A Black Face in a White Space: My Four Years at Penn

The experience was more than just an oppressive reminder of what it means to be black in America; it was also a liberating promise of the change that’s bound to come.

Illustration by Matt Clough

My first day of class at the University of Pennsylvania was an introduction unlike anything I could have predicted. It was my fourth day living on the East Coast — I was born in the Midwest and grew up in the South — and the third time I got lost around campus. Penn felt like a huge kingdom filled with the kinds of mini-castles you’d find in Harry Potter books. The historic towers had real ivy that climbed the walls. Campus lawns and gardens were elaborate displays of exotic horticulture. It was everything I imagined it would look like, but better.

There were a few yard workers tending to the lawn as the sun began to rise. They looked at me strangely as I skipped across Locust Walk all by myself. One of the men asked if I was lost, and I told him I was headed to class.

It was 6:45 a.m. My first class was at 9 a.m., and I didn’t want to be late. It’s obvious to me now that I had first-day anxiousness I couldn’t shake off. The beginning of undergrad life was my entrance into true adulthood. My mother had left the day before and reminded me that I was now my own boss and my future was under my control — no pressure. It was instilled in me early that my admission to Penn was a sacred achievement that should not be taken for granted.

After close to an hour of touring College Green, the central hub of campus, I made it to class 20 minutes earlier than everyone else, including the teaching assistant. I definitely stood out. I wore crisp navy slacks, a blue Penn-emblem-crested button-up (sleeves rolled up), and a complementing Penn-logo tie and button — imagine Obama on the campaign trail, except rallying for Penn instead of America. Meanwhile, most of my peers wore ripped jeans, cardigans and crewnecks. Just like in high school, I sat at the front of the room — I wanted to make an impression. After all, this was “Introduction to American Politics,” taught by a former White House official.

At the end of the session, a student sitting across from me asked for the time. It was close to 10:30 a.m., and class was over. He cracked a joke, and we laughed. But a friendly conversation soon turned into an abrupt interrogation.

“Welcome to Penn, most of my family went here. I’m from Horace Mann, where did you go?” he asked.

“Elsik … it’s in Houston,” I said.

“Never heard of it, I’m from New York. Prep or public school?”

“It’s a public school.”

“Makes sense. What was it like?”

“It was cool.”

“I meant what was your rank and GPA.”

“I was valedictorian.”

“Sweet. SAT score?”

“It was solid. Why are you asking?”

“Oh, just curious. Hey, don’t intend to offend you or anything, but how much of a role do you think affirmative action played in your college admission?”

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing. No big deal.”

We quickly parted, since I was almost late for my next class. But that encounter was my first official reminder that I was a black boy in a white institution. It took a few days before the reality of that incident really seeped in and I understood the context: A rich white boy whose alumni parents could afford to spend $40,000 a year for his prep-school tuition just presumed that my race played a disproportionate role in my college acceptance. I had similar encounters later on, with entitled peers interrogating me; my presence provoked automatic disrespect.

For the next four years, I would wrestle with these scenarios — and the blatant racism one experiences while being black at prestigious institutions of higher learning. Thriving in the Ivy League means suppressing aspects of your racial identity in order to fit in. But as much as these experiences made me question my decision to attend Penn, they also, oddly, enlightened me. Where else could a guy like me confront the most privileged people on the same intellectual playground? My Penn experience was more than just an oppressive reminder of what it means to be black in America; it was also a liberating promise of the change that’s bound to come.

My high-school education was de facto segregated. I attended a fairly large public school in Houston, Alief Elsik, with a thousand students in my graduating class. My other option was a smaller magnet school in the area, named Kerr, which had higher percentages of white and Asian students. It was the crown jewel for gifted and talented kids like myself who saw it as their only way of securing a shot at college. Kerr’s graduation rate was upward of 90 percent; Elsik’s was somewhere in the 70s.

Still, I chose Elsik. Despite its reputation as a troubled urban public school, it had hidden resources that I could take advantage of. I took every AP course I could register for and found myself in the library every week, reading the free SAT and ACT books that came in. I was that kind of overachieving student — the one who did everything. I was valedictorian, senior class president, president of Future Farmers of America, Model United Nations and World Affairs Council. I was a part of the National Honor Society, Science National Honor Society and Future Business Leaders of America. I was the science fair champion. I was a theater brat who earned enough honors in the program to get a senior letterman jacket.

