Segregation and the intraracial divide

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Perceptions meet Reality

Although respondents were generally excited to attend the University of Pennsylvania because of its top-notch academic reputation and viable black student presence, they quickly learned that not everything was as “rosy” as they thought it would be. After settling into campus, students from both integrated and segregated backgrounds were dismayed to find out that skin color did not always put them on common ground with other black students. Being black did not automatically ensure that they would be accepted or that they would fit in. Because they had had limited exposure to black peers throughout their lives, black students from integrated areas and schools learn that race is still a salient and problematic issue in their lives. They quickly learned that their lived experiences did not necessarily gain them favor with black students from predominately black areas who did not have a similar class background or racial outlook on life. In contrast, black students from segregated backgrounds often felt divided from their integrated peers because they were not well-versed in white culture and did not have the same social standing. These differences reflect the intraracial diversity of the black student population at the University and are at the heart of the resultant identity politics that occur on campus.

In their commentaries, I asked students to tell me if they were surprised by anything when they first came to college. Besides adjusting to the academic challenges, students discussed how their perceptions of the black student population did not meet with their lived reality. Blacks from all backgrounds were taken back by the inherent differences between them and many of their same-race counterparts.

Nia, a junior, who had been so happy to find out that she had a black roommate her freshman year, was disappointed to find out that they did not get along. Although she herself was from a solid middle class background and had attended a private high school in suburban Maryland, her roommate’s extreme wealth was uncomfortable for her. She explained:

…My freshman year roommate was black and I thought we were gonna get along really well because she was another black person, but it made me realize that you don’t get along with every single black person you meet…She was just too different. I think there were, there were a lot of issues between me and her. I think she’s probably upper middle class, upper class - she’s from Atlanta and there were certain things that she had. Like I was used to hanging out with everyday normal people, like Express and Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch were expensive stores to me…But a lot of her clothes were like Kenneth Cole shoes and Prada bags and just stuff that I would not be able to afford…
Nia was disappointed by the fact that she had not lived in Du Bois her freshman year. Living outside of Du Bois made it harder for her to make black friends. She recalled:

Interviewer: So your first impressions of this place weren’t that positive?
Nia: No. I was a little bit upset or depressed because I wasn’t getting to know as many black students, which I really wanted to make an effort to do because I had come from a school where it was such a small population…I actually didn’t really know what Du Bois was because I hadn’t really – there were some people who went, but nobody from my school had gone to Penn who was black.
Nia felt that she had more in common with her white girlfriends from high school than the black people she met during freshman year. Nia stated:

I thought the black population was going to be a lot more unified than it was. Like I said before, there’s a lot of different types of black people...There are just so many different types of people and I just didn’t realize and I kind of thought it was gonna be like a group - first of all because my [white] friends back at home are a lot like me, so they’re much more similar to me than...In the sense of we tend to like the same things, like we tend to agree on the same ideas.

Nia did have a couple of close black friends and became active in several campus organizations including a black sorority.

Jason grew up in Trinidad and Toronto, Canada and had never been to the U.S. until college. He was not sure what to expect but realized that some of his black college peers where quite different from him in the way they interacted with each other and spoke slang. Jason spoke with a thick Caribbean accent and was friends with several other first generation Caribbean students.

Jason: Because as I said black students here are different than black students from Canada, the people that are my friends here are different than my friends in Canada.

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