Op-ed: An open letter to Black students By Nigel Taylor
The following op-ed about the Black student experience is part of a series during Inclusive Excellence Awareness Month, highlighting the voices around campus that make this university special. Nigel Marcellus Taylor is a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky. Taylor is the founder of the student organization Underground Perspectives. He also hosts a podcast on YouTube titled The Convo.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 28, 2023) —
I see you. I hear you. I understand you. I value you.
I love your Blackness. I love my Blackness.
I love the different shades of melanin. I love our hair.
I love our culture. I love our history. I love our music.
I love our art. I love our creativity. I love our style. I love our food.
I love our slang. I love our beauty. I love our people.
We’re our ancestors’ wildest dreams!
We’re just so cool. We’re just so fly. We’re just so popular.
We are the essence of progression.
We push the culture forward.
We can show up hard. We can show up soft.
We always show up as us.
We are always imitated and never duplicated.
We are loved but always so hated.
We push the world forward.
If someone asked me, “Knowing what you know now about the struggles of Black people, would you choose to be Black again?” I’m saying “Yes!” every time. I’m saying yes despite our traumatic history, negative representations and stories and the imbalanced emphasis on Black pain, Black erasure and Black oppression. I love being Black. I’m proud to be Black. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
We exist beyond the pain, the struggle and the trauma. And we absolutely deserve to live a full, healthy and love-filled life. We deserve a peace of mind and the ability to enjoy nice things. We shouldn’t always have to be tied to a struggle and survival story. I’m writing this to tell you I understand. I know it constantly feels like people don’t see you, don’t hear you, don’t value you or don’t genuinely care about your wellbeing, but I do.
I was talking with a Black family at an event, and their daughter was a senior in high school who was beginning to receive different acceptance letters from colleges and universities. Her parents asked me a question that I've heard countless times, even from my own parents, when I was looking into colleges and universities – “How do you navigate being Black at a PWI (Predominantly White Institution)?”
Whew! It’s such a loaded and difficult question to answer. No matter how many times I’ve heard or continue to hear it being asked, I always feel an immense amount of pressure to answer it correctly, yet honestly. For one, Black students are not a monolith, and our experiences are not always universal – especially at a PWI. However, that point does not change the validity and importance of the question. With recognizing the different experiences Black students have at a PWI, I often fear that the truthful answer will deter a student or parent from choosing a school they’re excited to attend.
However, James Baldwin once said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of things you don’t see.” And for students who have never experienced a PWI or who are currently attending one at any level – as an undergraduate student, graduate student, transfer student, athlete, etc. – it’s important to be equipped with and exposed to as much knowledge of what the experience can be so you can navigate it for yourself. As many of us know, the toll of institutional and structural racism can be so damaging on our mental, physical and even spiritual health. Institutions across the nation release and share diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plans with promises of taking care of Black students and other historically excluded groups. But we know that this does not necessarily save or protect us from experiencing daily microaggressions, tone policing, cultural appropriation, stereotyping, implicit bias or even the reality of the disheartening and sickening events of seeing countless Black people killed because of police brutality. This does not even account for the personal and familial hardships you might experience along the journey. Balancing all of this while striving to thrive in your studies is not easy.
I’m currently earning a Ph.D. in communication at the University of Kentucky — the same place where I graduated in 2016 with my bachelor’s degree in communication. In 2017, I earned a master’s degree in media ventures from Boston University. During my time at UK, I founded a student organization called Underground Perspective in 2014, which is currently still at the university in 2023. I also was one of the founders of the Minority Connection Initiative at Boston University in 2017, which is also still on their campus to this day. I’ve met so many amazing people through my experiences, from graduate students, undergraduate students, athletes, faculty, staff transfer students and so many more. Based on my experiences and the experiences of those around me, I can provide you with insight of what I’ve learned along the way while navigating a PWI as a Black student.
Love your blackness.
I can honestly say that one of my biggest challenges coming to UK as a Black student was that I didn’t feel Black enough for my own community at school. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I was Black – I had many experiences growing up that provided me a rude awakening that being Black was different than being white or any ethnicity. I grew up going to white schools in a very diverse city in Massachusetts. I spent summers in the country of Kentucky while simultaneously playing in different sports leagues in the projects.
My biggest challenge at the university was linked to the fact that I felt disconnected to the culture of Black UK. Everyone seemed to know the dances, the jokes, the movies and everything that seemed to make connecting with each other effortless. I was comfortable with navigating the classroom when I’m the only Black student, but I felt like an outsider around my own community. Because of this feeling, I began to question my Blackness. I struggled with constantly comparing how “Black” I was with other students. It wasn’t until I learned how to love, appreciate and embrace my own Blackness while remaining curious and open to how others celebrate and cherish their own.
Ironically, by the time I got into graduate school (for both my master’s and Ph.D. degrees), I felt so disconnected from my white and non-Black peers and classmates because I felt such a high level of pride within my Blackness. I wanted to constantly be surrounded by and immersed in the community; anything else made me feel so disconnected and alone. How could they understand how I’m feeling in these spaces? Being surrounded by my community gave me a sense of pride, acceptance, protection and love.