This was the life of a black boy who was trying to beat all odds. Growing up on the southwest side of Houston, I was nicknamed “Young Obama” by my neighbors. To them, my academic merit and social achievement mirrored those of the black man who became the president of the United States during my junior year of high school. But many people outside my neighborhood only saw me as “a lucky guy.” I went to enough cross-country academic decathlons for an entire lifetime, and I heard white students from the suburbs act as though I was some supernatural being who unexpectedly kicked their ass in a debate. “I don’t know how you did it … I’m shocked,” a white boy told me when I won my first Model United Nations conference debate in 2007. “Not bad for a dude from Elsik.” My background and school were often used to stereotype me. At first, I was flattered by these shout-outs. However, the more I heard them, the more I saw they were backhanded compliments containing more condescension than admiration. I would often eat with just my school adviser at these competitions, since the other groups didn’t take notice of me until after the winners were announced. That would be the best part of the event — winning and getting a chance to go back home, because only then would folks recognize me for my hard work and not treat me as a fluke.

In my senior year, I applied to every college I felt I could fit into. My mom had gone to college and challenged me to push myself beyond the options other students in my area were applying to. Despite where we lived, my family was never in deep poverty or dependent on government assistance — we just had to wait a little longer for the things that some upper-middle-class folks got right away.

The summer of 2010 was a difficult one because I knew that once I left Houston, there was no coming back. My send-off party was bittersweet; I think everyone, including my mother, knew my life was never going to be the same. “Don’t become Clarence Thomas,” a family friend jokingly told me the day before I headed off to Philadelphia. “Don’t let them change you.”

To be a young black man in an Ivy League atmosphere means one must always look a certain way. A haircut, a decent suit and business cards are just some of the things that can easily make or break you socially on campus. I was fortunate enough to get a refund check from scholarships I had earned outside of Penn’s financial aid package to help me assimilate a little better. Even though it’s in West Philly, Penn is an island of its own that prides itself on having a distinct culture. My first attempt at navigating Penn was through assimilation, because it was very clear that the campus wasn’t as diverse as the brochures and pamphlets had made it appear.

When I started, only seven percent of Penn’s undergraduate students and four percent of its faculty were black. In 2011, president Amy Gutmann announced a five-year Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence, with a $100 million commitment. These efforts came after the school was heavily criticized by students and faculty for its lack of racial inclusion.

Although I knew attending Penn wasn’t going to be like going to a historically black university or college, I was taken aback by the institutionalized barriers that surrounded me. To be black on Penn’s campus meant you could easily be mistaken for “a local.” At any time, including in broad daylight, campus police could stop you on your way to your dorm to “verify” that you were a Penn student. While my white peers could run around University City publicly intoxicated on weekends, I was reminded each time I was stopped and frisked by law enforcement on campus: My experience wasn’t the same. In my sophomore year, I was followed by campus police as I walked to my dorm from a nearby frat party. Before I entered the building, they stopped me to see if I had a student ID. As I quickly complied, several of my white classmates who had left the same party walked by with concerned faces. I went to bed that night humiliated and angry. At one point, I started wearing even more Penn sweatshirts and other noticeable gear to signal to police that I was a student and not a visible threat. Interestingly enough, the random police stops decreased.

I didn’t tell my family or report these experiences because I presumed that my complaints were a sign of being ungrateful. This was a place thousands of people applied to and got rejected by — why would anyone care that these incidents happened to me? I was told by others at Penn that “it was probably a misunderstanding.”

But it became hard to ignore the frequent bouts of “misunderstanding.” On campus, there is only one place dedicated to black student life. Makuu, billed as the “Black Cultural Center,” shares its cramped underground space with La Casa Latina (the Latinx cultural center) and the Pan Asian American Community House. There is now only one black academic department, Africana studies, since the university closed the Africa Center. Meanwhile, the LGBT Center has its own two-story building, and Penn Women’s Center has its own stand-alone facility as well.

It became very clear to me that Penn viewed diversity more as an obligatory chore than as an evolving principle. I felt such discomfort when the university would pressure me and others on financial aid to attend elaborate benefit parties, where mostly rich white donors would assume I grew up in deep poverty just because I couldn’t afford to pay $60,000 a year to attend Penn. As part of student government, I saw countless white student organizations get funding from Penn over black student groups (as if Penn needs another a cappella club). Such sentiments were also evident in the classroom, where I would often be informed that subject matter pertaining to black social issues wasn’t “academic enough.” I remember being told to “pick a more researched topic” for a sociology term paper I was working on about civil religion after the killing of Trayvon Martin. I planned to show how the Black Lives Matter movement arrived around the time of his death, just as the Black Panther movement rose in prominence after the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. But that pitch was shot down, and I was forced to write about a dead white man instead: JFK.

While we black students all chatted among ourselves about these experiences at Penn, we were split on how to address them. Class dynamics played a huge role in the way some viewed these experiences: Rich black students who’d gone to largely white prep schools were more passive, while working-class black students often were concerned about the risks involved if they spoke up. Fear was the common thread that I think hindered a wide swath of the black student population in combating issues on campus. While we could come out in large numbers for Black Lives Matter protests and other national causes, calling out the university was still a matter that divided us. I remember hearing a black guy in my class defend the fraternity he was part of (which was rumored to racially discriminate at its parties) because its members always treated him “like one of their own.” When another group of black guys in the room asked, “What about the rest of us?,” he shrugged. That single gesture would best symbolize the way our collective black population reacted to racial tensions at Penn.

