Black Women In The Ivy League: “Everything’s Not Always So Pretty At The Top”

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“Being one of a few black women in an Ivy League institution is a lot of pressure at times. Often it was very frustrating because somehow I represented the thoughts, opinions, and feelings of every black woman in America – or at least that’s what many of my peers and/or professors thought. Similarly, I felt a lot of pressure from other black students to be more integrated into the community – whether it was participating in the many African/African American culture groups or even focusing on Africana Studies as a field of interest. At the end of the day, my experience at Penn was rewarding and it gave me a sense of pride to know that I was one of the few that made it, but it was definitely a delicate balancing act that many other students don’t have to deal with.”

– Allison, Class of 2013, University of Pennsylvania


“I always feel like I’m an outsider looking in and that I have to be on the defense because many people come with preconceived notions about black women. I’m really only here for my education. From day one, I told myself if I made lifelong friends, great, and if not, that’s fine because that’s not why I’m here. Most of my friends are black and that’s who I feel most comfortable around, but where I’m from, I hang out with people of all races. There’s a mix of socioeconomic stigmas attached to certain groups that make me stick to my own. I have no issue befriending someone of another race, but I won’t tolerate ignorance and disrespect, which I feel lies dormant in a lot of people here. I just often feel like it’s me against the privileged students of Princeton (and that goes for anyone irrespective of race.) As a black woman on this campus, I’m aware of my standing, and I’m also aware that I’m only here for a season. I do my work, enjoy the company of friends, and that is it. All of the fun really takes place when I leave the bubble of this institution.”

– Anonymous, Class of 2014, Princeton University


“The moment I stepped onto campus, black women formed the community that most sincerely wanted to know me, the community that had a vested interest in my presence at Harvard. It’s difficult to articulate but with many other social encounters, I felt I always had to take the first step and put in the most effort. I had to search for commonalities to make others feel comfortable. I had to initiate conversation. To me, the social gains of always having an event to attend or being able to stop and wave to many people on the street was far outweighed by the feeling of disingenuousness I had when I forced myself to take part in social gatherings that weren’t predominantly black. I know this has a lot to do with my experience at a prep school but there is always that palpable feeling of ‘otherness’ that I personally don’t want to deal with when I want to party and chill. It’s the feeling you get when you stand out the door of a Finals Club for 30 minutes trying to get in while groups of white girls sail past you.

That being said, being a black woman at Harvard is empowering. It’s a badge of higher intellect that can’t be discounted even when one would like to discount your gender and color. One drop of the H-bomb can eliminate most assumptions surrounding your capability. But there are still those moments when at a senior celebration dinner, the recipient of the superlative of “ funniest” makes a joke that characterizes the voice of Evelyn Hammonds, former dean of Harvard College and a tenured professor, as that of “the sassy black woman” and actually receives laughs, when you realize that this institution was never built for you. It’s in those moments where you realize that you alone are responsible for affirming your identity at a place like this. It’s for this reason that black women at Harvard stick together. We’re the only ones that can really understand each other’s experience even when it’s inexplicable.”

– Okeoma, Class of 2013, Harvard University

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