The beauty of college is coming into a chapter of your life when you learn so much about yourself and the world. What often comes with that is to the ability to recognize and acknowledge that everyone isn’t raised the same as you. Black people are limitless. We come from different neighborhoods, towns, cities, states and countries and have a diverse range of experiences in the way we grew up. I don’t want to say one way is for better or for worse, it’s just different. However, we must understand that our upbringings don’t make us any more or less than our peers.
Some of us grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods and schools, some of us grew up in predominantly Black neighborhoods and schools and some of us grew up in neighborhoods and schools that were multicultural. No matter how you grew up, it does not alter your Blackness. Whether you have a desire to immerse yourself within Black students on campus or find comfort with other students, you’re still Black. Blackness is not a competition. It’s not something you have to prove. It’s not a box that you have to fit in. The way you desire to live your life does not take away from your Blackness. You are Black. No matter your shade, economic status, the sports you play or didn’t play, level of knowledge, music taste, whether you’re from a city or the country or any of that. You are Black. As Theresa Tha SONGBIRD said in her poem, You So Black, “Black is not something we get to choose, but something we get to cherish.” Being Black is prestigious, a privilege and a superpower! Black is beautiful. Take pride and honor that. Cherish and celebrate it. YOU ARE BLACK!
Coming to UK for my freshman year, I was so excited to be on my own. Looking back, I was scared out of my mind, but I was faking the confidence. I dreamed that my college experience was going to be out of this world. I thought I was going to be killing it in the classroom, have all these friends, meet my future wife here and everything else under the sun.
However, college wasn’t anything that I thought it would be. By the time my first semester ended, I was looking up different schools to transfer to for my sophomore year. I didn’t feel like I belonged here. I felt alone, unseen, unheard and as if I was lied to. I’m thinking, “College is supposed to be this amazing experience and some of the best years of my life, but here I am… miserable.”
After having one of the roughest weeks ever during the second semester of my freshmanyear, I was sent over the edge, and I did something I hadn’t allowed myself to do since arriving at college, cry. I was frustrated and upset, but mostly I was disappointed in myself. I felt stuck and alone. I was also already struggling with navigating interpersonal relationships on top of my academic success, and this was the perfect maelstrom to dropping out. But…I’d heard once, that in dire times when you need a sign, that's when they appear.
Word had gotten around that I wasn’t feeling great. Then I received text messages from two friends who said they were on their way. I didn’t know what to say to them because I felt so embarrassed and ashamed. But before I even got the chance to speak, one of them said, “This is my fault. I should have been there. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you.”
Right at that moment is when I knew UK was the right place for me. For the first time, I felt like I belonged. I never in my life, EVER, had someone feel responsible for my actions and choices. Someone who would help me in a way that if the roles were reversed, I don’t even know if I would have done the same. Just knowing I had people on this campus who genuinely loved and cared about me gave me EVERY reason to stay at UK. It also challenged me to recognize that I didn’t need to wait for UK to be this great place –– I had to MAKE the university a great place…for me.
Community changed everything for me. Having the right people in my circle changed whether I wanted to stay or leave. This is why I’m a firm believer that teamwork makes the dream work. When I reflect on my experiences, I see that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the people I met along the way.
The people who you surround yourself with can either make or break your experience. To have someone who can understand what you’re going through, support you through the highs and lows and affirm you is so important. I think it’s important to take initiative in finding community who looks like you, for you. I’m always going to advocate first for finding community with the people who look like you. It hits different. The level of connection and understanding is different. It's healing and helps you feel seen, heard and valued. I believe in the power of community with Black people.
PWIs historically do not create space for students of color to navigate social connections.while the push for diversity and inclusion on campus has progressed over years, the strategies for creating spaces through “universal strategies” for ALL students of varying diversities continually falls short to meet our needs. It’s like building an escalator to the tallest floor. Sure, there’s going to be a lot of people who will be able to utilize it, but for people in wheelchairs, it’s completely useless. It’s usually the students, offices and programs that are rooted in the community who offer the best solutions and opportunities.
But, community shouldn’t be generalized or limited. And community doesn’t have to be limited to just people who look like you. In fact, building community with people from all different types of diverse backgrounds and experiences can be just as beneficial. Sometimes you find community and sometimes community presents itself to you. I’ve found community with faculty and staff, facilities managers, cafeteria workers, graduate and undergraduate students, athletes and a range of different people. If the people care about you and your well-being, that’s all that matters. Find your people. And when you find your people, take care of them. The community needs you and meets your needs at every stage of your journey. I have found that community at UK.
