I feel unsafe on campus

Speaking up comes at a cost

By Sonali Chigurupati, Collegian columnist

During my first night at the University of Massachusetts, I stood silently in the basement of a fraternity as I experienced an intense culture shock. My new environment was so different from anything I was used to. I was used to dancing with my girls to Dancehall and trap music in a smoky haze. I didn’t know how to shotgun a beer, I hated the song “Stacey’s Mom” and I had very negative preconceived notions about frat boys, that I still hold on to. I knew that UMass would be different from anything I had ever known, but I had incorrectly anticipated my ability to assimilate, so I stayed silent.

On the second day, I was questioning my ability to make friends, which was odd because I knew myself to be an outgoing person. Then I heard “Hold Yuh” by Gyptian playing as I walked down the hallway and I said to myself, “I must find them.”

I met my friend that day. She needed someone to braid her thick, curly hair and I knew how to. While I did her hair, my music — a fusion of Hip Hop, R&B, Dembow and Dancehall — played in the background.

“Sis, you have such a good taste in music,” she said. “Where you from?” I told her I was from New York City – Washington Heights to be exact. “It’s right above Harlem,” I said.

“That’s so cool! I have family in Jamaica, Queens, which is funny because I’m Jamaican.” When she said that, I knew she was the person who had been playing “Hold Yuh,” so I brought it up. “I was playing it and whining and everyone was looking at me like I was crazy.”

“What did you expect?” I responded. The way she laughed, I knew we would be best friends.

Racism came up that night while we partied with some of the people on our floor. If you asked me how it came up, I couldn’t tell you, but I could tell you exactly how a white man expressed his views on racism. I often play his words in my head and remember this time as the first time I knew I would never truly fit in.

“Racism doesn’t exist,” he said. “Get over it.” My friend couldn’t believe that someone could be so disrespectful, so she challenged him.

“How you gonna tell a black woman that racism doesn’t exist? Have you ever experienced it?” her voice radiated integrity, but I stayed silent, struck by shock. They started arguing while everyone else called for peace. I could not find the words to express how uncomfortable he made me, so I stayed quiet. This was an odd response for me, because I knew myself to be outspoken.

“Aggressive” was the word many used to describe her and the events that had transpired the night before. The cost of her speaking up and speaking out was people who barely knew her using the one word she despised.

They saw her as aggressive but I saw her, and I still see her, as brilliant. She can charm anyone with her beauty, her optimism and her smile. She tried to make conversation with everyone whereas I was reserved. I tried to mimic her positivity and optimism because she radiated poise. I knew she didn’t think she was living her best possible life, but she refused to stand down and become complacent. All she wanted was for the white men on our floor to treat her as they treated the white women on our floor, but she soon understood that was too much to ask. Eventually, it consumed her.

She left after our first semester for many reasons, such as receiving a cheaper education elsewhere, but she didn’t fight her parents when they asked her to leave because she wanted to. She wanted to get out. Although she believed that she had befriended the men on our floor, none of them even said bye to her when she left.

I tried to play nice when second semester started, but eventually I decided I was no longer going to sit in silence. I couldn’t pretend that I was okay with my environment, and I felt I owed it to her to speak up, so I did.

After I wrote an article about the privilege displayed during the Super Bowl riot, I received comments from people on my floor such as: “We get it, her friend left, but she needs to get over it,” “She makes everything about race, like, get a new struggle” and, “We were making ‘your mom’ jokes about your Indian mother.”

Negativity beginning to consume me too; I even told my roommate that we would have to keep our door locked at all times. My way of coping with how anxious I felt was to put up a strong, mean front. I didn’t feel safe — I felt silenced.

Now, when my roommate tells me how people feel about me she says, “they just think you’re mean.” It messes with my head so badly because I know she’s right. I had to challenge everyone constantly because I refused to let them see how they had defeated me.

I finally found my voice, only to realize that everyone liked me more when I was silent. Now I can’t help but ask myself, “Well, what did you expect?”

Sonali Chigurupati is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]