OP-ED: Being the Only Student of Color – ft. an Environmental Studies Course

Erina Horikawa, Senior

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Being the only student of color is difficult and emotional, to say the least. This recently happened as I was the only person of color in Environmental Justice. I took the course, as a senior Race and Ethnic Studies major, because the course was cross-listed as Race and Ethnic Studies, and because I wanted to learn about environmental racism. I was excited about the course content and the lectures, and prior to going to class, I was another student ready to take a new course for the new semester. What I’m sharing is also a product of where I am now, & is based on my own experience. While my friends who are POCs have similar stories, this story no way encompasses the collective POC experience.


On the first day of class, as I sat in a class of 15-20 students, I was the only visible person of color. This wasn’t new, but I questioned why it’s so white even as a RAES course, even as a course that centers on learning about environmental issues that most affect poor communities of color. Here, I assumed most other students in the course were upper, middle class students, and I was the only working class, first-gen person of color. And while I don’t know all the invisible diversity that might have been present, in general, these assumptions are true at Whitman.


The professor’s first question, for me, clarified my assumptions. To the question, how we enjoyed the environment over winter break, most answers were related to skiing, hiking, things that comes with accessibility and privilege. When it was my turn, I was faced with the decision of how to call this out. Then I thought, wow. I’m gonna have to decide how to engage with this course everyday. To what extent do I ‘call out,’ how do I phrase it so people aren’t defensive, but keep composure when I feel like a classmate doesn’t understand why their comment stems from white privilege?


After three classes, I decided to drop the course. I couldn’t focus on the readings or in class. And I thought, why? Should I just suck it up and keep going? I emailed my advisor and she suggested I take another course where I’m not reacting like this all the time. Where I’m intellectually challenged and stimulated, not exhausted and stressed. Then I thought, but if I drop the class, how is everyone going to talk about race? I won’t be there to listen, to address moments where folks say things that comes from a place of privilege. For example, one student said how it’s important to think about intersections but also it’s really exhausting or tiring to do so. To that point, I immediately wanted to say how problematic that comment was because it comes from a place of privilege where one does not live in intersections, and thus not forced to think about it — being poor, POC, queer, with disability, every moment. And I didn’t want to have to make that decision — whether to point these things out or just to not — all the time, and these thoughts frankly overwhelmed me mentally and emotionally. But of course, when I didn’t, no one else did either. It took me a while to realize all these feelings were not my fault. I hope I don’t have to spell out why this is not my fault. But, no one was willing to bring up the issue.


I’ve heard stories of the difficulty of being a person of color from my POC peers. Stories such as a professor justifying using the n-word, a class reading a piece directly about race and a cis-white male saying how they cannot relate as a young, white man, or other white individuals questioning the point of reading the passage in the first place. I was fearful of similar comments, the responsibility I would feel of trying to change that individual’s mind about getting them to understand the oppression poor people of color face, knowing that that isn’t my responsibility, but also knowing that we need white, privileged allies to care about people of color as a country being ran by white people in power, and feeling like every comment I make in class must fulfill the above expectations. It didn’t feel right that my motives for going to class was “I must help white people understand about inequalities,” or “question my peers in getting them to think more critically about being a white person,” rather than going to class, simply to learn about environmental justice. Also, the questions of whether classroom spaces allow one to engage beyond ‘intellect,’ beyond mind, but rather one with emotions. I felt my emotions were too much, where they wouldn’t be valued, where I would just be the ‘angry POC.’ I felt I was expected to read, listen to lecture, and learn just with my body. I cannot explain it but I felt this ‘ok this is a white class, I have to assimilate to such.’ Granted, critical discussions are an important part of class, but pretty difficult when you’re the only student of color and the course is about race.


As I left the course, I’d imagine that my absence was clear. I wrote the following and asked the professor to read it in class to spark discussion, but was not shared in class.


Dear members of the Environmental Justice class:

I initially took this course because this was cross listed with Race and Ethnic Studies, I was pretty excited to have a course that ties the two together. In my mind, I thought the course would center around how environmental toxins predominantly affect poor people of color, and learn more about environmental racism.


And I’ve heard that ES is a pretty white space, but I didn’t want to have that factor deter me away from myself, as a Whitman student, having the right to be in the course. Also, after graduating from Whitman, I knew that I would need to navigate predominantly white spaces regardless. However, I did not expect what I experienced in the first day, actually being the only person of color in a class that was centered around poor people of color. And quite frankly, being the only person of color is nothing new. But the fact that it was a Race and Ethnic studies course, which is supposed to take a critical stance at the issues of race, coupled with how the class was full of faces that I did not know, was shocking to me. By saying ‘faces that I did not know,’ it was my perception that I haven’t seen many faces at various social justice, specifically racial justice oriented events on campus.


With these thoughts, I invite every person in the class to question, who is the class for?


Why are you taking the course? What do you do in your life that gives back to poor communities of color? How are you prioritizing your time to actually benefit poor communities of color?


What is being done, at Whitman, not just in the wider environmental justice/environmentalism movement, to address how white the movement is? Who is talking about it and how is it being talked about? What measures are actually taking place to make the ES major more inclusive for people of color?


In the end, I think my biggest regret is not being able to say everything in class. Part of me felt this was also the general challenges of speaking in class. However, I question this and put more weight on the realities of the EJ class. In my current course that I switched into, I feel comfortable speaking in class.


I also wonder, if I didn’t write this, would anyone have directly brought up how the class was made up of all white people at some point in the semester?


I do hope for a class where POCs and white students can come together and share openly without anyone feeling uncomfortable and excluded. However, I believe that work is largely on white individuals. Please make spaces more inclusive. I believe you all are in Environmental Justice because you care about the environment, which is honorable – and something I’m still learning about. And, I don’t know many of you, so I don’t know all that you have done in service to your communities, as much as I don’t know what your experiences and backgrounds have been. However, having a good-intention is never enough in tackling racism and racial exclusion. I hope to see, and am excited to hear about active work around these issues.


Finally, I chose to publish in the WIRE because it’s the most obvious avenue to get this experience to everyone on campus. Choosing not to say anything about it, and the choices of others not to say more about this, I believe, feeds into apathy, feeds into yet another class in another semester where another student feels similarly and lose an opportunity to learn, loses the right to learn as a student at Whitman.