Recently, a Black Yale student who was questioned by police for napping in a common space told the police, “I’m not going to justify my existence here.” And yet, so many students of color find themselves having to do that on a daily basis. In New Orleans, Abi Mbaye’s story highlights the challenges students of color face when they transition into predominantly white spaces, especially a prestigious college. Abi grew up in Harlem, New York as well as Senegal before attending Chatham University in Pittsburgh; and now, she attends Tulane University in New Orleans. Her experiences of emotional trauma and culture shock as she navigated the changes are telling of the future for some of our New Orleans students. Orleans Parish schools are made up of predominantly African American students, and a number of these students will eventually attend predominantly white universities. Whether they are Ivy League or state schools, they will likely confront the same difficulties as Abi.
Abi was born in New York City, but she moved to Senegal when she was five years old, along with her brother. Some of her other siblings were raised in the United States, so she is grateful for her time in Senegal where she was able to be immersed in her heritage, including the African culture, French and Arabic language, and Islamic religion. Her grandmother raised her while she was there, and she received a well-rounded education in a private school.
She returned to the United States in the sixth grade and began attending public schools in Harlem. “It was a difficult transition,” she remembers. “I grew up in an African home and I didn’t speak English.” Abi’s father, who only had an eighth grade education in Senegal, worked as a taxi cab driver. Her mother, who hadn’t been given an opportunity for a formal education in Senegal, sold jewelry and also worked as a cook. Growing up, Abi’s father talked about racism, but she didn’t completely grasp it at that point, partly because she was around other Black and Latinx peers and she hadn’t been fully exposed to the systems of racism. This didn’t happen until she graduated high school and went to college.
“I always knew I wanted to be a doctor,” Abi says. She had always done well in school, but she also had never had full access to tools and resources. The most that was expected of her was to attend a community college or state school, but she was determined. She knew the path she wanted to take. She would attend a smaller school and then transfer to a more prestigious school.
The first university she attended was Chatham, which was predominately white, and at that time, an all-female school. She struggled to adapt to the environment and suffered from depression. Her classmates were sympathetic, but could not understand her feelings of isolation. This is when she began to seek out more information about systems of oppression and she discovered the language of the experience of racism in the U.S. Still, she hadn’t fully come to terms with it, and because she viewed her time at Chatham as temporary, she hadn’t fully accepted that this would be her life from now on.
Arriving at Tulane, the reality began to sink in. Up until this point, Tulane had been her dream, but it was quickly becoming clear that she had not prepared for the racism she would encounter and the isolation she would feel. “Tulane was always the dream. This is where I wanted to be. When I got into Tulane there was a happiness inside of me for months. I was so excited. It was the confirmation that I was where I needed to be in life.” But Abi began to experience the impact of racism right away.
Two or three days after she arrived, she went to the student dining hall to make arrangements for her meal plan. She requested a Halal plan because she is Muslim, but they told her they only had a Kosher meal plan, which is food prepared in alignment with Jewish religious requirements, not Muslim.
“I remember thinking ‘what does that have to do with me?’ But that wasn’t even the worst part.”
Her real moment of reckoning was in the dining hall itself.
“I was at a meeting and all around me was Black people cooking, serving, and cleaning and that had a profound impact on me. I remember thinking ‘this is what a modern plantation must look like.’ And I got out of there in a rush, and I threw up in a trashcan right outside the dining hall. That was the impact on me. I was disoriented for a few weeks. My body was not adjusting well.”
Following the experience, she continued to feel nauseous, but doctors couldn’t find anything physically wrong with her. The sickness was most likely the psychological toll of her stress, and so she was prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-depression medicine. “There is something about Tulane and being in this space that my spirit cannot accept,” she says.
If Abi’s experiences give us some indication of the emotional challenges New Orleans students may encounter when they go off to college, her story also gives hope. Instead of leaving or giving up, Abi has simply become more determined to follow her dreams.
“I don’t think there is ever a time when you feel like you truly belong at Tulane. I can’t even imagine what that would feel like, but I do know I deserve to be here. I do know that I have a right to be here. I do know that this school was built—the entire academic quad, the classrooms we sit in—were built by enslaved Africans. I do know that the money that made this school private was money from the labor of enslaved African people and those are my ancestors. So I definitely have the right to be here. I have the right to benefit from this education. I have the right to access this education. I have the right to be comfortable here. Despite it being a very ugly place because of its history; I do know I have the right. My ancestors have worked for that.”
Abi is also determined to make an impact. Even while she acknowledges that the University is not where it needs to be, she is grateful for the work of the student activists who came before her and who made it easier for her. She hopes to honor their work and build upon it to make it easier for the students of color who come after her. She finds strength in organizing. She is a certified Community Engagement Advocate, and in this role, she facilitates peer-led trainings on racism and oppression. She has also been a leader in Students Organizing Against Racism and is currently President of the African American Women’s Society.
“I alone can’t make changes. The only thing I can do while I’m here is to keep the doors that were open for me open for others, and to open more doors for those who come behind me…“I just find spaces where I can do the work.”
Some of the gains she, along with other activists, have fought for and accomplished is the creation of the Center for Academic Equity, which provides programming and scholarships for students of color. They have also asked for the hiring of more professors of color. One of those new professors, Z’étoile Imma, has made a huge impact on Abi. “Having her here has been life-changing for me in so many ways. She opened me to a whole new world that I didn’t even know existed of African literature and African writers. It has been so empowering. Her presence has done something for me.” Abi also has found strength by continuing to connect with African culture through Nigerian and Senegalese television shows, cooking, and wearing traditional fabrics.
But mainly, she realizes she will have to find the strength within herself to survive at Tulane, and to survive in predominantly white spaces. She has realized that just her existence is activism. “During the fall semester I was having a really hard time. It was probably my lowest point at Tulane. And a community advocate, Ashana Bigard, texted me and told me ‘as a Black woman, the most radical thing you can do is just to be okay.’ And those words have never left me. So every single day I just try to be as okay and as happy as I can, and to do as much as I can because that’s the most radical thing I can do here as a Black woman.”