It’s an odd thing being a young black man in this country, and a particularly strange experience being one here at Princeton. We are provided with several useful organizations that succeed at promoting unity and connections among us, while we live in a community of people that do not put all that much effort into making us feel welcome.
Blacks are not the only group that has to deal with this, of course, but I speak only from my perspective. Yes, there are groups that sustain dialogue between people of different backgrounds, but when I speak to others I know, it is clear to me that, much as some people try to bridge the social gaps, it would be hard to prove that said gaps are growing smaller.
I came to Princeton from a place shared by only a handful of students here, and even fewer blacks. No, not New York, but fourteen years at an expensive, unorthodox private school with a smattering of dark students. I also come from having two never-married parents who made enough money to send me here and not sweat about the cost. Growing up, occasional bad things would happen in my life, events not unlike those in the life of any child, but my father was always quick to assume that race might have played a part in them. Being both inexperienced and trusting, I downplayed all of his remarks and attributed them to his hardscrabble adolescence, much of which was never mentioned, though it was hinted at by his penchant for awakening with his fists clenched. But, I was a kid, and I thought the best of people around me: “Segregation” was a textbook word, not an active part of American society. As such, I entered Central Jersey under the foolish assumption that my skin color would continue not to matter much at my school.
I didn’t join any black organizations, because, I told myself, I didn’t want to lock myself into any group of people at that point – a fact I find all the more interesting because the black community at Princeton is, in many ways, very strong and encouraging, qualities I probably needed during my tumultuous early semesters here. Conversely, the support it has given its members has caused some to consider it stifling, in that it can be hard to diverge from the organization. But why should someone who feels as though he belongs to a valuable community need to reach out and connect with anyone else solely because of similarities on the outside?
There are only so many black people at Princeton, but there are enough here to fill out a network of support certain to last for decades. Yet the majority of people here, and in our society, can avoid us and prosper within their fenced-off worlds, even without choosing to do so. One of my closest friends here explained that, through no particular design of his own, he had never actually befriended a black person before we started socializing; though this is a fact that might have surprised me at one time, it is something I’d simply expect at this point. My friend has certainly never harbored any ill-will towards my race, but because of his utter lack of integrated experience, even he came to this school with unfortunate preconceived notions. When someone that close to you is learning how false stereotypes are from your very interaction, you become an unwitting ambassador, whether or not you choose to acknowledge it.
We don’t really have any other choice but to spend the majority of our adult lives among the people we currently go to school with – which is not a bad thing, mind you – but simply a choice we’re not given. Does this mean we should all behave a certain way in order to achieve an agreeable amount of assimilation? That would probably please a lot of people, but, no, that wouldn’t actually serve any positive purpose. As much as we’re all aligned by our positions as ambassadors and the way we’re superficially classified by everyone else, we all exist here in different ways.
After my early life at Princeton settled down, I focused on Terrace, The Nass, and the people closest to me became a cohesive list of folks on whom I’m actually able to rely. As it turned out, my best friend here is black, but that isn’t true of anyone else I could run to in the middle of the night, or even the middle of the day. My perspective on the black experience at Princeton is based on my time spent as a young man who has long been aware that it’s a special thing to be what I am where I am, but who has never actually felt a part of the larger black community itself, strong as I do know that it is. I didn’t really enjoy but felt compelled to join out of blackness. Yet the disconnect was also caused by my naïveté, and my previously slow uptake on the campus’s awkward race relations.
I’d notice the groups of people aligning by similar characteristics at meals or on nights out, and every so often I’d wonder why I wasn’t as drawn to certain events as the others people would consider similar to me. When I would hear of racial incidents at certain clubs, my genuine surprise was followed by dismay as I realized how far in the dark I was, so to speak. I was certainly sharing experiences with many of my fellow black students here, whether it’s a kind acquaintance assuming I’m the brother of a student five shades darker and one foot taller than I am simply because she often saw us together, or the numerous passes I’ve started stealing from the people who think a man this tiny could actually keep people from entering an eating club. But, much as I can tell the same mildly amusing stories as they can, I felt different. This is not to say I felt more aligned with students of other backgrounds, for that certainly wasn’t the case. No, I simply felt isolated from everyone. I often regretted my decision not to join the groups, but believed that, having missed a great deal of possible time, I would find it difficult to slide into something that seemed to be so tight-knit.
I was lucky enough to fall for The Nass more than three years ago, and if that hadn’t happened, I probably never would have spent enough time at Terrace to join the club and save my Princeton career. If I’d skipped over this paper’s little booth at the activities fair, and instead lingered on a different group, one meant to help incoming freshmen that were just like me, I probably would have a different group of friends. The isolation I described probably wouldn’t have existed in the same way, but the testimony I’ve received from others has convinced me that if, in looking for something to wrap myself in to ward off the depression and anxiety that ate away at me for the better part of three semesters, I had settled on one or two or three organizations for black men and women, I might have still felt detached, if not from the group I’m automatically placed into by most, then from the general populace.