For those reasons, I initially felt the need to adapt in order to thrive. Fitting in is a common hurdle for all college students, regardless of race, class or gender. All students will find aspects of their beliefs challenged and feel the need to appeal to larger crowds in order to seek acceptance. However, when you add racial and class disparities to those natural growing pains, students of color have it twice as bad. Back then, I felt like success at Penn meant seeking the validation of my white peers and professors. Because there were so few of us blacks at Penn, the social and professional norms within our population defaulted to the interests of our white peers. I realized early on that fitting in at Penn meant appealing to the powers that be — white people. So I stopped discussing race as openly in class and learned not to be “so sensitive” when a tasteless racial joke was told. I thought it was better to be included in this elite circle of peers than to feel excluded. While I joined student groups that weren’t targeted toward my racial identity, to prove that I could naturally socialize with my white peers, I would often be the only black guy in the room, with my suggestions ignored. Over time, it became clear that masking my blackness was subconsciously a form of survival in a place that didn’t value the diversity I had to offer. Being a black face in a white space like Penn meant being seen but not heard. For the first time in my life, I realized that all the attributes that made me unique weren’t desired. Only my ability to compromise was.

Being a part of the white gaze on campus had its ups and downs. I was one of the only black student government candidates who could garner enough votes from students each year to win election. As one of the few black columnists for the Daily Pennsylvanian, I was often told how “well-written” my pieces were and how “articulate” I was. At first, I was the Tiger Woods of Penn campus life, but I made it a point not to get too comfortable.

For one thing, campus parties “for all” often meant drunk white frat kids tokenizing a person of color. Whenever a new hip-hop dance trend arrived, I was looked at as the black expert. “Teach us how to dougie,” a group of white frat bros once told me as they finished a keg. Awkward and uncomfortable, I did the dance — but they weren’t actually trying to learn it. This minstrel act continued until I stopped going to parties altogether.

At that point, I either stayed home or explored the city outside of Penn. I got really familiar with locals in West Philly and made spots like Dahlak, an Ethiopian hookah lounge, and other surrounding Baltimore Avenue bars my safe spaces. These spots reminded me of back home, where people could just have a conversation without being pretentious — where your actual personality counted more than your summer internship prospects and GPA. It was in these moments that I fell in love with Philly and its people.

For all that Penn has positioned itself to be, it truly has yet to embrace Philadelphia for what it is — a small town masquerading as a big city. While white students blasted gangsta rap music and carelessly smoked pot on their front porches, they weren’t bold enough to step outside the campus bubble. These out-of-the-Penn-bubble moments snapped me back into reality — no matter how hard I worked to assimilate, my lived experiences as a black man weren’t ever going to reduce the oppression I faced.

The final straws came during my junior and senior years, when a slew of racially insensitive fraternity and sorority parties began to make headlines outside of campus. The student body was questioning whether mocking Mexicans with a Cinco de Febrero bash was that big a deal or if throwing a gangsta-themed party that stereotyped black locals really did cross the line. At this point, I was over it. Pretending that the disrespect consistently waged against my racial identity wasn’t an issue didn’t solve any of the problems I actually had. I decided it was time to speak out unapologetically and suffer whatever social consequences came as a result.

My column became more direct, my radio show pulled no punches, and in my role in student government, I began to call out the white privilege that once silenced me. The Penn experience that had marginalized me became the awakening I don’t believe I would have gotten anywhere else. All this time, I had presumed that I had to seek empowerment from those more equipped to attend this institution, rather than simply trusting my own instincts. As I began to recognize the power of my own voice, I realized that others valued my opinion whether they agreed or not. It was during the heated dining-hall debates on race I had with white classmates and the campus-focused protests I participated in with my black peers that I felt I was becoming the person I’d always wanted to be. I felt I finally mattered.

When I graduated from Penn in May of 2014, I felt a sense of vindication. I’d survived — not just academic rigor and stressful career searching, but institutional ridicule and social displacement. From my first day of class till my senior year, too often my sense of value at Penn was unfairly measured by people who didn’t care enough to let me exist as is — black.

I have no regrets about attending Penn, because it was a humbling experience that prepared me for the real world — one that is racist, elitist, classist and forward-looking simultaneously. Penn was a gift, a curse, and later an unexpected transformation. The Penn experience didn’t make me, but instead revealed to me a harsh reality that already existed and needed to change. It was during this revelation that I developed my love for truth telling and journalism. I would devote my life to revealing the guises that I couldn’t see growing up, so that the journeys of others wouldn’t have to be so difficult. Through all of the barriers, oppression and resilience I experienced at Penn, I found my most important asset — my voice, something I will never underestimate again.

Published as “A Black Face In A White Space” in the September 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.