To be Unapologetically Black and African at a PWI
By: Bilphena Yahwon, Student
My name is Bilphena Yahwon. You’ve probably heard this name before. Your local student activist always stirring up ‘trouble’ here at Towson. The girl who is flamboyantly African and can be found eating rice and cassava leaf in Susq.
The one always sitting in the front of class ready to correct a professor when they make a culturally insensitive statement. The loud girl in the union, who you’ve probably heard screaming something like “power to the people” or switching between English and Pidgin.
Yes, that’s me. Now that I’ve introduced myself, let’s talk. Let’s talk about what it feels like to be an unapologetically Black, unapologetically African and unapologetically outspoken student here at Towson University. Let’s talk about what it feels like to constantly be demonized because I refuse to stay silent in and out of classrooms. Let’s talk about the stares and the mumbles I get, every time I open my mouth in class and dare to challenge the white curriculum I am fed every day. Before I begin, it is important I clarify what being unapologetically Black and African means. It goes beyond just having pride in my culture and my history. It goes beyond just loving and appreciating my africanness and blackness.
To be unapologetically Black and African is to refuse to apologize for what you may perceive of me as a result of my blackness and/or africanness. It is to refuse to silence parts of myself in order to fit into white spaces. It is to say “I will not tone down my identities to make you comfortable.” To be unapologetically outspoken, in the context of this piece, is to refuse to sit by and watch the oppressive nature of this primarily white institution (PWI) on my various identities and stay silent.
It is to speak up about the systemic issues within this PWI and never apologize for doing so.
I remember the time I had to sit in a class as my professor played a video with the same old played out message of “help the poor Africans.” I struggled to sit in my seat, shifting right and then left, completely uncomfortable by what I was watching.
But the video was not the worst part, no. The worst part was sitting in a classroom of majority white students and hearing them label the place I call home with words like “backwards” and “uncivilized.”
The worst part was having a professor not only agree with these students but use his PhD as an armor around his ignorance. After a few minutes of having a conversation with myself and deciding whether I would check these students and my professor or stay silent, my unapologetically outspoken self said “nah” to staying silent, so I checked them all, one by one. And once I was done, I proudly opened my tupperware of jollof rice and ate it right there. But it doesn’t stop there.
During the Baltimore Uprising, I sat in classrooms where white students in all of their white privilege, criminalized the actions of protestors and the Black Lives Matter movement. Their statements usually began with “I’m not racist but” and ended with “all lives matter.”
The same students who claimed that Fetty Wap was their favorite rapper. The same students who walk around saying “bye Felicia.” The same students who claimed to be down with Tupac and Biggie. These were the same students now bashing the very same people and culture they indulged in everyday. Bashing their Black rage. I listened as racism spilled out of my classmate’s mouths all protected under freedom of speech.
And once again, I had a conversation with myself to decide whether I would check them or stay silent. As you would expect, my unapologetically outspoken self said “nah” to staying silent. So I checked them all, one by one. And once I was done, I placed my headphones in and played Beyonce’s “Flawless.”
I have been at the forefront of many protests, rallies and the most recent #occupytowson sit-in, here at Towson. I have publicly and privately expressed my frustration with this university, with my SGA and my fellow students in regards to the conditions of students of color, specifically black students. I have spoken out about systemic issues such as the lack of cultural competency in students and faculty and the lack of black representation within tenured professors. I have yelled. I have cried. I have gone hoarse screaming “black students matter.”
But there are consequences. I have been called everything from an angry black woman, to ghetto to too aggressive. I have had positions that I deserve taken from me under the guise of “she’s too black.” I have had my professors tear apart my writings because they do not understand why I write the way I do. To be unapologetically Black and unapologetically African and unapologetically outspoken at this PWI sometimes means carrying a red target on my forehead.
It means knowing that I will never be accepted or invited into certain spaces. To be unapologetically Black and unapologetically African and unapologetically outspoken is to have white faces question my audacity to love myself this much. How dare I be this Black, this African and still love myself. How dare I not comply with whiteness and hush my identities.
See at this university, we pride ourselves on diversity. On creating spaces where we can express all of our identities and still be safe. But what happens when my identity challenges the entire structure of this university? When my identity says, “no, I will no longer comply with your white standards?” What happens then? Am I still safe? Not just safe physically, but mentally and emotionally?
My name is Bilphena Yahwon. The unapologetically Black, unapologetically African and unapologetically outspoken student at Towson University.
And if you think that I make you uncomfortable, imagine what attending this PWI is like for me.