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What it's like to be black at Princeton

I spent most of my time in college thinking the admissions office had made a mistake.

"What was your experience at Princeton like?"

The question always stumps me. The simple answer would be to outline the many opportunities for networking, education, and enrichment I've received before and after I graduated in 2009. However, a truer answer would be a flat, "It's complicated."

I tend to chalk up my ambivalence about Princeton to my experience as a lower-middle-class black woman on campus. It felt like the expectations of the university were constantly shifting goalposts that I could never hope to meet. My introductory-level science instructors would grant me extensions when I was sick from stress, but then my freshman adviser would admit that he purposely told me to sign up for too many classes in a semester because he wanted to weed me out of premedical studies. I shared that adviser with many students, and from what I heard the only ones who received such treatment were minorities.

The university paid for me to go home during an internship to attend my uncle's funeral, but then my department head essentially told me to get over it when I told him that grieving the deaths of my pastor, uncle, and aunt in one year was making it difficult to cope. Based on his response, it seemed impossible for him to believe that a student could have a pastor gunned down in a robbery, an uncle murdered, and an aunt who died of untreated cancer all in one year. He seemed to think that I was making up tragedies in order to get out of classwork or to cover up academic inadequacies. To me, it seemed that since he had never experienced a life that was so frequently beset by setbacks, he couldn't empathize with a student who came from a background where these things happen, maybe not with regularity, but with relative frequency.

I never knew whether to expect empathy or indifference when I met with a professor, adviser, or administrator. As long as my experiences fell within paradigms they understood, they could empathize. But as soon as I diverged from the "quintessentially Princeton" mold, I was a problem to be pushed aside.

Though I graduated years ago, it's clear that it is still challenging to be a minority at Princeton. In November, student protestors filled the university president's office, hosting a sit-in until their demands were met. These demands included: an acknowledgment of alumnus and former president Woodrow Wilson's legacy of racism and the removal of his name from all buildings, including the school of public policy and international affairs bearing his name; mandatory "cultural competency training" for all faculty and staff, including discussions of how freedoms of speech and intellectual thought can exist in ways that do not reinforce xenophobia and anti-blackness; the addition of courses on "marginalized peoples" to the required curriculum for all current students; and a space for black students on campus. The nature of these protests and the demands articulated speak to a minority population on campus that felt disempowered, unsupported, and misunderstood by faculty, staff, administrators, and the majority of the student population at large. I can't say that I'm surprised.

If Princeton treats all of its students the same way it treated me and other minorities during our time on campus, the institution is in need of far more serious reform than just removing Woodrow Wilson's name from various buildings around campus.

That time I was interrogated about a crime I didn't commit

In the years since I graduated, I've written off many petty experiences at Princeton as just the foibles and anxieties accompanying coming of age and the power struggles between student and authority figures. However, there was one specific incident that was just harrowing enough that even though I spent the better part of a decade downplaying it, it still has the power to send me into a full-fledged anxiety attack. (Vox asked a Princeton University spokesperson to confirm the details in this account, and received this reply: "Given how long ago this is alleged to have occurred, and the fact that many of the key individuals who might have been involved are no longer at the University, we're unable to verify any of the details.")

In my first full semester at Princeton, I worked at the campus bookstore. I hated working retail, but the U-Store allowed me to rent textbooks for free, and I needed the paychecks for spending money. My mother was battling breast cancer at the time, and I didn't want to be a burden by constantly asking for money for school supplies and social activities. I worked by myself and did my homework or studied whenever I wasn't helping customers or restocking merchandise.

There were a few quirks about the job. All the cashiers had the same login code for the register. I'd worked customer service jobs in high school, and I thought that system was weird and potentially unsafe for the company. The store's only locking mechanisms were a couple of metal gates secured by two combination locks that I was informed hadn't been changed in years. This also struck me as strange, because all students and other employees who had worked there in the past few years would not only have access to the store itself from those locks, but also would likely know the code to the register. I brought this up during training and was ignored, so I shrugged and moved on.

One afternoon, I was taking a nap between classes. I woke up to the sound of someone banging on my dorm room door so hard that the hinges rattled. Scared that something was seriously wrong, I hustled to the door and opened it, blearily rubbing my eyes. There was a plainclothes detective at my door, barking at me to present myself to the Public Safety Office at 2 pm. I'd already had encounters with Public Safety that year because someone was apparently using my address for credit card fraud, so I didn't think meeting the detective was that big of a deal. I was wrong.

I went to the office at the appointed time and was escorted to an interrogation room. There was a two-way mirror, a stainless steel table bolted to the floor with a landline phone on it, and two burly, middle-aged white plainclothes detectives doing their best impression of every good-cop-bad-cop shtick I'd seen on CSI. They asked me questions about my job at the bookstore and what my closing routine was like, and I answered them to the best of my ability. They then asked about one afternoon two weeks prior, which I couldn't remember at all, and I said as much. After about a half-hour of questioning, they left me in the room by myself.

