I do not always resemble elegance
I trade pieces of my gold
For promises of security
I do not always hold my head high with integrity
As I sit in classrooms
Full of people who look nothing like me
I buy my peace
With the promise to calm my shimmering
I dull my light
So that other
Appear to shine
I do this
I feel less than
Do you remember when people would say, “I don’t see color,” with a smile on their faces as if they had just become less threatening to your brown body? Or was that a time I dreamed? I reflect on how I would choke on my words and bite my tongue, thinking to myself, “Well, at least they have good intentions.” But to erase an identity rather than acknowledge it, because acknowledgment is uncomfortable, is not a compliment.
Institutions have seemed to follow this pattern. They seem to think that treating all students the same is the goal. It’s an overemphasizing of equality and an overlooking of equity.
Every once in a while when BIPOC students emerge from their safe haven — in our case, the University of Minnesota Duluth Multicultural Center — cameras are brought out to show the diversity. If you were to follow us, though, you would see us not heading to a group of diverse friends but to another safe haven; the common area is just a place to be braved, as we walk to another space where we are not the spectacle. Where people feel free to say they see color because it is only them who look like you, who understand that if you do not see color you do not see the whole person.
We are a product of a system: Your whiteness set as the default and everyone else is something different. Our experiences as BIPOC are what brought us to where we are.
It is not just racial slurs that we need to combat or filter. It is the failure to see, hear, and listen to brown students. It is the understanding that when George Floyd was murdered, when the Asian community was hit with a mass shooting, when Adam Toledo was killed, when Daunte Wright was killed, when Ma’Khia Bryant was killed, we felt it in our brownness and you saw it on television while feeling safe in your whiteness.
That is why you need to see us. Not every brown story is the same. Some have less trauma, some have more, but there is trauma or there will be because it is in the way you talk, walk, and experience life.
Joshua T. Dickerson wrote this poem, “Cause I Ain’t Got a Pencil”:
I woke myself up
Because we ain’t got an alarm clock
Dug in the dirty clothes basket,
Cause ain’t nobody washed my uniform
Brushed my hair and teeth in the dark,
Cause the lights ain’t on
Even got my baby sister ready,
Cause my mama wasn’t home.
Got us both to school on time,
To eat us a good breakfast.
Then when I got to class the teacher fussed
Cause I ain’t got no pencil
We are not going to always have a pencil. I would like to argue that sometimes the world doesn’t even give us one. When Daunte Wright was killed, it was a Sunday. On Monday, I sobbed, vomited, and sat and took a quiz because I knew that my mental health, my blackness, my trauma was not enough to call in. That is a feeling of neglect caused by the institution that is meant to educate me, but I fear it fails to educate itself on how best to educate me.
Rikkia Walker is a communications major and study abroad ambassador at the University of Minnesota Duluth.