This past week, I served in my role as a practicum student in Student Activities and Leadership at Prairie View A&M University, a small-state HBCU in the A&M system. Homecoming at HBCUs, PVAMU specifically, is a big deal. While I have been researching the history, development, and culture of HBCUs and the students who attend them, I couldn’t have possibly prepared myself for the development that occurred throughout my experience. While my experience only lasted a week, there were a few themes that stood out to me immediately.
The experience challenged me to think more critically about how people look at me. In the last week, I can’t think of a time when I was more conscious about the way that I was coming across, the impression that I was leaving, or what messages my body language and speech were sending. The discomfort of this kind of insecurity and significance of questioning such basic components of how I present myself and who I am was salient throughout the week. I knew that “eyes were upon me,” and that people were interested in (or perhaps even suspicious of) my motives for being in my position, something that I hadn’t consciously experience to such a profound extent before.
This experience challenged me to think about what it’s like be outside the “in-group.” Because I had never “spent much time around black people” (paraphrased from a question from a staff member during the week), I never experienced what life from a new lens felt like. While my transition from “culture” in Massachusetts to Texas was distinct, I navigated it on my own terms. Within the context of homecoming at PVAMU, I was at the center of what PVAMU meant to students, how they identified with one another, and how they viewed their peers in the development of their racial identities. Here, I was at the heart of the “in-group” viewed as an “outsider.” That’s not to say I felt intentionally marginalized or excluded, but I was definitely “left out,” recognizing that beyond not being a part of their PVAMU experience, I was not part of what it meant to them either.
This experience helped me to acknowledge the lack of salience of race in my life. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the topic of race was a far more common topic of conversation at PVAMU compared to TAMU, but it helped me recognize how little significance I give to my racial identity. Recognizing privilege is one avenue I have reflected on and understand is still difficult to fully grasp regarding my development, but it’s not the same as racial identity.
While privilege is part of the white identity, it is not white identity in sum. In fact, it continues to be difficult to discern or fully acknowledge as a white person, as so much of the paradigm and culture of my life is defined by and built within the white paradigm. In experiencing life at PVAMU, I recognized how distinctly my life had been built around a white paradigm and the impact of this experience on my ability to relate to students.
As I became more cognizant through this experience, I realized that I placed distance in this area because of assumptions I made, and as I allowed students to define their relationship with me and appreciated them as individuals, I found that we both became more comfortable.
This experience provided dissonance in my comfort with where I am developmentally. It was easy to place myself in a framework with the best of intentions and the most optimistic of perspectives, but I met dissonance as I experience and continued to reflect on my racial identity development. This remains profound and continues to be the source for continued development and reflection, and will certainly make for more posts in the future.