It’s one thing to talk about finding community, and it’s another to do it. How do you find your people? It takes the courage to be able to share your story and experience. It’s not a matter of just showing up to events or different opportunities. You must find the courage within yourself to also speak up. Take a risk and just try saying hello. The biggest travesty I notice with a lot of people, including myself, is this fear of rejection. We also talk about just going to places like that’s the thing that will create a network for you. It’s just not how it goes anymore. I can’t tell you how many people I know who will go to an event and sit in the room. In their mind, they see everyone already talking with someone and assume that everyone’s in a clique or are too nervous to speak to someone else because of a level of intimidation. While in this same room, someone notices or sees them, but they’re also scared to talk to them because of a fear of rejection. So, you have these people in a room who really want to speak to each other, but both are scared to make the first move of saying “hi” The event ends, and they didn’t speak to each other, so they walk out of the room feeling affirmed that they’re alone and no one truly wants to connect with them. It honestly breaks my heart seeing that. It’s not limited to just undergrads; this happens with graduate students and adults too. You have to risk being rejected or not liked to find your people. And sometimes who you come in with isn’t always who you end up with. Your community will evolve and change in the same way you evolve and change over time — and that’s okay! We constantly fixate if things will go wrong, but what is it goes right?
Take Care of Yourself
For so many of us, we built this psychological armor to protect ourselves and reduce the impact of racial trauma, generational trauma, etc. We wear this armor day in and day out whenever we’re in predominantly white spaces. We wear it on campus, in meetings, at our jobs, sometimes at home. And this armor is large and heavy. Often, we don’t even recognize the toll this armor has on us. It runs deep in our heart, soul, mind and it can influence our interactions or how we see the world. The armor protects us and hurts us at the same time. Because without realizing it, we are suffocating our ability to grow. We must be very intentional in how we take the armor down and become vulnerable, so we are able to heal, rejuvenate and rest. Please take care of yourself. You do not have to endure all the pain and suffering to be worthy. It is so important and essential to understand this not only while in school, but also throughout life. There are many ways to take care of yourself. I will preach to the highest mountain about the importance of therapy.
Therapy is such a healing and powerful space to unpack your armor and work on yourself. I am speaking as someone who is in therapy. Through therapy, I was able to find that one of the biggest struggles I navigate is an internalized feeling of unworthiness. Through my past experiences, I have developed the belief that I’m not good enough unless I do something to prove my worth or value. With this awareness, I’m better equipped to call out my patterns of behaviors that trigger that feeling within myself. It’s been a powerful revelation and transformation in my life. There are so many stories of how taking care of yourself directly correlates with working on yourself. So many of us are fighting invincible battles that we feel like we can’t express or talk about because it makes us weak. Please listen to these words, you are not weak. Being vulnerable doesn’t make you weak. You are strong beyond measure, and you are truly tapping into your strength when you allow yourself to be vulnerable to heal.
A major part of taking care of yourself is recognizing that you do belong. Many of us fight the feeling of incompetency – as if we’re not deserving of the positions we’re in. You belong in any space or room you’re in. I’m here to tell you that not only do you belong, but you’re qualified and deserving. Worthiness is an internal struggle that thrives in isolation and influences our external experiences. The true validation in external spaces is not as important as the internal validation we must find within ourselves. One way to begin that process is by recognizing that when you are called to do something or gain an opportunity, it’s destined for you. What’s for you will never miss you. In addition, it doesn’t matter who else is doing it. You are uniquely built with the capacity to handle the journey. You might not recognize it now, but the fact you are even on campus working toward your dreams and aspirations is proof that you are qualified, and it’s a great reason to not give up. Much of our self-talk when we’re not actively paying attention can often be negative. You must be able to catch the internalized language, thoughts and behaviors that perpetuate the negative narratives we internalize about ourselves. What narratives have you accepted that may suggest that you aren’t worthy or deserving of the life, love and experiences you deserve?
Lastly, believe in yourself. Cliché, I know. But it’s so important. You must believe you are great before anyone else believes it. No one can truly pinpoint your potential like you can. You’re going to come across so many challenges and obstacles that are going to test you. I won’t lie, that adversity is going to push you to your limits and breaking point. But whatever life you believe you can have is the life you are capable of manifesting. Things might not work out the way you planned in your mind, but believing in yourself will help you still get to the right destination. Even as I write this, I can’t help but to dream of the day I’ll become a talk show host and producer. I’ve come across many people who have told me it’s impossible, but I know they’re just projecting their limitations on me. I know it’s possible for me. That’s the type of attitude and belief you must have in yourself. Remember, we come from a heritage of incredible, strong people who dreamed a better life for their ancestors and made it happen. You are your ancestors’ wildest dreams, and you can do anything! And when you accomplish anything – no matter how big or small – celebrate! Examples of Black prosperity in any capacity is empowering, uplifting and necessary to expose to the ones coming up.
I hope these words can speak to someone and equip them with some type of insight on how to navigate this experience. No matter what you do, I want you to know that I love your Blackness and mine.
I am so proud of you and always wishing you love, abundance and healing energy.
With Love and Blackity Black Blackness,
Nigel Marcellus Taylor