I have been told that attending a predominantly white institution, or a PWI, as a person of color is a learning experience in and of itself. Lawrence is no exception.
Growing up on the west coast of the United States, I was not immune to bigotry, underrepresentation, or prejudice, but I experienced it on a much smaller scale than I have as a Pakistani-American woman in Wisconsin.
College was full of exciting firsts: new friends from all over the world, my first time living out of state, and my first time creating my own school schedule. On the other hand, however, I faced challenges I had never faced before: my first time learning in exclusively white classrooms, my first time being taught by mainly white male professors, my first time being stared at while walking down the street, and my first time having what I thought were basic human rights casually questioned based on my culture and the color of my skin.
I was told, coming to a PWI, that it would be an opportunity to singlehandedly educate my peers, but that is a rhetoric with which I largely disagree. Change is not simply a matter of being louder or large in numbers—it is a matter of changing attitudes while being exactly who we are—brown skin, thick dark hair, spicy food and all. It is not our job to end racism, for we did not create it, and we do not preserve it, but it may be our responsibility to dismantle the anti-brown and anti-black mentalities we carry within ourselves. Attending school in a white (and politically red) state has forced me to step back and question what systems are set in place to make me hate my appearance and question myself. Self-care, self-love, and self- acceptance were never concepts I truly believed in, but rather phrases that illustrated themselves in my life as the occasional trending hashtag or justification for a trip to the salon.
Looking at my reflection, I do not see one woman, but a body haunted by remnants of her former selves. I see damaged hair from years of flat ironing, stretch marks from countless white-feminism-fueled weight fluctuations, and an uneven skin tone from years of trial and error with skin lightening creams. Yet, I do not resent my body; it only reminds me of the power I hold within my mind. I suppose the perception is that once you come to terms with yourself, the battle is over and you live happily ever after. However, as soon as I stopped looking in the mirror and started to look around, I saw all the damaging ideas I thought I had created in my mind being manifested all around me. Two of the most detrimental forces to young people of color are an invalidation of their heritage and underrepresentation. We cannot seek justice as long as we treat the disenfranchised people of our own communities with the same condescension and contempt that we face from our oppressors.
With these realizations, and faster than Kendall Jenner could hand me a Pepsi, I realized that no amount of assimilation could separate me from the cultures that nurtured and raised me. We cannot hold ourselves to standards that we do not create. The straight edges of white supremacy are starting to bleed brown; do not be afraid to fill the white spaces with color.