My white friend invited me to a boxing fight party at his house, where he lived with one other white man, an Asian, and a Latino international exchange student (who was in his first semester at our ultra-white state school). Boxing never interested me, but the idea of beer, camaraderie, and men punching each other until they bled excited me. It was the ultra-hyped Mayweather v. MacGregor match, so there was a lot of excitement surrounding the fight. As a student at a predominantly white institution (PWI), I had traversed white spaces for years. I grew up in a majority-minority community and then went to an uber-white high school. I know whiteness. I know its ins and outs, I understood how white spaces differed from the mostly Black and Brown spaces I was accustomed to growing up, and I learned how to prosper in a space that was not designed for me to exist within. Importantly, I am constantly examining how race, gender, and sexuality affect power dynamics & culture, with a skeptical eye on the majority.
At this viewing party, I could count the number of racial minorities on one hand and still have a finger left. Two Black guys, one Latino, and an Asian. The white people around me were… pretty drunk. As a policy, I don’t allow myself to become embarrassingly drunk in front of large white crowds. Remember, I have to represent all Black people and be a poster child for Black intellectualism, so I was mostly sober at the party. Before the fight began, I was Team Floyd – a boxing legend, or so I read on Twitter. I talked to my parents beforehand and we were all Team Floyd, so I felt supported in my empirically-based decision to back the actual boxer in the match. (MacGregor made his career in MMA fighting.) At this party, I quickly learned I was the only Mayweather supporter among the group, so I faded into the background and kept quiet, because it felt weird being the only person who supported the boxer in the boxing match, the only thing that made sense to me.
The fight began, and can quickly be summarized as a parallel to the four-hundred-year history of Blacks on this continent. Mayweather is measured in his advances, but MacGregor is ferociously and unrelentingly pounding on him (slavery & reconstruction). Mayweather moves around the ring, still taking punches, no matter where he goes (the Great Migration). MacGregor gloats, in typical white fashion, but eventually tires because of lack of foresight and perseverance (similar to how silver spoon types find themselves unemployed because daddy got them the job but discover that they can’t do the work). Mayweather capitalizes on his opponent’s fatigue and finally delivers. The referee (who is Black – very important) declares Mayweather the victor by a Technical Knockout. In our historical parallel, this takes us just up to Nov. 4, 2008 when Barack Obama wins the election to become the 44th President of the United States (we miss you, B.O.).
Cue the white tears. I wish I could tell you that there wasn’t a grown man crying over a boxing match that he didn’t even bet money on, but there were physical white tears present in the room. The ruling was “unfair” and Floyd “cheated” and all these other crazy accusations floated in the air. It wasn’t long until I actually heard the terms “Affirmative Action” and “reverse racism” uttered. I groaned and looked over towards the other Black guy in the room, a freshman with little regard for this egregious attack on Blackness in this space full of musty, inconsolable white tears. I realized I was more alone than I thought.
I listened in disbelief as everyone else in the room hurled accusations of favoritism and unfairness because both the referee and the victor were Black. I had to critically examine what was going on in that space. I was in a white space that had never had to grapple with non-white sentiments. If we separate the concept of “whiteness” from “white people,” we understand that whiteness transcends white people and fills all spaces it ever meets. These people didn’t think about the two Black people in the room before spewing racism from their lips. The other Black guy was completely oblivious. I was amongst people who were so deeply immersed within whiteness that I had become either white or invisible to them.
What had I gotten myself into? We gathered in a white space to watch America’s race relations play out on a literal stage and in real time. Within that ring, there were two too many Brown people for any white audience to be satisfied with the outcome. White spaces cannot celebrate Black and Brown success because they were never designed for Black or Brown people to even exist within. Whiteness quivers at the thought of Black or Brown excellence, and attempts to subvert it by challenging it at every turn.
This is the challenge that faces the modern PWI. They love to take our pictures for promotional materials; they love to tout their new, exploitive “diversity” initiatives; and they love to put up half-baked displays of multiculturalism in February, May, and September at Black History, Asian-Pacific American Heritage, and Hispanic Heritage months. For the last twenty years, these strategies have failed at their true purpose, and have only pacified white people who feel like they are at least doing “something.” What PWIs have yet to do is reconcile genuinely with their own oppressive histories of racism and exclusion, and they have failed to redesign their white spaces to genuinely include visions and voices of color. I cannot succeed in the eyes of my white peers without having stepped on someone, having cheated someone white, or having had help from a person in power. I have been called “lucky” that I was even accepted into my university, as if my accomplishments and acumen that led me there were completely invalid based on my skin color. How could I ever find and celebrate success in a space where so many of my peers take one look at me and think that I don’t belong there? No one that looks like me will fully celebrate their deserved success until PWIs design equitable spaces of understanding, where Black and Brown success won’t be destroyed by white fragility.
Jarrodd Davis is an urban planning student at Virginia Tech. Finding peace through yoga and cycling, he finds himself stuck in small-town life, trying to enjoy bumping into the same three people at the grocery store. He is passionate about language learning, and believes everyone should acquire an additional language (his is French). You can follow him @SkilletGang on both Twitter and Instagram.
This story has been published as the second installment of a new series, Surviving PWIs for POC, about the experiences of students of color in higher education. The series is edited by Shanice Arlow. If you are interested in submitting, please contact Weave News here.