The Reality behind the Highlight Reel:
Being a student of color at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI)
I grew up Black and convincingly middle class in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was often the only Black child in extracurricular activities (the swim team, ballet classes, science camp) and one of a handful Black students in my classes at school. This awareness brought both pride and shame; I understood I was not like the children around me but I did not know if my position was one to celebrate or mourn.
When I reached middle school, I began to discover the delight of being something of a spectacle. I was impressive to adults simply because I was Black and could do all the things that white children could do. You’re so articulate, white teachers would croon at me with surprise and awe. I quickly learned that being Black in white spaces was a privilege—Black kids like me got to do things that white kids did, and that put me at an advantage.
To be Black in primarily white spaces is to constantly reckon with what W.E.B DuBois called double-consciousness, the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” As a child, I learned quickly to see myself how white people saw me, and decided that if I was going to be viewed differently by virtue of my pigment, I wanted to control what was seen.
I made a point to be on my best behavior. I determined to prove myself worthy of the attention I so often received. Without having the language for it, I became a walking and breathing example of respectability politics, generally defined, here by Damon Young, as “what happens when minority and/or marginalized groups are told (or teach themselves) that in order to receive better treatment from the group in power, they must behave better.”
I spent years struggling to find balance between the need to hide or show up—to choose between self-erasure and performance. I carried the burden of feeling like I needed to be a representative for every Black person. I developed a sense of perfectionism. I strove to be excellent and did not allow myself to be anything less than.
This, undoubtedly, earned me admission to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the oldest public institutions in the United States. Having spent so many years as the only Black person in the room—and utterly exhausted by the never-ending battle of feeling hyper surveilled in white spaces—I gave myself permission to seek community among other Black students. I fled to Black spaces. I found refuge there. I even started the process of joining a historically Black sorority, for the thrill of being at parties where everyone in the room looked just like me.
“The black kids sit with the black kids, Sherri,” says an exasperated Roberta in Joshua Harmon’s Admissions. Those not seated at the table might call this “self-segregation.” Those of us sitting there understand that our togetherness is a response to a world that refuses to see us as worthy—it is an act of survival.
I know my admission to a competitive school was the subject of many private conversations and the source of much judgement for those who doubted my qualifications. The presence of Black people in white spaces always exists in the context of a legacy of disparate access. These spaces are full of ghosts from the past—full of unending reminders of my supposed otherness.
I spent years grasping for what white folks told me I should want. In Admissions, Perry’s mother, Ginnie, explains, “Perry didn’t want to do anything Charlie wasn’t” and “He wanted the Yale sweatshirt, too.” I can imagine that I, like the fictional Perry, was socialized by well-intentioned white people to believe that aligning myself with whiteness would keep me safe and ensure my success in the world.
I know, now, that this is not true. I learned this from being in Black spaces with people who saw me as dynamic and wholly complex—as inherently deserving of a beautiful human experience. Perhaps if I had known this as a high school student, I would have made some different choices. Still, I do not begrudge or regret my college experience. I only wish I would have known that it could never be captured in a brochure or website photo, and I didn’t have to prove to anyone, even myself, that I deserved to be there.