Some time passed. I don't know how long it was, because there were no clocks in the room and I didn't have a watch or a cellphone. The detectives escorted me to what appeared to be a command center or an open office area of some sort. They told me they'd decided to "level with me," telling me that $500 had gone missing from the bookstore and that they had proof I stole it. They went on to say that stealing $500 is considered grand theft, a felony in the state of New Jersey, and that I would be expelled and imprisoned ... unless I let them help me.

I was in shock. I'd been an honor student since I was 10 years old and was so hopelessly nerdy and sheltered that the worst thing I had ever done was shoplift a book from Barnes and Noble ... and then return it because I felt guilty. I stammered that I definitely didn't steal the money and that they could check my bank statements if they wanted to see how consistently I didn't spend money.

I did not have the vocabulary to articulate the times that I felt unsafe, unwanted, and unsupported

The detectives told me that they knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was guilty and if I just signed a confession for them, they could reduce my expulsion to a suspension and I could probably just serve probation instead of jail time. I shook my head no, asking them to pull the surveillance tapes to see that I didn't do it.

And then they said, "Well, if you're good at what you do, you won't be on the tapes."

I felt as though I'd been slapped. It was clear to me that they didn't see me as a person.

I asked to call my parents. I was a minor, still only 17.

They not only refused to let me call my parents, but also continued to pressure me to sign a confession for the next 25 minutes. I was scared and confused, and I briefly contemplated signing it just to get them to leave me alone, but I knew I was innocent, and I knew better than to sign anything saying something to the contrary.

The detectives became increasingly hostile, demanding, and aggressive until I screamed, "I didn't do it! I don't know what you want from me!" and burst into tears. It's then that they shared an uneasy look, offered me some tissues as I sobbed, and finally escorted me back to the interrogation room to let me call my parents.

By the time my dad picked up his phone, I couldn't breathe through the tears. I was hiccuping and sobbing incoherently: "police," "arrest," "innocent," "help me." My parents live in a suburb of Chicago, and the 719 miles between home and Princeton never felt larger and longer than it did in that moment. In a voice colder than I have ever heard it before or since, he ordered me to give the phone to the nearest adult.

I heard him yelling through the phone, "What the fuck have you done to my daughter?" and heard the detectives stammer and stutter and dissemble as they said, "We only asked her a few questions, sir. She all of a sudden became distraught, and we don't know what happened. We're going to take good care of her."

Apparently, their idea of "taking good care" of a crying, scared girl is to put her in the back of a squad car, drive her to the campus health center, and place her under psychiatric watch. Luckily for me, the counselor they turned me over to was sympathetic to my distress. She called my friends to come get me and escort me home.

In the meantime, my parents convened at home and, pissed off and terrified on my behalf, they called the university president's office, demanding that someone tell them what was happening to me and if they needed to get a lawyer. No one could give them a conclusive answer, so they refused to stop calling until they got through to someone who could help me. When an administrator finally did offer to help, she promised me a formal apology from Public Safety and apologized herself that something like this would happen in my first semester at Princeton.

As I remember, Public Safety responded by filing a formal report against me and informing my residential college dean that I was under investigation for a felony charge. When I asked if they'd questioned anyone else in connection to the theft, I was rebuffed. I couldn't help but wonder if I was being targeted because of my race — as I recall, I was the only person of color working at that store location. The morning shift worker was an older white woman who, I was told, was only questioned over the phone. My understanding is that no other students were brought into Public Safety — they were all questioned and released at the bookstore itself.

I quit my job at the bookstore because I couldn't work for someone who didn't trust me, much less for people who would question me for stealing because they couldn't be bothered to replace their stupid locks. I had to use money that I didn't have to purchase copies of the textbooks I had been renting, which were recalled when my employment ended. I wasn't sleeping or eating well due to the stress of the investigation, and I stopped sleeping in my dorm room, bouncing from room to room of my friends' dorms, feeling that if Public Safety couldn't find me, then they couldn't kick me out of school.

I couldn't help but wonder if I was being targeted because of my race — as I recall, I was the only person of color working at that store location.

Over the next few months, I had mandatory meetings with my dean, during which he tried to keep me apprised of the investigation. I was told that Public Safety had lost any evidence that linked me to the theft and couldn't find several pages of the reports and testimonies that had been filed. It seemed to me they were both uncooperative and uncaring in regards to wrapping up the investigation one way or another so I could get on with my life. I remember they were particularly unrepentant when it was suggested that the investigation had been bungled, and refused to acknowledge any hint of wrongdoing. By contrast, I would be required to meet regularly with a counselor to process my "issues."

