Attending a PWI as a Black Woman

When you're a black person at a predominantly white institution (PWI University for example), you're always hyper aware that you are black. You're reminded when you walk to class, and only pass 4 black students. You're reminded once you arrive, and it's only you and one other black student in your class. You're reminded when you get in trouble for doing the same things your white peers get away with so often. You are black. You are an outsider. And you won’t forget it, in that environment.

In high school, I felt like an outcast. I was too hyper-aware of my blackness to allow microaggressions (everyday verbal assaults or snubs that target a specific marginalized group) to breeze right over me. But I also I didn't understand why I felt so uncomfortable when they happened. Not to mention, my body was too curvy to shop at the same stores as my skinny white classmates. My family also didn't have enough money to go to the same places they vacationed every school break. In addition to the added stress of trying to relate to my white classmates, there's an understanding in the black community that one has to work twice as hard to be seen as half as good. I felt that pressure from the moment I first started school. No matter how hard I worked to assimilate, it would never be enough. This stuck with me throughout college, where, again, I chose to attend a PWI.

I think my mother's reasoning behind sending me to study at PWIs was that she wanted me to have the best possible chance to get ahead. She'd always say to me that I was a smart kid, and would do well wherever I went, yet still sent me to schools that distanced me from black peers. My mom, however, didn't attend a PWI until college because schools were mostly still segregated. She went to a 98% black high school that only started bussing in white children when she was a freshman in 1969. She experienced a lot of covert racism too. Her white friends, that lived in her same neighborhood, would talk to her on the way to and from school, but never in the presence of their other white peers. They would pretend as if they didn't know my mother. It was interesting talking to her about her experience, because even today, she understands those actions as normal behaviour, and not racist. Perhaps my mom did not want me to be surprised by these same microaggressions, and thought sending me to school with white people would better help me navigate the realities of the world around me.

 At the root of it all, her sending me to PWIs, embodies anti-blackness. We focus on assimilating into white environments rather than embracing and building our own. However, on the surface, she just wanted me to have all the opportunities she never did, and to have a chance for a brighter future. She knew that black children were not afforded the same set of circumstances because she was once deprived of them as a black child. Going to a PWI is like a double-edged sword; on one hand, you get a lot of opportunities you might not have otherwise had access to. For example, I went to South Africa on a school-sponsored trip, but this privilege is granted in exchange for identity crisis’s, microaggressions, and never knowing where you fit in. I truly believe PWIs breed anti-blackness. I was conversing with a good friend of mine who still feels like she doesn't have a healthy understanding of blackness based on her experiences at PWIs. She feels like she has a hard time identifying with her own blackness.

From a psychological standpoint, the aforementioned problems with PWIs can be damaging to black children's mental health. I remember a time when I was at a speech meet in high school, and after I performed my piece, a white judge told me that I was very articulate and that she was impressed. Though she thought she was giving me a compliment, what she was really saying is black children are not articulate, and she is surprised that I am. Though I went on to place in the top 5 at that speech meet, her words severely affected my mood, and have had a lasting impact. I still remember it over ten years later. We internalize these microaggressions, sometimes even subconsciously. Black people in America are still dealing with the effects of slavery, be it through respectability politics, the school-to-prison pipeline, or the wealth gap between black and white Americans. Black Americans are still viewed as less-than our white counterparts and are often denied the same rights and freedoms, like the ability to make it home safely from a traffic stop or purchasing candy from the neighborhood one-stop-shop without being harassed or killed.

Overall, attending PWIs helped shape the woman I am today. I am able to better recognize and navigate racism because I spent a majority of my formative years experiencing it, both covertly and overtly. Though my childhood was never pretty, I'm a stronger person because I had to be while undergoing it, and I have to be with every new encounter. I just hope that the work I'm doing now, in the psychology field, creates and paves the way for future generations to never have to experience what I did.


 Captured by Brandon Ingra

Captured by Brandon Ingra

When not writing for (Tonja's blog), Kristen can be found doing crisis intervention therapy with children, drinking a glass of wine, writing a dope poem, or educating folks on oppression and intersectionality. Catch up with her on twitter: @bougiebish, Instagram: @believe_the_hype or shoot her an email at to keep the conversation going!