Mercer students reflect on experience at predominantly white institution during Black History Month

Donald Williams, a junior business and economics double-major, spoke on the panel about code-switching.

Image: Madison Allen

Donald Williams, a junior business and economics double-major, spoke on the panel about code-switching.

Various student groups have planned events throughout February to honor Black History Month and support black students on Mercer University’s campus.

QuadWorks, the student programming board at Mercer, hosted a Black History Month panel Feb. 7. Student speakers discussed “topics surrounding various aspects of African-American culture, colorism, internal and external oppression and political efficacy within the black community,” according to an email to The Cluster from QuadWorks.

The speakers addressed their experiences as black students at a predominantly white institution (PWI). Mercer has an African-American population of just under 30 percent and a white population of 48 percent, according to enrollment data.

Ladan Mowlid, a Somali-Ethiopian graduate student from Canada, said on the panel that PWIs don’t provide the support black students need to handle potential racism from white peers.

As one of just a handful of black students in her program, Mowlid said that a white student made a “joke” about lynching her last semester, telling her, “be careful before you get lynched.”

She said that because she is often stereotyped as an “angry black woman,” she felt the need to be very careful with her response to racism.

“These are the kind of moments where I feel like I have to stop and say, ‘okay girl, you’re in school, you’re a grad student. You need to tone it down, but also check them, but also not code-switch,’” she said. “I feel like at PWIs, they don’t prepare you for that.”

In this context, code-switching refers to a conscious change from “African-American vernacular to a ‘white voice,’” according to an article by The Guardian.

The article said some black people have found that adopting a “white” tone of voice grants them more freedom from certain stereotypes — at the cost of sacrificing racial-ethnic identity.

Donald Williams, a junior business and economics double-major, said code-switching can be key to survival for black people in predominantly white spaces.

“Code-switching is definitely something that we do without thinking about it,” he said. “It’s a natural thing that we do to adapt, to survive, you know, to make sure that we are getting what we deserve.”

Williams said that despite the challenges, he has been thankful for the support of Minority Mentors, a program that matches incoming freshmen of color with older minority students to help them transition to college.

“I didn’t feel alone because I had Minority Mentors,” he said. “There’s a lot of help and love here, and I do think that is being cultivated. Of course, things can improve, but overall, I think we are a community where we can love and improve upon and trust each other.”

Shola Ogunde, a junior studying Christianity, said on the panel that he’s struggled with the common perception that black males attend college for athletics rather than academics, but that his religious faith helps him stay positive.

“You know, at the end of the day I know I’m the son of the most high God,” Ogunde said. “What people say to me or whatever oppression they do, you know, I don’t let it get to me because I know everything works together for the good of those who love God.”

Panelist Georgina Ajorgbor said she focuses on her future to avoid internalizing the layers of oppression she’s experienced as a Nigerian growing up in England and studying in the U.S.

“The way I don’t internalize oppression like that, faced on a day-to-day basis or whenever I face it, is just, ‘this little thing that someone has said to me or this way that a person has acted toward me for whichever reason is not going to affect me two days from now, three days from now, next week, next year,’” Ajorgbor said. “If it’s not going to affect me in the long run, I’m not going to pay it any type of attention.”