The Other 6 Percent: Black Student Life at SUNY New Paltz

One day Delani Morgan, a black male, was dining with his friends at Siena college. Morgan was the only black person in a group of whites. Then an acquaintance joined in with the group to converse. He asked Morgan and his friends if he could sit. “Sure,” Morgan said. They were having a conversation about music, but then after a while, they started talking about weed. Morgan was the only person at the table who didn’t smoke.

Then the newcomer said, “When I was in high school, I was the most niggerly guy around.” 

Morgan knew he used the word “niggerly” to refer to the fact that he smoked a lot of weed. Morgan was angry and baffled. The student used the word “niggerly” right in front of his face.  He made it seem like smoking weed was only a black person’s activity. But Morgan remained calm and composed.

“I was really angry and upset, but I couldn’t explode because if I had, it would have just been labeled, ‘another black kid being upset.’ I didn’t want to follow the stereotype, so I just got up and left,” he said.

Delani Morgan from Cafari Reid on Vimeo.

Morgan transferred to SUNY New Paltz in fall semester of 2016. Morgan left Siena College because he was tired of what he calls “microaggression.”  This is   a term increasingly common on college campuses that describes comments or actions that are racist, even if it they weren’t intended that way.

An example of a microaggression is telling someone, “You are pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” That is implies that dark-skinned women are not pretty, but the girl is an exception. Another example is, “He speaks very well for a black man.” This comment suggests that black men are generally not articulate. Microaggressions are just one of many issues black students face on college campuses nationwide. Although many colleges are taking steps to create a more inclusive and diverse environment, black students still find it difficult to maintain their cultural identity while interacting with white students and faculty on a predominantly white campus.  

Siena College is a private college that is predominantly white, while blacks make up about 3.4 percent of the population, according to Collegefactual.comMorgan transferred to SUNY New Paltz thinking it would be different.

The Demographics of SUNY New Paltz

According to the SUNY New Paltz institutional research website, during the 2016 fall semester, six percent of New Paltz’s population are Black or African American. Of the 6,582 undergraduates at New Paltz in fall 2016, only 374 of them were Black.

White students, in contrast, are 63 percent of the population totaling 4,130 students. The rest of the students are Latino, Asian, multi-racial and other non-white unspecified.

The percentage of black students at New Paltz, just 90 miles north of New York City, falls well below both national and SUNY-wide figures. On a national scale, 14 percent of college students nationwide are Black or African American, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. According to the SUNY education system website, 10 percent of students in the SUNY system were black in fall 2016. Morgan likes the SUNY New Paltz’s community a lot more than Siena College.

“I knew that New Paltz would have been more diverse than Siena, and I really needed a clean start,” he said.

Morgan and a classmate, Patrick Derilus, are the only two black students in his Introduction to American Literature class. There’s one other man, and he is white. The rest of the class are white women. One day, the professor, a white woman, and the class were discussing Zora Neale Hurston’s book Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book has a good amount of black southern dialect.

While the professor was reading the book, Derilus said, “Without hesitancy, she says ‘niggers,’ right in front of us.”

Derilus was shocked, but he didn’t say anything until the next day. He emailed her telling her that she really offended him. She then responded to Derilus’ email, saying she realized “too late” that the word may have offended Derilus and Morgan.

She apologized to Derilus and told him she had only academic intentions. “I have read, studied, taught, and written about African-American literature for over 25 years and am very aware of the intellectual and emotional difficulties at issue in that word,” she said in an email. 

Derilus didn’t like the professor’s apology. He said the excuse she gave of studying African American literature was as deplorable as saying, “I have a black friend, so I am not racist.” Derilus said he felt the apology from his professor was “B.S.” He derided the idea the professor could use the word because she was a scholar.

During an interview I had an interview with the professor, she explained why she read the word, and that she did not mean to offend Derilus.

“Ignoring the word is not going to teach the world about the significance of the word,” the professor said.

Morgan didn’t have a problem with her reading the ’n’ word, but he said, “she should have talked to us at the end of class, and taken the necessary steps to see if we were okay with it.”

Black Students and Their Relationships With Faculty

Black students’ experiences with faculty can have a profound impact on how well they do in class, according to research by Douglas Guiffrida and Kathryn Douthit in the Journal of Counseling & Development. Being in the minority also matters greatly.

They found research that only 40 percent of black students who begin college will ultimately graduate, compared to more than 61 percent of white students. The gap gets even wider for black students enrolled in predominantly white institutions.

In an interview with Doug Guiffrida, he discussed strategies use to support black students. Students in his study discussed how black faculty tended to look out for black students in more developed ways.

“They would keep their eye on them, even if they weren’t their advisor,” Guiffrida said. “They would ask them to come in every week and talk about personal stuff.”

Guiffrida gave an example of a student who was having a hard time affording college and couldn’t buy the textbooks for classes. She approached her professors, who were mostly white. Most of her professors were nice about it. Some made her make copies of the readings. But the student’s black professor went a step further. She helped the student get a job.

“If I was struggling and admitting some kind of vulnerability, I’d prefer a professor of color, so I might avoid being looked down on as a person of color by a white professor,” Bellah Williams, a 2017 African American graduate from SUNY New Paltz, said. 

Guiffrida and Douthit’s research identified one reason white faculty fail to connect with the black students: the black students perceive white faculty as “culturally insensitive.” White professors might make stereotypical comments about blacks, or ask the one black student in the classroom to be the voice of all black people for this topic.

“White professors would give inappropriate praise such as, ‘You are smart, you speak well,’” Guiffrida said. “People of color will take that as, ‘Because I am black, you are assuming I can’t speak well.’”

