What I learned from Penn State
Ever since the news of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal blew up in the media, I have been reading article after article, and a multitude of status updates on Facebook, all about PSU. Today I reached my breaking point of stories predicated on shock and disbelief about how this could happen in “Happy Valley,” as if Penn State has been the picture of perfection for all of us who attended.
I am a Penn State alumna. I am supposed to be Penn State, yet I have never felt that camaraderie and pride so many other alums have for the institution. It did not take a sex abuse scandal for me to feel this way. I am fully aware of the clout being a Penn State graduate brings, or at least the clout it used to bring. Every time someone asked me where I got my bachelor’s degree from, there would be a look of surprise as I answered, followed by appreciation that I was a Nittany Lion.
Maybe they expected me to say I graduated from Howard or another historically black university, and that’s where the surprise came from, but I cannot deny the admiration the Penn State name engendered. Clearly, my credentials meant a lot to the outside world. After all, in a class conscious society, where one gets a degree from matters almost as much as having one.
In 1996, I started Penn State at the main campus, University Park, a city within the city of State College, PA, affectionately known as Happy Valley. Happy Valley was my induction into the world of American racism, at what I consider to be its core. Trust me, it was a hell of an education. I was 18 years old, had just left home for the first time, and was very excited about my next four years of freedom and adulthood. The reality of freedom and adulthood set in the second week of the semester when I walked into my third introduction to women’s studies class.
The assignment that day was to list the power and privileges of your race and your sex and then do the same for the opposite race and sex. It was a Tuesday/Thursday class so this discussion was going to close out the week. I am black. I am a woman. I had nothing to say about the power and privileges of my sex or race, but my 70 white classmates sure thought they were knowledgeable. As far as I could tell, I was the only black student in that class. There were maybe three to five people of color, whose racial identity I was unclear about so as far as I was concerned, I was the only black kid.
According to some of the white students, any black person who wanted to go to school just had to call up the United Negro College Fund, either that or get an athletic scholarship. Apparently, white people could not walk down the street in North Philadelphia without being beaten up by black people, and then there was the white girl from South Africa who was earnestly upset that she was not eligible for any African-American scholarships. According to her, she was “more African American than any black person here.” I wish I could say I was making this up, but I am really not that creative. This incident not only served as my defining moment in college, it has continued to serve as my point of reference for how racism works in our society.
My classmates were not freshmen, as I was. Because it was an intro to women’s studies course, many seniors took it in hopes of an easy ‘A’ their final year. That was actually the most disheartening part for me. These people would be graduating in May and going into the work force. They honestly thought that all I needed to do was dial up the United Negro College Fund and all my financial needs for my education would be taken care of, even though UNCF only gave small scholarships to students who were attending historically black colleges or universities.
In addition to UNCF, these kids seriously that I could actually run or catch a ball in order to qualify for an athletic scholarship. I knew plenty of kids who wanted to go to college, but unlike me, their parents did not have the credit necessary to qualify for loans. Those kids did not get the privilege of being $60,000 in debt by the end of undergrad, because access to good credit barred their entry to any realm of higher education.
Essentially my classmates were telling me that if more black people were not in universities, it was because we were too lazy to pick up the phone and cash in on our UNCF funds, or maybe we were too lazy to cash in on America’s acceptance of blacks in sports and entertainment, or as I like to call it my “run, nigga, run” theory. They were concerned about being able to walk down the street in North Philly when the Klan capital of the United States was 45-minutes away from campus. I was the one walking around with a flashlight that took 3D batteries, as a safety precaution. Then there is my favorite, the white South African woman who was blacker than me. I guess her complacency with apartheid was justified, especially now that she was in America and felt discriminated against because her white skin denied her access to what her new “African-American” identity should have guaranteed.
That day I went back to my room and cried for hours. I was in shock, and those who know me know that I am rarely speechless. I could not even address my classmates. I left class thinking, how on Earth could people be so incredibly ignorant and then I got upset because I knew my white roommate would not understand. Plus, I did not want her to see me cry and I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about how upset I was.
There is always a bright side though, so I found one relatively quickly. This class gave me perspective that I never had before. I finally got it. When I was in high school, I was little miss heal the world, why can’t we all just get along? It was now painfully obvious why we couldn’t. It also gave me perspective on an incident that happened the summer before I left for PSU. I had a disagreement with a white classmate, typical teenage stuff. However, her mother inserted herself into the disagreement and called me a “black bitch.”
I had spent a lot of time with this classmate, at her house, and with her family. Her mother even worked at a predominantly black elementary school. I was hurt and shocked as to why I couldn’t be a regular bitch. Why did I have to be a black bitch? Intro to women’s studies made me understand. If white folks had constructed the non-existent power I had to such an incredible extent, I would always be a black bitch, never just a regular bitch. Thank you Penn State. My education had commenced, in earnest.
I went back to class on Tuesday and broke down all my classmates’ stereotypes. Then I cried some more. I was going to have to complete four years at this school. My parents drove me four hours to this “polar” as my mom called it, in a car filled with of all my worldly possessions. There was no finding a new school. Transferring was not an option. I never considered dropping the course. I had done enough work to get to this point and I was going to tough it out. In 1996, I was still drinking the Kool-Aid of the strong black woman rhetoric, which was seeping into my psyche. Unfortunately, I was too naïve to realize that the “strong black woman” social construct was not created to benefit me.
