Questions aren’t always black and white

Tim Magaw

A white woman living down the hall from freshman theater major R‚Shawna Gregory once asked her if she would rather have white people’s hair.

“I said ‘No,'” she said. “Because if you go to salons, the white people like working with our hair more because it has more texture to it. You can do more styles with it.”

Gregory knew the woman and didn’t take offense to the question.

“She’s harmless,” she said. “She really just wants to know.”

But if someone random asked, Gregory said she might be upset.

“If I felt like the person was trying to be offensive, I probably wouldn’t have answered the question,” she said. “I would feel a little singled out.”

Pan-African Studies professor George Garrison said questions such as this are sometimes appropriate, while others aren’t.

“It’s a matter of human curiosity,” he said. “Not a matter of white curiosity.”

While he was in U.S. Naval Officer Command School, a friend of Garrison asked him if black people get tans. He answered the question, telling his friend his skin gets about two shades darker in the summer.

Garrison said some inappropriate questions are those such as, “How do black people feel about this?” He said the black community is just as diverse as the white community. There are just as many different economic classes, political views, religious affiliations and general viewpoints in the black community as in the white community.

Asking generic questions such as these is like walking into a room full of whites and asking for the white opinion on stem-cell research, he said, when there is no one opinion.

Answering Unusual Questions

Preston Mitchum, vice president of KSU-NAACP and Undergraduate Student Senate senator for academic affairs, said some of the unusual questions whites tend to ask him are those such as, “Why do you wear a doo-rag?” or “Why don’t you bend your hat?” He said he’s not generally offended by these questions.

“Those are questions you can’t get answers to unless you ask them,” Mitchum said.

Some of the questions that offend Mitchum are ridiculous ones such as, “Are all black people poor?” or “Do all black men beat their wives?” But the question that offends him most is when whites ask him, “Why do you speak so proper?”

“It’s an insult to my race in general,” he said, adding that the question implies his race isn’t articulate.

Mitchum was stepping out of the USS office one day. To announce his departure, he used the word “finna,” an abbreviation for “fixing to,” which usually means “going to.” He said the people in the office were confused and wondered why he didn’t say it “more white.” He was offended when they tried to be funny by asking what it meant.

“I will never say ‘act white’ or ‘act black’ because you act how your environment is,” Mitchum said.

Katharine Dunivant, freshman fashion design and merchandising major, said sometimes whites might try to do something in a black way. In one of her math classes, her teacher, who was white, would say “fiddy” instead of “fifty.”

“I was cool with it, but I knew he didn’t talk like that,” she said.

She said she wasn’t offended by the teacher, just surprised.

Answering in the Classroom

Senior nursing major Brittany Durr said she was asked to speak for the black race during a seminar about cultural diversity.

“I can’t speak for everybody,” she said. “I mean in the beginning it made me mad, but it’s just something I got used to.”

Mitchum said he hasn’t been asked to speak for his race in class, but he feels as if he gives the black opinion on things.

“When I say anything, it’s going to sound like I’m speaking for the race, but I have to make it clear I’m not,” he said.

Senior English major Carla Smith said she knows she can be viewed as a representative of her race, especially since she has been the only black student in some of her upper-division courses.

“But sometimes I know I had to offer a more black perspective on things without being asked,” Smith said.

Because she’s graduating in May, much of the discussion in her classes has been about finding jobs.

“I had to give my perspective on what I need to do to get a job,” Smith said. “Even how things appear to be intimidating because I am in the minority.”

Senior history major Nathan Williams said he feels like the only black student in all his classes outside Oscar Ritchie Hall.

“It’s different,” he said. “It’s weird; you always feel like you have to prove yourself, go beyond just so others can see you as belonging.”

Williams said he can feel singled out because teachers will say things such as, “Nate, who’s Sojourner Truth? You should know the answer to this.” Once in Social Problems, the class was discussing drug use by inner city youths, and the teacher asked him why this was.

“It’s just more pressure on us,” Williams said. “We have to know all the answers. We have to be overly prepared just in case.

“It’s like if you don’t get the right answer, you’re representing your race,” he added.

Garrison said it’s the responsibility of all instructors to be aware of the cultural dynamics in their classes and how students feel.

“You have to be attentive to do that,” he said, “to make sure we don’t put any greater burdens on one student than we do on the others.”

Learning to Adapt

Garrison said he quickly learned to adjust to being the only black student in some of his classes when he was in school.

“You learn early on to cope with that,” he said. “You learn to compete and be successful in an atmosphere that is hostile.”

Gregory said she has had to adapt since coming to campus.

“I had to adjust and realize that everything isn’t 50/50,” she said.

Gregory said she had to promote a play she was in for the first time in her life. In high school, plays were promoted equally, but things were different at Kent State.

Gregory said “Black Girl,” one of the plays she starred in as part of the African Community Theatre, didn’t receive nearly the amount of publicity as the plays of the regular theater such as “Cabaret.”

She said she put postcards advertising the play in two places in the Music and Speech Building, but two days later, they were taken down.

“I’m trying to think positively about it,” Gregory said. “Unless someone took them down because they wanted to go, but I doubt it.”

Garrison said if black students can survive on a university campus, it will prepare them for the road ahead.

“(Black students) have to learn how to survive, how to do well, how to succeed despite being the only one or the very few,” he said. “Because as you go up the success ladder in your profession … you’re going to run into fewer people that look like you.”

Contact ethnic affairs reporter Tim Magaw at [email protected].