Photos by Nathaniel Thompson / Contributing Photographer
Story by Shorin Estell / Contributing Writer
To be black and queer at a predominantly white institution, or PWI, is to feel like a violin in a marching band. To be black and queer at a PWI is to feel like a Dallas Cowboys fan sitting front row at a Redskins and Steelers game.
To be black and queer at a PWI is to feel like a once-crisp Sprite waiting to be consumed on a hot summer day, all its ice melted and watering down its flavor.
You get the point.
College was going to be my way out. Out of, what seemed at the time, the zero-tolerance zone that was my hometown, pressure from family and my high school peers. I just knew that I would come to college and flourish. I thought that everyone would accept me because I was a pretty cool person. College would be my escape.
Little did I know, college would be the place I’d have to water myself down the most.
I have never felt so misunderstood and out of place as I do at my PWI, a place I thought would be open to diversity. Diversity not only in race or ethnicity, but also personality, sexuality and lifestyle. I have always been “different” whether it be my sexuality, the way I dressed or the way I carried myself. I have always prided myself on never fitting in with other people and always standing out in a crowd. In college, though, fitting in (especially among black students) seemed to be the cool thing to do. It was my own fault to adopt the “As Seen On TV” version of college where everyone got along and, no matter what and who you were, you had a place and a say-so.
I have queer black friends who got that experience, but their ice has melted. They wanted to be accepted so bad that they watered themselves down. For me, that wasn’t an option. It is something that I could never do. If you have to be someone else to get people to accept you then you don’t need them in your life in the first place.
In the words of queen Erykah Badu, ‘Who gave you permission to rearrange me? Certainly not me!’
You water yourself down so that people think they have an idea of who you are. Then one day you show them the real you, and they don’t know how to accept it. You’ve been feeding them this facade of a person for so long, just to make it, and then you’re back to where you started.
Of all of the times that I’ve felt uncomfortable on my campus, it’s often been among my black brothers and sisters. You’d think that a group of people with a history of being outcast and ostracized would band together, but no. I usually just felt more welcomed by my white peers than I did my black, and that hurts to say.
I often tell the story of the time I was interested in joining a predominantly black campus organization:
I walked into the room looking nice. Shirt and tie, slacks, nice shoes — you know, the usual. The only exception was that I also had a hat on because my hair hadn’t been cut yet. I took my seat and the meeting began. Shortly after, one of the guys came over and asked me to remove my hat. When I did, I could hear the people behind me gasping, laughing and dropping their jaws. They were already a part of the organization, and they saw that my hair was a mixture of blonde, green and blue; their reactions were appropriate. That’s not what made me feel out of place, though.
As the meeting went on, the president of the organization began to go over what we needed and how we should dress for our interviews. He eventually got to hair and said, “Ladies, natural hair colors only!” But the only people in the room with unnaturally colored hair were myself and another girl with a light burgundy color. He might not have meant it the way that I took it, but it really rubbed me the wrong way. I felt as though he was being passive-aggressive about my hair color, and to add to that, more laughter from behind followed. After the meeting, a few of my friends walked up to me, asking about my hair. I laughed about it and made jokes to hide the fact that my feelings were hurt. I also assured them that my hair would be a different color when the interviews came around. I paid my application fee and headed straight to Walmart to get hair dye. I changed my hair that night and turned in my application bright and early the next day. I anticipated the phone call for me to get my interview date for days. I never got a call.
That was the day I decided that I would never again change myself to get people to accept me.
Being black and queer at a PWI, you won’t always be accepted. You won’t always feel like you belong, and people won’t always see things the way that you see it. But that’s perfectly OK. Regardless, you can still remain true to yourself and who you are. Never allow anyone to shoot you down just because you’re not like them. You should never have to dim your light just to make other people feel comfortable because that is all that it is. When people try and change who you are, it is because they’re uncomfortable with themselves, and that has absolutely nothing to do with you. Continue to shine bright even when it seems that no one sees you. Continue to be yourself even when it seems as though everyone is sleeping on you. Being yourself, you’ll attract all the right people. You’ll feel so good, and happiness will become natural. And remember this:
There is always someone watching you. You just might be someone’s very own inspiration, so keep your head up. Live your life, and most importantly, be happy.
Shorin Estell is a senior journalism major at Middle Tennessee State University. Follow him on Twitter at @shutupshorin_ and Instagram at @dopeternity.