If you weren’t Greek or did not join a club, there wasn’t a whole lot to do on campus. Making friends was definitely advisable. I made two good friends freshman year. We would hang out in the dorms on Friday and Saturday nights. We had a great time just talking, laughing, and joking. The resident assistant would often knock on our door to tell us we were talking too loud and being disruptive with our voices. We had not yet put the pieces together that it was our presence, in general, that was disruptive until we heard two white women playing soccer in the hallway, very loudly at that, and the RA said nothing.
We were flabbergasted and quickly brought that oversight to her attention. To this day I can’t believe we were busted for talking too loudly, but a soccer game outside of her room merited no comment. Good ole Penn State. When I encountered racial disparities in pay and treatment in the workplace after I graduated, Happy Valley had already given me a solid reference point. My two friends both transferred by the end of our first year. I, however, was still there. My college experience was not going to be the fun and warmth the TV show A Different World portrayed (and I really hoped it would be). I knew I would not have the same jubilant associations with my college years as many of my peers would.
For lots of Penn Staters, their experiences were more fun than their expectations. I was going to make it work though, and I did make it work. I graduated with dual degrees in media studies and women’s studies in 2000 and even completed a thesis so I could graduate with honors; all in those four years because I had no desire to stay in an environment where I didn’t feel welcomed. I had to make new friends after my girls from freshman year transferred, but instead of going Greek I joined some clubs. The Caribbean Students Association (CSA) became my refuge.
Many of the discussions of the scandal I have read focus on what a blow this “incident” is to Penn State’s community identity. However, if you never truly felt accepted by, or a part of, that larger community, you realize the extent to which the world works differently for people. Reading stories about alum who have returned to raise their children in State College and how consistently it was ranked as one of the best places to do just that, hits home. I spent four years trying to survive PSU and would not want to subject anyone else to that.
I remember vividly the first time I ever entered Beaver Stadium. I used to work the football games for CSA, where we sold items for the bookstore in one of their booths. I was scared as hell when I walked into the stadium that first time and saw 100,000 blue and white faces screaming in excitement. I studied mob mentally in Sociology 101 and I did not really want to be a part of it. My next thought was the force it must of taken to pick up goal posts, that I was sure were cemented into the ground, and carry them to Joe Paterno’s house.
The following thought was about all of those 50, 60, 70-year old people I would see around town on game day weekends. People who exchanged some very mean looks with each other because they were rooting for opposing teams. I had never seen old people be so nasty over a sport before and thought damn, is the game really that serious that it might come to blows? My final thought was, what if they decide to riot, just for the hell of it? I got out of the stadium as quickly as I could and went back to the safety of the bookstore booth. I never went back inside Beaver Stadium again and never even had the desire to do so.
I continued to hear stories and to witness people’s experiences with racist faculty, students, and staff as well as racism in the surrounding communities. Once, this black kid I knew got his ass kicked after visiting a few of my friends in the dorm. It was very racially motivated. The two white boys who did it made it clear that, in their book, black folks were not welcome. The incident never made the Collegian, the State College local newspaper, or the police blotter. The student did, however, meet with President Spanier and after that meeting he did not talk about it again. One conversation was all that was needed to make everything go away. We suspected he got his tuition paid and probably some other perks in exchange for his silence; Penn State was expensive. Those were just speculations though, maybe he was threatened into silence.
Now my mind keeps focusing on the current investigation and fact that the children abused were underprivileged. As one author wrote, “underprivileged children are not seen as subjects with innate dignity and worth due justice and protection.” That was my experience at Penn State. The first reported incident happened while I was still a student. There is always that bright side though. I met some really good people and made some lifelong friends. I enjoyed working as an office assistant in both the communications and women’s studies departments. I discovered the joys of therapy. My teacher even took me out for ice cream after I came back to class that Tuesday, armed with my “this is why you are wrong statement.” She was equally shocked by the comments made. Although I didn’t find life in Happy Valley any less traumatic, the friendships made the traumas easier to cope with.
The lengths schools (and other institutions) go to in order to cover up sexual assault are well documented. Look at all the rapes and sexual assaults that are under reported or never reported so campuses can “look good” to prospective students and their parents. This is not a new phenomenon, but obviously there is an expectation that when it comes to children this dynamic will be different. The Catholic Church has already proven this to be an inaccurate assumption.
The labels “poor” and “disadvantaged” make anyone that much easier to abuse, but this is especially true for children. If it was relatively easy for the adults involved in this sex abuse cover up to fail to report the rape of a child to the proper authorities—and for the proper authorities to fail to continue investigations after the 1998 incident and admission of inappropriate contact—why was I ever surprised that no one gave a damn about all the other injustices I ultimately equate with the university? The only real shock to me, at this point, is that it took this long for others to see what I have known since the second week of classes in 1996. Thank you Penn State, you have once again taught me another very important lesson about the way the world really works.