It was a day like every other day at the Naval Academy. The routine was always the same so I can’t even pinpoint the day of the week but we were finishing up lunch in King Hall. We’d already gone over our daily rates or jokes or whatever memorized trivia (the top 5 in the AP poll comes to mind) that we were required to know and were waiting to be excused from the table. I was a plebe (Freshman) and sitting across the table from one of my three Youngsters (Sophomore) when he made eye contact.
“Johnson,” he said, “has anyone ever told you that you look like Aunt Jemima? Because you look just like her.”
I didn’t look anything like Aunt Jemima though. That was my first thought. I wasn’t wearing a headscarf. I was a Midshipman not a Mammy. In fact, I was wearing a uniform just like him. The only thing Aunt Jemima and I had in common was our skin color.
Our one table in a sea of 4000 people grew instantly quiet and the eleven people in my squad turned to stare at me. I had been eating when he said it and suddenly I couldn’t swallow and so the food remained stuck in my cheeks while my face grew hot. I remember feeling incredibly ashamed of myself though I had done nothing shameful. And then I started to cry.
My squad leader, a Firstie (Senior), spoke up at that point. “Johnson did that offend you?” he yelled down to where I sat at the middle of the table. I suppose it was a rhetorical question because I don’t remember answering. He turned his attention to the Youngster then and yelled “W—n, Shut the fuck up.” And then he dismissed us from the table.
There were follow-up conversations later on in the day. The Firstie apologized, the 2/c’s (juniors) mentioned it and my roommate and I definitely talked about it. The Youngster apologized (whether obligatory or voluntary I have no idea) but with the same script that I have heard over and over again: he was really “a good person at heart” and “definitely not racist” and he hadn’t “intended” to do me harm. And the inevitable self-effacement: he was really just a “country boy at heart” and “not very smart” (I didn’t even know who the President was when I came here *chuckle chuckle) and, of course, he had never “been around black people until the Academy”. I think I may have tried to smile in response to his joke and rushed to assure him that it was ok because ultimately I didn’t know what to say.
And that’s pretty much how I think of my four years by the Severn: that time where I really didn’t know what to say. This type of microaggression happened frequently and this was by no means the only racist incident or even casual racism that I experienced, but it is one of the incidents that I think about most.
I think about this incident when I see students across America protesting for the right to attend their Universities without having to face racialized violence, when they hold sit-ins asking for their campuses to hold accountable both their administrations and their students who practice institutionalized racism. I don’t think of them as “coddled” or “overly sensitive students” but as humans who wish to be treated with respect. Students who want to change the social structure around them so that it is more equitable and just.
Therefore, whether one is suspicious of the merits of college as a whole or cynical about the existence of “safe spaces,” the truth of the matter is that “coddled” college students aren’t the problem.
The real culprits — on campuses and in the real world — are the persistent effects of homophobia, income inequality, misogyny, poverty, racism, sexism, white supremacy and xenophobia.
When students refuse to accept discrimination on college campuses, they’re learning important lessons about how to fight it everywhere.
I’m grateful to have found my voice after all these years.