Student perspectives in honor of Black History Month


Thursday, February 23, 2017

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Every February since 1976, the United States has celebrated Black History Month, a time to support and recognize the history and contributions of the black community. There are currently 104 black students at MSU. In tribute to this celebration, the Exponent interviewed four black students to hear their experiences on MSU’s campus and in Bozeman.

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Mikayla Pitts is a junior in community health at MSU. She grew up in Bakersfield, California and has been in Bozeman on and off the last couple of years. She is typically in the area for the summers to conduct research.

She tries to be involved within the MSU community as much as she can. Pitts went to a diversity discussion last semester and realized that “people actually do care, they just don’t know what to do” about diversity issues.

Pitts feels that MSU does enough for the black students in some aspects, but not in others. “I don’t know if the school even has a diversity awareness center anywhere. I’m in the health and human development department and the faculty is very open. When we give examples, they take into perspective our background and upbringing.” While MSU does have a Diversity Awareness Office, Pitt’s had never heard of it.

“I have yet to see the campus ask what they can do differently, only my department has done that.” Pitts also commented that MSU, “should acknowledge Black History Month and it would be nice if they acknowledged the diversity here and what they can do differently to not make them feel uncomfortable.”

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Khari Garcia, a senior in sociology, came to MSU after receiving a football scholarship to play as a safety for the Bobcats.

Garcia, who is from Pomona, California, notices the lack of diversity. Through football, he has gained a sense of community among the other black athletes. Garcia notices most negative comments he hears are directed at his friends, and allude to the “black athlete stereotype” that they are uneducated.

His freshman year, Garcia had a tough time adjusting to the new environment. “When I first got here, I felt different, I felt like everyone stared at me. I went out on Main Street and I was like, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’ because I was so uncomfortable. But then I spotted a family friend of mine and I have never been more glad to see anyone in my life.”

Garcia also recalled going to a Halloween party his freshman year with some other teammates, where they were told “no n****** allowed.”

“Bozeman does a good job at making us feel different, and we shouldn’t feel different … The good experiences I have had here are being treated as a normal human,” he said.

Garcia said he has felt accepted by the community in regards to children and families who enjoy Bobcat football. One mother wrote to him on Facebook regarding her son who was in 3rd grade; “he had a project for Black History Month and he wrote about me. They had to write about someone famous and he chose me as a role model.”

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Danique Walker moved to the United States from Jamaica when she was 11. Six years later, Walker is a sophomore pursuing a microbiology degree, with dreams of becoming a veterinarian.

Walker keeps up with her childhood friends from Jamaica to this day. Walker got to visit her friends and family in Jamaica recently for the first time in five years. “Everything looked so different,” she mused. However abrupt and unexpected her departure from Jamaica, Walker refers to her move to Colorado fondly. “My time in Colorado is where I really learned a lot, gained a lot of the knowledge and awareness I’ve come to have,” she said.

“In Jamaica, everywhere I looked people looked like me,” Walker explained. Walker said she reminisces on her move to the U.S. with her friends, who often ask, “Whoa, do you remember that? Were you terrified?”

In Colorado, her fellow classmates hadn’t grown up around many black people, but they navigated those new waters like only 11-year-olds could. They acknowledged the differences, “but it wasn’t a problem or an obstacle” for Walker to make friends. “I am not colorblind, but color has never been a blinder. Never something that got in the way,” she said. Walker moved to Bozeman as she was finishing middle school.

In her daily life at MSU, she sometimes has to remind herself that not everyone has had her experiences. “Not everyone has had a culture shock at age 11. Some people are experiencing culture shocks at 80,” she said. Her advice? Smile more. “I feel like just being in Bozeman, there’s a half and half,” she said, “there are the people who are super open and friendly. For the other half, just don’t be afraid to smile. You never know what could come from something so simple.” In Walker’s opinion, a smile can turn someone’s day around, making them feel welcomed and included. “It’s like … I see you,” she said of the sentiment, and then explained how she often waves and smiles to other black students on campus.

“I’m aware that there are not very many other black people around on campus,” Walker said, before admitting that she had been thinking a lot about how MSU could do better. She hadn’t heard of any Black History Month events on campus, but noted that she’d “geek out” if MSU put on a day or week of cultural celebrations for all. She also stressed that representation, telling stories of people around campus, is key.

Walker feels like she’s a part of a community “of sorts” at MSU. “What that community is, I’m still finding ways to find it,” she said. Walker pointed to an Acting for Non-Majors class she took last semester. She pondered for a moment before concluding that she was the only black person in the class. However, “we were all putting ourselves outside of our comfort zones. We were all in the same boat,” she explained. “In certain circumstances, I do feel part of a community. But it’s ever shifting, ever changing.”

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Sonia Antar moved to Havre when she was nine. Antar’s older biological sister and her sister’s husband adopted Antar, and raised her with their two younger children. Antar spent her first nine years in Sierra Leone during their civil war. She had to move from Makeni to Freetown, Sierra Leone, because “it was safer there compared to the smaller villages.”

When she arrived in Havre, Antar had to work through the culture shock. “Language was a big thing … I think half the time with any interaction, I couldn’t totally understand it, which I think really protected me in a sense,” she said. She did face other instances of discrimination, such as when she tried to wear a headscarf her adopted Norwegian grandmother gave her, “they told me to take off my do-rag and I wouldn’t, so they sent me home from school.”

Things got easier when Antar started freshman year at Bozeman High in 2008, and began training in track and field. By her senior year of high school, she was recognized across the state of Montana. She began school at MSU as an athlete in track and field. Although she is currently taking a break from school, Antar is pursuing a psychology degree.

She wishes the university system would be more proactive in filling the gaps of historical knowledge where public education failed, specifically in discussion-based classes where “the loudest voice isn’t the most important.” Antar believes that discussion of race on campus is “such a taboo issue that no one wants to deal with it directly.” She elaborated, “everything they do is very constructed, and it’s super safe and nothing is going to be solved when you’re just being safe.” For Antar, a good starting point is awareness of race and the privilege that comes with it. “That, and acknowledging it’s an issue in the first place” she said.

Her experience on the track and field team also prompted her to suggest more racial sensitivity training within the athletic department. “Lots of coaches suggested that I’m good because I’m African. No, I’m good because I train hard. And suggesting that I’m better because of my race creates weird team dynamics.” Ultimately, it was those team dynamics that prompted her to quit the track team and begin running solely for fun. “I’m such a sensitive person” she said, and admitted that quitting track allowed her a lot of necessary self-reflection.

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