I had that first meeting with Public Safety in September 2005. My final meeting with my dean was in January 2006, when he told me that Public Safety was dropping the investigation. I never saw any of the evidence. I never got an apology. I never even found out how or why the investigation was dropped. From what I understand, no other students or non-university-affiliated bookstore workers ever saw the inside of that interrogation room. I was the only one. No one I've told this story to even knew that the university had an interrogation room, much less that it was used for students.

My parents wanted to sue the university. I didn't want to deal with the stress and pressure of litigation, and I asked them to just drop it so I could continue my education.

My minority friends had similar experiences

This was only one of many incidents in which I or one of my other minority friends would be denied our rights as students and as people because it was convenient or because someone in power felt that we were less likely to have resources to fight back.

I asked a few of my peers for their experiences, and I was uniformly horrified.

A friend of mine who has a disability recalled the structural inadequacies of the university, including a time when she was forced to climb several flights of stairs and breathe into a brown bag in order to meet with an administrator. She also related having collapsed outside her dorm and being kicked by someone to determine if she was conscious before the person called for help.

Another friend related a class she had to drop because her instructor was so openly hostile to her. It was a rigorous course with only eight people admitted to take it per semester. When my friend offered to answer questions or attempted to participate in class, the instructor would ask for others' opinions, suggest she had not understood the readings, imply she did not do the readings, or sigh impatiently when she requested to chat one on one. After being openly humiliated in the class, she cried, walked out, and dropped the course.

As we talked about her experience, she said, "I recall being in class and wondering what exactly it was about me he did not like, because it had nothing to do what I offered the course. Of all the students in the class, I was the only one with multiple jobs to get through my degree and the only queer black woman. I had been doing incredibly well in my department and studies at that point and just could not grapple with the anxiety that would build up every time I entered his classroom."

My student mentor was attending a theater show only to have two white women loudly lament that their children would be at Princeton if they only hadn't had to fill their quotas for black students. When he interjected that that was neither true nor fair, they claimed that he was accusing them of racism and loudly took offense.

A fight broke out at a hip-hop party sanctioned by the university, and the entire narrative within Princeton and the surrounding news outlets was that there was gang-related violence at Princeton, simply because one of the combatants was black and from a nearby, working-class town. The club hosting the party, of which I was a member, was asked to shut down. I was particularly offended at this because that fight was an isolated incident; it involved people who were not affiliated with the university, not just students.

This is not to say that I hated my time at Princeton. I met amazing people, studied literature, science, and art with leaders of their fields, joined clubs, and made friends. I just wish that there had been more programs and protocols in place to make it easier for people from less-advantaged backgrounds feel as though they fit in. I spent the majority of my time feeling as though the admissions office had made a mistake letting me in — not because of my academic performance, but because I came from a completely different class of people.

Princeton exposed me to people who would never have the same financial concerns as I did, and while I don't begrudge anyone their socioeconomic stability, I feel that if the university made more of an effort to be inclusive of students of minority and low-income backgrounds, they would have so many more alumni who would be willing to pay it forward upon graduation. Offering financial assistance for unpaid internships, making grants available for students to participate in the same immersion-study language trips as their wealthier peers, and accounting for living expenses when calculating the parental contributions of middle-class students whose parents may make enough money on paper but have very little on hand in reality, would all be great steps to take. Creating a transparent chain of command in reporting instances of discrimination and actively taking an interest in the ways cultural differences contribute to misunderstandings and actual, overt bias against minority students would be transformative.

Why I'm proud of the student protesters — even if I don't agree with them about everything

Current student protesters have succeeded in many of their demands: that the legacy of Woodrow Wilson be reexamined, and that a physical place on campus be created for black students. The university will also consider giving its faculty "cultural competency training" and including a diversity requirement in the core curriculum for students.

I am proud of these and other student protesters around the country. Watching these students stand up for their beliefs and fight to actually create the diverse Princeton that the university claims itself to be has been empowering. I don't necessarily agree with all of the demands; I don't know if they are all feasible from the standpoint of the administration; but then again, I haven't been an enrolled student in almost a decade. What I do know is that I am so happy our society has progressed to such a point that these students are able to articulate the things they need to feel included at school. When I was at Princeton, when I was being investigated for a felony, when I was being set up for failure by advisers, when my realities of life were inconvenient to faculty or administrators, I did not have the vocabulary to articulate the times that I felt unsafe, unwanted, and unsupported.

If universities want to retain students and faculty that are engaged and enthusiastic about their experience, then they must create an environment that not only allows people of different races, genders, sexual orientations, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds to enroll or work, but also allows them to thrive as members of the university community. Painting over murals and reconsidering legacies of institutional greats is one thing, but truly attempting to create a community where students aren't harassed, intentionally led astray, or made to feel unwelcome — or, you know, investigated for crimes they didn't commit on specious and possibly nonexistent evidence — is a much larger battle to be waged.

Brittney Winters is a freelance writer in Chicago, where she lives with her fiancé, dog, and cat.


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