A top private liberal arts school, Colorado College exists among a system of elite institutions. My orientation to the campus was filled with a plethora of friendly faces and dynamic personalities. This place is different from what I am accustomed to at other larger public universities. Here, the focus is entirely on the student and providing the best liberal arts education. Period.
Yet, amid this beautiful campus surrounded by mountain views and fresh air, I stand in the middle of two different climates: one identifies me as a person of color among a vast majority of white people, and the other exists within the covert nature of privilege and ignorance that surrounds the campus. Now at first, I blamed myself for feeding into presumptions about a place that has been nothing but kind to me. Bonds of true friendship are already forming with my colleagues here. Nonetheless, these feelings are not without basis.
My history of being the “other” resonated with me today as I walked to Rastall. As a young, black male, I often find solidarity within groups of people who look like me and come from similar backgrounds. However, that solidarity was not felt at CC. I wasn’t just looking for people of color. I was looking for myself. I wanted to engage other young, people of color who came from poor backgrounds and excelled in life by playing the “stats game.”
Now, what is the “stats game”? Well, I’ll put it this way. I am a black male from West Philadelphia. I grew up in a single-parent household and attended Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School. While other students tended to drive Escalades and BMWs to school, I rode on two forms of public transportation every day and afternoon. Graduating from the Prep with national awards in Honors Greek and Latin, I attended Penn State University (Main Campus). Having just suffered from the loss of a close friend, Richard Johnson, who was shot and killed weeks after graduation, I performed horribly my first semester, receiving a 1.6 GPA.
With a mindset of not becoming a statistic — one that shows black males as the largest percentage of college dropouts — I graduated with a B.S. in four years. I attended graduate school and worked full-time, receiving an M.P.A. with dual graduate certificates. At the age of 23, I began my Ph.D. in Public Affairs. This past summer, I received a M.S. and recently, I finished my dissertation, which I defended in early October. I am currently 27 years old.
I don’t offer this information to gloat. I offer it as a signal to anyone who reads this that they too can achieve great things in their life regardless of the obstacles in front of them. Life is a race to the finish line. However, many forget that the starting line is not the same for all individuals. The “stats game” refers to this dynamic. Less than two percent of the population with the identity of a black male can call themselves “Dr.” That number is even lower when you control for my age and background. Statistically, I was not supposed to make it here. Yet, I am reminded of high school.
Within the walls of the Prep, a private, Jesuit high school, students of color played dual roles. Most on academic scholarships, we excelled. Yet, our personalities reflected the neighborhoods from which we came. We didn’t do the same things as our white counterparts. While their parents took them traveling during breaks, our parents worked two or more jobs to keep the house afloat. Many of us were the first in our families to go to college.
However, with all of these accomplishments, I still felt like the “other” at CC. This was not due to the institution at all. My role in professional circles and academic conferences reinforces this idea of being an outsider. It is here where my presence reflected a larger system that privileged some over others. With the growing climate of racial tension in this country, CC seems somewhat familiar.
Entering my new office, I found an envelope filled with information about the college, including a copy of the Colorado College Bulletin. Flipping through the pages, I stumbled upon a section called “Reaction to Ferguson Essay.” Finding the original essay and subsequent responses, I was somewhat disheartened at the criticism. Anusha Kedhar’s depiction of thematic policing and rebellion paints a vivid and artistic construction of current events.
It stands at the nexus of understanding oppression and solidarity within a confined system of privilege and ignorance. It reminded me of my own personal quest as the “other” and how even with many accomplishments, my identity would never be whitewashed. My skin color is not just a reminder of who I am, but also where I came from. This paradox of understanding one’s self within a broader system of subjugation shifts the paradigm of a liberal arts education.
Kedhar’s essay shifts the pendulum of how social movements are formed and maintained as outlets of expression and purpose. Her thinking stretches beyond criticism and encourages members of our community to self-actualize and question their own contributions to inequality. Kedhar, myself, and other faculty are playing the “stats game.” We are uniquely different from the majority in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ableness. We no longer subscribe to one idea of who and what a professor is.
In this respect, CC creates an environment for growth. Through their participation in the Consortium of Faculty Diversity in Liberal Arts Colleges, I was chosen by the Department of Sociology as a candidate for the Riley Scholars-in-Residence program. An initiative designed to increase faculty diversity, this program does not simply aim to colorize, womanize, or sexualize the faculty. It seeks to address issues related to the often whitewashed, heterosexual male-dominated field of academia. It stands on the principle that a more inclusive and diverse faculty body provides a better educational environment for students. It is not until one experiences a different culture, a different place, a different mode of communication that he or she can truly know thyself.
With recent actions taken such as the presence of Paul Buckley and The Butler Center, the increased number of Riley Scholars, as well as the increasing diversity of the student body of CC, social change is well on its way. This dualistic approach to identity extends beyond me. It extends to CC as an institution of higher learning proactively taking steps under the direction of President Jill Tiefenthaler to create a more inclusive community. Even within the realm of debate, disagreement, and conflict, there is something to be learned. The value of a liberal arts education, the environment of critical analysis and discourse, and the transformative experience privileged and ignorant members of our community undergo positions us far past our aspirant institutions.
So as I work on my syllabus for my inequality course, I am reminded that my “otherness” is welcomed and appreciated here. As Rapper J. Cole said, “There’s beauty in the struggle.”
Prentiss Dantzler is a Riley Scholar-In-Residence and a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Sociology. His research interests are poverty and inequality, neighborhood change and community, and the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality.