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AUGUST 31, 1992
A Guide For White Campus Survival
BY NIKKI GIOVANNI
Reprinted from Aug 1991 Essence
There is a bumper sticker that
reads; “Too bad ignorance isn’t
painful.” I like that But ignorance
is. We just seldom attribute the pain
to it or even recognize it when we
Like the postcard on my
corkboard. It shows a young man
in a very hip jacket smoking a
cigareae. In the background is a
high school with the American flag
waving. The caption says: “Toocool
for school. Yet too stupid for the
real world.” Out of the mouth of the
young man is a bubble enclosing
the words“Maybe I’ll start aband.”
There could be a postcard
showing a jock in a uniform saying,
“1 don’t need school. I’m going to
the NFL or NBA.” Or one showing
a young man or woman studying
and a group of people saying, “So
you wanna be white.” Or something
We need to quit it.
I am a professor of English at
Virginia Tech. I’ve been here for
four years, though for only two years
with academic rank. I am tenured,
which means I have a teaching
position for life, a rarity on a
predominantly white campus.
Whether from malice or
ignorance, people who think I
should be at predominantly black
institutions will say, “Why are you
at Tech?” Because it is here. And so
are black students.
But even if black students
weren’t here, it’s painfully obvious
that this nation and this world cannot
allow white students to go through
higher education without interacting
with blacks in authoritative
positions. It is equally clear that
predominantly black colleges
cannot accommodate the number
of black students who want and
need an education.
Is it difficult to attend a
predominantly white college?
Compared to what? Being passed
over for promotion because you
lacked credential? Being turned
down for jobs because you are not
college-educated? Joining the
armed forces or going to jail because
you cannot find an alternative to the
streets? Let’s have a little
Where can you go and what can
you do that frees you from
interacting with the white American
mentality? You’re going to interact;
the only question is, will you be in
some control of yourself and your
actions, or will you be controlled by
others? I’m going to recommend
What’s the difference between
prison and college? They both
prescribe your behavior for a given
period of time. They both allow you
to read books and develop your
writing. They both give you time
alone to think and time with your
peers to talk about issues. But four
years of prison doesn’t give you a
passport to greater opjxxtunities.
Most likely that time only gives
you greater knowledge of how to
get back in. Four years of college
gives you an opportunity not only
to lift yourself but to serve your
What’s the difference when you
are called a nigger in college from
when you are called a nigger in
prison? In college you can, though
1 admit with effort, follow
procedures to have those students
who called you a nigger kicked out
or suspended. You can bring issues
to public attention without risk of
your life. But nx)stly college is and
always has been the future. We,
neither less nor more than other
people, need knowledge.
There are discomfc*ts attached
to attending predominantly white
colleges, though no more so than
living in a racist world. Here are
some rules to follow that may help:
GO TO CLASS
No matter how you feel. No
matter how you think the professor
feels about you. It’s important to
have a consistent presence in the
classroom. If nothing else, the
professor will know you care enough
and are serious enough to be there.
MEET YOUR PROFESSORS
Extend your hand (give a firm
handshake) and tell them your name.
Ask them what you need to make an
A. You may never make an A but
have pul them or notice that you are
serious about making good grades.
DO ASSIGNMENTS ON TIME
j Typed or computer-generated.
You have the syllabus. Follow it.
And turn those papers in. If for
some reason you can’t complete an
assignment on time, let your
professor know before it is due and
work out a new due date-then meet
GO BACK TO SEE YOUR
Tell him or her your name again.
If an assignment received less than
an A, ask why and fmd out what you
need to do to improve the next
Yes, your professor is busy. So
arc you. So are your parents who are
working to pay or help with your
tuition. Ask early what you need to
do if you feel you are starting to get
into academic trouble. Do not wait
until you are failing.
UNDERSTAND THAT THERE
WILL BE PROFESSORS THAT
DO NOT LIKE YOU
There may even be professors
who are racist or sexist or both. You
must discriminate among your
professors to see who will give you
the help you need. You may not
simply say “They’reall against me.”
They aren’t. They mostly don’t
They mostly don’t care. Since you
are the one who wants to be
educated, find the people who want
DON’T DEFEAT YOURSELF
Cultivate your friends. Know
your enemies. You cannot undo
hundreds of years of prejudicial
thinking. Think for yourself and
speak up. Raise you hand in class.
Say what you believe no matter
how awkward you may think it
sounds. You will improve in your
articulation and confidence.
PARTICIPATE IN SOME
JOIN THE NEWSPAPER
STAFF. Run for office. Join a dorm
council. Do something that involves
you on campus. You are going to be
there for four years, so let your
presence be known, if not felt
You will inevitably run into some
white classmates who are troubling
because they often say stupid things,
ask stupid things-and expect an
answer. Here are some comebacks
to some of the most common
inquiries and comments:
Q: What’s it like to grow up in a
A: I don’t know
Q: (From the teacher) Can you
give us the black perspective on
Toni Morison, Huck Finn, slavery,
Martin Luther King, Jr., and others?
A: I can give you my perspective.
(Do not take the burden of 22 million
people on your shoulders. Remind
everyone that you are an individual
and don’t speak for the race or any
other individual within it.)
Q: Why do all the black people
sit together in the dining hall?
A: Why do all the white students
Q: Why should there be an
African American studies course?
A: Because white Americans
have not adequately studied the
contributions of Africans and
African Americans. Both black and
white students need to know our
total common history.
Q: Why are there so many
scholarships for “minority”
A: Because they wouldn’t give
my great-grandparents their 40 acres
and a mule.
of black people on campus, it’ sreally
Comeback: I understand what
you mean. I’m really frightened
when I see white students
Comment: It’s not fair. It’s
easier f(x you guys to get into college
than for other people.
Comeback: If it’s so easy, why
aren’t there more of us?
Comment: It’s not our fault the
way America is the way it is.
Comeback: It’s not our fault
either, but both of us have a
responsibility to make changes.
It’s really very simple.
Educational progress is a national
concern; education is a private one.
Your job is not to educate white
people; it is to obtain an education.
If you take the world on your
shoulders, you will not get the job
done. Deal with yourself as an
individual worthy of respect, and
make everyone else deal with you
the same way. College is like playing
grown—up. Practice what you want
to be. You have been telling your
parents you are grown. Now is your
chance to act like it.
Q: How can
and so forth?
A: The same
way we understand
white history ,
and so forth— to
whites take African
A: Of course.
We take white
call them that.
When I see groups
Alipta ISappa Aipte h
AlplM PM Alpte
"Why Choose the White
Sept. 9, 1992 7:00p.m.
at the Black Cultural