Being A Black Student at A Big 10 University

I applied to several big Midwestern universities in 1993 and one hail Mary school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I applied to Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. The Office of Minority Student Affairs admitted under the President’s Award Program, a scholarship offered to “High achieving newly-admitted freshmen from several underrepresented groups”. So it was a no brainer I would attend school at the Urbana- Champaign campus with my dreams to be a graphic designer.

I grew up in the predominately white Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn and U of I was a big eye opener for me and learning experience. Not only was there diversity of races, but diversity of thought. There were so many foreign exchange students from all over the world, but mostly from China and Korea.

“The enrolled student population currently at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is 43.4% White, 15.3% Asian, 9.25% Hispanic or Latino, 5.19% Black or African American, 2.66% Two or More Races, 0.0601% Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders, and 0.0539% American Indian or Alaska Native”

I attended a Nine Inch Nails concert that fall of 1994, and my sheltered suburban self was shocked. Eyebrow rings? Colored Mohawks? I had never seen anything like that in the somewhat affluent Plesantville suburbs of Chicago.

There seem to be a student organization for every single group. Indian American Students Association, Filipino Students Association, Asian American Association, La Casa Cultural Latina, African American Student Association, Japan House, the black Greek system and the predominantly white Greek system just to name a few. And there was the student LGBT group.

People tended to self segregate on campus on race, with the resident halls having politically incorrect nicknames:

Florida Avenue Residence Hall was called “The Projects” because it was a tall dorm located on the outside of campus with a lot of black students.

Illinois Street Residence Hall was called “Hotel Asiana” because of the high population of Asian students living there.

Illini Tower, IT, was called “Israeli Towers” because of the reputation of affluent Jewish American students living there.

“The 6 Pack” was a group of dorms close to the football stadium and some frat houses nearby and known for drinking.

Allen Hall, sometimes called “Alien Hall” because all the alternative, art and LGBT students would live there.

Bussey-Evans, the all girls dorm was called “P*ssy Heavans”, for obvious reasons.

Several of my classmates from high school went to college with me, but the ones I lived in my dorm at Florida Avenue Residence Halls were Asian-American, so I hung out with them often and we shared music interest like synth pop music like New Order and Depeche Mode. I was invited to a Filipino-American Student Association battle of the DJs, and the Asian-American Association fashion show (who the director that year was black) which were fun and interesting events because I had never had that much exposure to Asian and Asian-American culture. So many Asian students lived in Champaign, that there was a Asian grocery store called Am-ko, very unusual for a central Illinois town at the time.

One thing that made me sad was my good Indian American friend who got very involved in the Indian Student Association, which was totally fine by me. But as time went by, she began to exclusively hang out with other Indian American students, and I felt I lost a friend.

There is one thing being a Black,Hispanic or Asian student that white students probably never worry about: will my potential roommate be racist or prejudice. It may seem irrational, but since you have no idea who your roommate might be, it’s something at the back of your mind. However I was very lucky that my roommates were very cool. One white, one white Australian (my favorite, loved his amazing quirky sense of humor) and one Indian-American (my least favorite, we just didn’t get along).

One incident I remember from my freshman year is that I was eating dinner with some mostly white friends. At the table next to us was a group of Black kids being very boisterous. One of my friend’s roommates turned to me and asked “why are THOSE people being so loud?!” I sheepishly said “I don’t know.” I assume I was supposed to know who they were.

Since I was in the School of Art and Design, it was predominantly white, with some Asians and only a handful of black students. In my 5 years there, there was only one black graphic design graduate student. My TA for art history was black and that was the only black instructor I’d ever have in my enitre life. I had definitely had that feeling of being “othered” and not fitting in. I met a lot of great people, including my best friend, a girl from Hong Kong, and my friend and future roommate later in college,a Jewish guy from New York. I also became good friend with a fellow graphic design student who was Greek-American.

I had the rare Native American painting instructor, but he ended up quitting over the Chief Illniwek controversy, our Native American mascot that was seen as racist, with a big documentary coming out about it called “In Whose Honor” in 1997, years before any of the Washington Redskins controversy.

The biggest issue on race I had at in the graphic design program was actually with a Black female student. You had to apply to get into the school of graphic design because they had so few spaces, and you had to submit a portfolio. I was an acquaintance and on friendly terms with the young woman, so she had seen my portfolio. When I was admitted, and she wasn’t, she said it was because of affirmative action, because she thought she had a stronger portfolio, and that they needed a black male, so that’s why they chose me. I was really hurt because I thought I got in on my own hard work. I began to doubt myself. What IF I had only got in because of affirmative action?