Derilus said, “When white people would say, ‘You speak articulately,’ I don’t see it as a compliment anymore. I see it as a racist micro-aggression.”

These moments are off putting, and may lead black students to be more reluctant to ask white faculty for help, a crucial strategy in student success.

At SUNY New Paltz, 82.9 percent of faculty is white, according to Collegefactual.com. Only 4.6 percent of its faculty is black or African American. Students who want a black professor, they might have to take a black studies class, because the program is mainly comprised of black professors.

Life Outside the Classroom for Black Students

Sophomore Moses Oscar

Moses Oscar is a sophomore at SUNY New Paltz. One day, he was hanging out in his dorm room trying to enjoy time with friends. The group was white, except for him and his Indian friend.

Then Oscar looked at the corner of his eye and saw one of his white friends staring at his hair, which is styled in a short afro. After some time had passed, Oscar looked at his friend again. He was still staring.

Oscar was the first black friend that his friend ever had. Oscar didn’t want to be an object of curiosity, but he wasn’t sure how to respond. “I can’t say ‘Oh, I saw on your face that you were thinking negative stuff about my hair,’ or I would sound crazy,” Oscar said. “Things like that I can’t bring up to people because they don’t get it.”

In dozens of interviews conducted across campus, a lot of black students say they feel uncomfortable. black students can feel it in their dorm room with their white roommate, at lunch with their white friends, or in a classroom full of white students when they are the only black student present. The world of an African American students on predominantly white campuses is far more complex than their white classmates can imagine.

“I feel that I have to stand out in a more positive way. If everybody is giving 100 percent, I feel that I have to give 150 percent, because I am black,” Delani Morgan said.

Lack of diversity can have a negative impact on black students. In “The Cost of Balancing Academia and Racism,” Atlantic editor, Adrienne Green, discussed the results of a national survey on 1,500 first year college students, by two leading mental health organizations, the JED foundation and the Steve Fund.

Green wrote, “50 percent of white students felt more academically prepared than their peers, versus 36 percent of black students; white students were also more likely to feel emotionally prepared for college. Meanwhile, 57 percent of black students said that college wasn’t ‘living up to their expectations,’ compared to 47 percent of white students.”

Delani Morgan was happy to be away from home when he first arrived at Siena college. “However, as I looked around me and saw that no one understood me, I felt like an outcast,” Morgan said. “I’d get weird stares and some people looked scared of me.”

Bellah Williams, the former student, said being a black person on a predominantly white space makes her and her friends feel very visible in their identity, and it is very unsettling. When Williams is going through her everyday life, she feels she is “walking on eggshells.” She is afraid of how she is being perceived by whites around her and doesn’t want to be stereotyped. Oscar, the sophomore, said he stifles his emotions to avoid being called the “loud, black, crazy guy.”

Colorism Inside the Classroom

Sociologist, Margaret Hunter, identified another obstacle for blacks in college: colorism. Writing in Sociology Compass, she discussed the association in the classroom between light-skinned- European facial features and positive characteristics like “civility, modernity, sophistication, backwardness, beauty, and virtue.”

“Teacher expectations exert a powerful influence on student achievement,” Hunter wrote. “If teachers, of any race, expect their light-skinned students of color to be smarter, more academically prepared, from better families, and better behaved than their darker-skinned classmates, the students may rise and fall to meet those racialized expectations.”

Shadene Spencer, an African American sophomore at SUNY New Paltz, said she thinks she has an even harder time adjusting to college than lighter skinned black students. “It is hard adjusting here especially when you’re of the darker hue,” Spencer said.

Organizations that Help Students of Color Succeed

For blacks to succeed on predominantly white campuses, they should have good emotional, academic and financial support from their families back home and from the minority faculty on campus, according to Guiffrida and Douthit’s research. Antonio Bonilla is the director of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) at SUNY New Paltz. A program mostly comprised of minority students. The main goal of the program is to provide access to students who would not be admitted to the college through the general admissions criteria. EOP’s goal is to ensure that students feel comfortable academically and socially.

“We have mandated things for them to do. They have to take a class called freshman seminar and we teach them all the college skills,” said Bonilla. “We teach them time management, test taking, strategy, research, presentation, and public speaking.”

Jhadiah Green is a black sophomore in EOP. “That class helped me understand how important it was to know about what I wanted to do with my major,” he said. “The class gave me insight on what’s going on in the world and on campus and the role the students play in it.”

EOP students are graduate in four years because of the help the program provides with its student mentors and college counselors. “It’s not the lack of ability, it’s just the support that they need,” Bonilla said.

Guiffrida and Douthit’s research also found that involvement in minority student organizations helps students in bridge the cultural gap that exists between their home environments and predominantly white campuses.

Nicole Carr, a black studies professor at SUNY New Paltz, said even though the population of blacks at the school is small, black organizations  like  the Black Student Union, the African Woman Alliance, the African Student Union, are active.

“You have to cultivate spaces on and off this campus where you can be whoever are,” Carr said.

Moses Oscar, the sophomore, said black students come together at the Black Student Union. “It gives you some kind of hope,” he said. “It reminds me of home.”

Rosa Rosario is the former president of Black Student Union (BSU). “We tell black students to come to general information events and other programs,” she said. “We try to make the black students feel they are a part of the community.”

Programs and clubs such as EOP or BSU help black students to succeed in their college experience. If you are a black student on any predominantly white campus and struggle in your college experience because of that reason, go to these black clubs’ events so you can better your college experience.

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