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Friday August 12th

'It's traumatizing ... to be in these spaces:' Black students adjust to whiteness of UNC

At a University where only 38.7 percent of students are people of color, and only 7.8 percent self-identify as Black or African-American only, it is common for Black students to feel uncomfortable or targeted by microaggressions. 

Senior Aaron Epps, president of The Black Student Movement, said Black students often struggle to adapt to the environment of predominantly white institutions like UNC, especially if they come from a majority Black community like he did. 

“It’s just a different pool at UNC,” he said. “It’s hard to navigate a very, very inherently institutionalized white space.” 

Having previously attended predominantly Black schools and a more diverse university before UNC, junior Alex Robinson said she felt out of place when she transferred to the University as a sophomore. 

“All of the resources for transfer students and out-of-state (students) that focus more on social life, they’re very predominantly white as well,” she said. “It was really intimidating, because even in these spaces that were 'geared toward me,' they were very much so predominantly white, and honestly I was really uncomfortable.” 

Robinson said at Carolina she sometimes finds herself being the only Black person in the room, and therefore she feels the obligation to constantly be a representative for her race. 

“I feel like it’s traumatizing to have to be in these spaces and have people say ignorant things to you, or about you, or about your race, and having to correct them constantly and having to educate them,” she said. 

According to the UNC Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, admission rates for Black students have not risen above 400 in classes that, since 2009, have averaged around 4,044 students per class. Also, from 2009 to 2014, on average, only about 85.02 percent of Black male students reach their fourth fall semester at UNC compared to 90.45 percent of white male students. 

While the number of Black students admitted to UNC remains stagnant, Epps said Historically Black Colleges and Universities nationwide are experiencing increased enrollment. 

"HBCUs overall are seeing a boom in students who are enrolling, and obviously that means Black students are enrolling, which is great because overall, our community is becoming more educated," he said.

Epps said predominantly white institutions like UNC are not seeing the same type of enrollment boost because students of color feel more welcome at HBCUs. 

“When we have literal racist statues that commemorate oppressors of the very students that we are allowing into this institution, students are not feeling like they belong here," he said. "Like they aren’t feeling like they have a place, like they are fully embraced, and so they’re going to want to go to a place like an all-Black institution."

Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, said the University has been improving its efforts to help improve the retention rate of Black students at UNC. 

“We admit them because we believe that they can thrive and we believe that they will thrive, and we believe that they will make it possible for other students to thrive by their being here,” Farmer said. “I think the University’s approach to retention and graduation and to these gaps in equity is just to believe, on good evidence, that if students aren’t achieving at rates that we would like for them to achieve, we owe them our best effort to figure out what we can do to make it possible for people to do better."

Some students said they found refuge in student organizations because of the isolation they face among the ubiquity of whiteness at the University. BSM, the Organization For African Students' Interests And Solidarity and Men of Color Gatherings aim to foster a welcoming environment for Black students.

“We know that (BSM) is responsible for targeting and uniting and advancing the Black community overall, and so we want to provide that community through a lot of our social planning,” Epps said.

Chris Faison, the coordinator for UNC Men of Color Engagement in the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling, said it’s important to have programs like the Barbershop Talk, hosted by Carolina Mxle Scholars, and Carolina Housing, where students of color can be themselves and not be judged. But, he said it can be positive in some cases for students of color to be surrounded by white students. 

“At Carolina, the environment is helpful to students that come from minority-majority backgrounds because the world is different than what we grew up in, although we may feel isolated, or students may feel isolated, it’s a taste of what the world is like,” he said. 

Sophomore Chuka Akpom said he is thankful to have found a family of like individuals at UNC, but he also has important reasons for wanting to branch out.  

“In order to maximize the diversity of my experience, one, and two, my network, I just thought it would make the most sense to expand my circle and to build connections that are outside my comfort zone, to talk to people that I wouldn’t necessarily talk to on a daily basis,” he said. 

Regarding retention rates and making students of color feel welcome at UNC, Faison said Carolina continues to make significant progress. 

“I think that the fact that my position exists, for instance, is a testament to the institution wanting to get it right, and I think that students are the best at holding us accountable because it’s you all’s experience,” Faison said.


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