Frat Parties at university were weird for me. I went to a few, and I was almost always the only black person there drinking shitty beer with shitty rock and alternative music I was not into. The popular campus bars where mostly frat and sorority girls went I felt exactly the same. I had a disdain for the Greek system which i found superficial, based on looks, drinking and sports, and I was not sports inclined at all. However the black Greek system I was not interested in either, because that culture was also foreign to me because of my mostly suburban upbringing, so again, I felt like I was in between races.

The summer going into my senior year, the Office of Minority Affairs gave me a research grant to study the subject of my choice in graphic design under the Ronald McNair Scholarship Program. It was a program to promote people of color going into grad school by giving them a mini research project. It was very exciting, like an independent study and I had 3 mentors who were my graphic design professors. Part of the program was attending meetings, seminars (like how to write your resume, how to use the Microsoft Office Suite), and a field trip to check out the other Big10 schools and there graduate programs. This was the first time I had really been around of students of color ever in my life. I was ashamedly uncomfortable at first, but ended up meeting some very nice people, like one Hispanic American student I befriended. I had an exhibition of my work and several of the students in the program came to see it.

As time went on, I became very interested in making electronic music and performing it live at parties in town, where I met fellow musicians like my friend Chris ( a fellow graphic designer), Shuhei and the multi ethnic group Dolce Stil Nuovo. Our audience was largely the artsy-fartsy Urbana crowd, which was predominately white.

We made the unfortunate mistake to play a frat party for a graphic design fundraiser for our senior show at the I Space gallery in Chicago. It was mostly rock bands performing. As the night went on, every one was getting more and more drunk. When my friend’s band went on, they had a Filipina-American singer. Someone in the crowd yelled out “Hey Yoko-Ono”.

My super senior year(I was on the 5 year plan) I lived in what I like to lovingly call the “United Colors of Benetton House”. It was me, a Filipino guy, his white girlfriend and two Chinese girls, who were my good friends. That year was one of the funnest of my life, as we shared our lives and music with each other, and an odd performance theater based on Japanese Butoh.

I spent most of my time at the local hipster bar, Gypsy, and the gay bar C Street. Always fun, but not the bastions of diversity since there were only a few out black students.

The one thing about living in Champaign-Urbana was the separation of liberal college campus and rural cornfield/soybean town with more conservative Republican values. There were blacks in town, but there was even a section of town where many of them lived in government assisted living (named after Crispus Attucks of course). There was even a small strip mall nearby which people pejoratively, and jokingly, called “N*gga Mart”.

One incident I had was when I had a flat tire in Champaign, and I had to call Firestone for a tow. Here comes a stereotypical good ole boy truck driver out of central casting: overalls, grey beard, and a southern twang. On our way to the tire shop we make small talk, and he asks me, “so where are you from, Nairobi or someplace?!” I sat there shocked for a moment and thought to myself “why did this man think I was Kenyan?!” I politely told him, no, im from Chicago, and then he became a bit flustered and said “oh, oh , I hate that place” and it got silent and awkward.

From what I hear, I got through University of Illinois relatively unscathed. A woman I later worked with had a totally different experience. This is her words.

“My experience at U of I was rather different. I often got asked if I was there on a basketball scholarship (I’m 5'6), what it was like to live in a “scary” neighborhood in Chicago (I mostly grew up across from Millennium Park) and it was typical to see Black parties getting broken up by cops while white frat parties looked like pure mayhem. I regularly got pulled over by cops, too. One particular time, the cops pulled me over in my car, wouldn’t address me in the driver’s seat, and asked my Asian boyfriend if he was okay and if I had permission to be driving HIS Mercedes. Naturally, it couldn’t have been mine. I also had a teacher ask me if I needed the day off from class when Tupac died. That was dumb but I took it anyway. I also got harassed and denied service for being in an interracial relationship.”

My childhood friend who currently lives and teaches there has this to say “I’d argue that there’s more than a binary division of Campus/other. Campus in the middle (liberal, diverse in some ways). Champaign Urbana (Lots of ppl who have many generations here, but even more transplants like me. I believe my own public school is 60% black or brown. A lot of divisions of black/white neighborhoods and spaces!!). Outer ring outside of our ‘micro urban community’ (I can’t help myself that moniker makes me smile. Some great places and people, but mostly white, more Trump banners than I am comfortable with, and some are serious sundown towns).”

I have not been back to Illinois to see what has changed, or what has remained the same, but it would be interesting to find out.

Lapsed Web Designer, Aspiring UI/UX Professional, and Electronic Dance Music Aficionado from Chicagoland

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