knew that I had let Mizzou go.

As faculty rallied behind the reporters “right” to have access to groundbreaking occasions, I saw the distance widening between me and an institution that could care less about how I felt or what I needed. I saw reporters who both acknowledged the lack of respect media has traditionally imposed upon vulnerable groups and dismissed its applicability in this situation in 140 characters or less. I watched the old yet reliable cliche of “despite that this has been ongoing for you, it’s not okay for it to happen to me” rear its head once again. I watched my peers cling to man-made, arbitrary declarations of entitlement and continually disrespect the psyche of the very finite and physical bodies they claim to serve.

And like the dove that was released after God flooded the Earth during the time of Noah, it was over.

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