As an Ann Arbor native, I was reluctant to go to Michigan. I wanted to experience something new in college. My reluctance was often met with reassurance that the UM campus would feel like a whole different city. Not fully believing that notion, I committed to attend Michigan. Now, with a semester under my belt, it has proven to be true, but not at all in the way I’d hoped. Ann Arbor is a relatively liberal and accepting community. It is by no means perfect, but it does a fair job maintaining an environment that is diverse in race, sexuality, gender, and socioeconomic status. However, those attributes do not carry over to The University of Michigan.
Moments of fear
While Ann Arbor’s population is 8% African-American, the University of Michigan’s African-American population is 4.1% – a statistic I feel every day while on campus. I feel it when I am the only black person in my classes, and when there are only 5 of us in a 300-person lecture. Mostly, however, I feel it in the way students simply don’t know how to interact with me. In my first semester at UM, I found myself checking over my shoulder more than usual. I am not in Ann Arbor anymore and I feel genuinely unsafe. At my first football game, my friends and I asked a group of white male students if we could pet their dog. Their response to my blonde, blue-eyed friends was to gesture towards me, attempting to grab my hair and say, “If I can pet yours.”
On another occasion, in October, while walking to a friend’s dorm, two white males walked past me, no more than two feet away, and looked me up and down. The brunette asked his friend while gesturing toward me, “Would you hit?” While holding eye-contact with me, the friend laughed and said, “No man, way too dark.” In November, while dancing with my friends on a Saturday night, I was having fun and felt as though I could let my guard down, until I was approached by a Caucasian male who grabbed my waist in an attempt to dance with me. I declined politely, saying I just wanted to dance with my friends. He responded with a snarl, and said, “Fine I don’t even like n—ers anyway.”
An unequal experience
On occasions during three out of the four months of my first semester, I felt threatened and uncomfortable. As a black woman, I have experienced treatment like this before, but never so consistently in the place I have always called home. My fall semester has proven to me the reassurance I was fed about UM holds true. The university campus is not the same as the city I grew up in. In Ann Arbor, I felt relatively safe and valued as a black person. At UM, I don’t feel free to experience the exploration college is supposed to offer because I am always guarded. When a university limits black students to a mere 4% of the student body, it instills in that small number of us who were admitted a sense that we do not belong here and, based on my experiences, many white students maintain the same belief. At least in the present environment, my white peers and I are not afforded an equal college experience at UM. Whether we are studying in the library, tailgating at a frat, attending a football game, or going to a play, I, and people who look like me, bear the extra weight of feeling unsafe on campus.
Dylan Gilbert, Ann Arbor native and graduate of Pioneer High School, is a first-year student at The University of Michigan.