This story is the second in a series of features on black students discussing race, identity and microaggression. For part one, visit “No, You Cannot Touch My Hair.”
Each year at the Gold Star Marching Band’s banquet, section leaders honor members with a host of lighthearted awards.
Just a few of these are based on a Biblical idiom: a wolf in sheep’s clothing, sheep in wolf’s clothing, sheep in sheep’s clothing or wolf in wolf’s clothing.
Drum major DeJon Allan said he was surprised when he was awarded the “sheep in wolf’s clothing” this fall.
The awards are meant as a compliment and a joke, and Allan said he took it as such. Still, he found the experience a little strange.
“At home, I’m a big teddy bear,” he said.
Back home in Kansas City, Missouri, the 6 foot 2 inch tall, 260-pound black student with shoulder-length dreadlocks fits right in. In Fargo, Allan says his experience has been very different.
Allan, a senior, transferred to North Dakota State after two years at a community college in Missouri. Fargo gave him his first experience with the state, as well as living in a predominately white community.
He said he could tell other students seemed to be afraid of him almost as soon as he got to campus. Living in Pavek Hall, he remembers attending his first floor meeting and watching as other students gravitated away.
“I guess it’s just one of those things where since I don’t look like everybody else, they just assume I’m not personable,” he said.
Now, the white friends he has admit they initially avoided him out of fear.
“It was because I was big and black and had ‘locks,” he said.
“There’s a lot scarier people, especially where I’m from, than I am,” Allan said. “So having people fear me here is different, I suppose.”
In his first few months on campus, Allan said he experienced extreme isolation. Without any friends, he had few people to turn to with problems or to vent.
“I had to call my mother, talk to my roommate — who 75 percent of the time didn’t even get it because he was white so that didn’t help — or just figure it out on my own,” he said.
That isolation strongly impacted his first semester.
“It was definitely depressing,” he said. “Especially since I’m a big family-oriented person.”
Impact on young, black males
Beginning college can add new stressors to any young adult’s life.
For black students, who are often first generation college students or come from low-income communities, finding support in the new environment can be a real challenge.
Allan said it initially almost felt easier to take on the role of the “big, scary black guy.”
“I didn’t want to be bothered anyway,” he said. “I’m just trying to get my education.”
He said this fear also gave him his first taste of power.
At home, the only thing that gave him any power was his size and education.
Here, he holds some power just for the color of his skin. White students fear him or assume he’s like the African Americans they see on TV — often violent.
“That ain’t who I am,” he said. “So the real me just kind of came out anyway because I’m just not a scary person.”
Many of the friends he has now were either forced into situations in which they had to interact or simply became curious and decided to reach out.
Allan said he’s grateful for the people who took a chance and talked to him.
“I think for young people just the isolation is almost so much pressure,” he said.
As a transfer student, Allan arrived in Fargo as a junior. He said he couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to move to campus at just 18 years old.
“I figure if that also happens to (freshmen), they just fall into the role,” he said. “It’s a lot easier for them because, you know, for the first time they’re away from parents, they’re in an unknown situation, and, again, it’s just safer to be what people think you are in order to avoid being bothered.”
Maintaining a sense of identity
Allan struggled to find a community of his own. He said the small population of black students here often represents an extreme, pop culture version of black culture.
From appearance (saggy jeans and trendy haircuts) to taste in music (primarily R&B and hip hop) to their general interactions with others (“louder than necessary conversations, aggressive natures”), Allan said NDSU’s black community is willing to conform to stereotypes portrayed by the media.
For Allan and others who do not fit typical stereotypes of a young black male, the need to conform to the black community’s mold can mess with their sense of identity.
“Sometimes it’s like I’m not black enough for black people, and I ain’t white enough for white people.
“For white people, it’s like I’m way too black to even try to befriend or they fear me or something or just assume that I’m like what they see on TV, and that’s not it at all,” Allan said. “Then trying to befriend black people who are basically what white people fear they’re going to be is not even worth it either because I’m not even really close.”
He said he thinks being isolated within a white community can cause some black students to overcompensate in an attempt to maintain a connection with black culture.
“Being up here where there’s nothing else other than the few black friends or the small black community that NDSU has, like sure, even if you are an individual, you kind of conform just because its some kind of familiar to you,” he said.
Allan said he’s not the only one who’s struggled to adjust to the community.
“Freshmen I know and I’ve spoken to have kind of conformed or like had a hard time trying to fit in with the African-American community and just period with the NDSU culture,” he said.
He said he wish someone in those first few months would have just introduced themselves.
“I would rather people would have asked me,” he said. “You know, just took a shot in the dark and try to talk to me versus assuming that I was a mean guy.
“If I just changed my skin and my hair color, I feel like everything else would flip. It’s amazing what it does to people because it really is the smallest thing. It’s just a skin color, and it’s just my hair color.”