The Black woman has in many ways always been the mule of the world. Over the course of history, we have picked cotton, led movements, fought for our right to learn how to read, won Grammy’s and Oscar’s, been the First Lady, and even earned Ivy League degrees.
Ivy League degrees, wow we really made it! There was a point in time when Black women were not even allowed to enroll in college and now we earn Ivy League degrees and graduate from college in general at extremely high rates. But have we overcome? Does any of this really matter? Will any of this enable us to better our condition?
I of course would like to think that this degree will matter. I don’t expect it to change the color of my skin and I’m not even sure that I want it to change how people interact with me because of it. I just know that I want to be equipped to be apart of being whatever change I wish to see and maybe even have it lend me some credibility. Because, let’s be honest, if every time I speak in class, a professor or fellow student tells me afterwards, “You’re so eloquent” or “I really agreed with your ideas,” what are people really expecting of me? (Comments by the way that are NEVER said to my white male or female counterparts. Don’t debate me on that, it’s true.)
Those comments always make me want to scream. I was admitted to Cornell too, what am I supposed to sound like? Is the scathing reply I come up with in my head. I never voice this. I simply say “Thank you” and wonder what people think when they see me, whether they know I go to Cornell or not. And, if they do know, does that change any of the expectations?
The experience I’m about to describe does not have a direct correlation to academic expectations but I think it speaks to the experience of being a black women who demonstrates one set of abilities in contrast to potential larger societal stereotypes/fears/realities.
On a recent trip back to Cornell from meetings in New York City, I was pulled over by the cops. This was of course an extremely nerve racking experience for me. I mean cops kill Black people, male and female alike EVERY day. I think the proper statistic is every 28 hours, but that’s essentially the same thing. Needless to say, I was terrified. I handed the cop my license and registration for the car and in my head was praying to God that I wouldn’t become a #hashtag. He asked me all sorts of questions. Where was I coming from? New York City/Connecticut, I said. Well which one was it? Both. I had interviews in NYC and I stayed in Connecticut. Where are you going? Back to school. Which is where? Cornell University. Oh okay. Wait here. *cue dramatic about to die music* I swear those 10 minutes I spent waiting for him to process my license and the registration were excruciating. He didn’t give me a chance to explain. He quite frankly was very rude.
It was after this exchange with the cop that I turned to the girls I was riding with, who all just happened to be white and say, “I’m so glad you all were here and I’m so glad you all are white.” I shudder to think about what would have happened if I was by myself or with my friends who look like me. It wasn’t my car, I was only driving because the owner was tired, and rightfully so she had driven around 6-7 hours over the course of the previous two days on 3 hours of sleep. I have a license. I volunteered to drive. It was the nice and safe thing to do.
I was struck by the way the cop responded to me and couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if my skin was a bit lighter. Would that have changed anything? Generally, people are more likely to give me and others the benefit of the doubt when we mention Cornell. Did this cop just need to fill his quota or did he just not care? Was he surprised a black girl was on her way back to an Ivy League school from important meetings in what some would argue is one of the best cities in the world?
I had a Cornell ILR School t-shirt on. I hadn’t been driving as fast as the cop said I was. I tried to tell him all of this and he didn’t seem to care. I wasn’t trying to get out of the ticket. I figured he was going to give it to me anyway. But I wondered, if someone else in the car had been driving, how would he have treated them? I’m not trying to make this scenario about race. I’m just wondering aloud if any of it matters. Does going to Cornell really matter if at the end of the day, certain sects of society are going to view me a certain way because of the color of my skin? If I still fear the cops because I look a certain way, and they treat people like me a certain way no matter what they have going for them, why am I even bothering to strive for more?
Growing up, I always hoped that I would “make it.” I’d go to my big fancy college and maybe being black wouldn’t matter as much as it had for those who came before me. Cornell or whatever elite university I attended would shield me. Please don’t get me wrong, I love being black. I just don’t always appreciate the stigmas and structural nonsense that comes with it. If America never loved me, why am I slaving away to be apart of her society? If this system was never designed with me in mind, why do I desire to be apart of it in some way? If police kill black people every 28 hours, why don’t we all just stay at home?
Audre Lorde said, “The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” So, as a Black woman, at an Ivy League, or elite university, I have to ask, what are we really working, taking classes, stressing ourself out for?
I (we) of course don’t have the answers. We’re obviously still in school because on some level, we hope that this will matter- how/why/towards what purpose is maybe not known. I guess what I’m struggling with is this question: how do I(we) reconcile any gains I(we) may have made personally with how I’m(you’re) viewed because of something you had no control over choosing?
Is an Ivy League (elite) degree enough to “better our condition” or am I looking at this the wrong way?