Ella Sanders and Mai Wheeler: ‘CC Black Voices Pt. 1’

Oct 2, 2020 | By Pema Baldwin | Photos courtesy of Ella Sanders and Mai Wheeler

First years Ella Sanders and Mai Wheeler discuss home, high school, and their first few months at CC. Follow their Instagram page @cc_blackvoices, and come back next week to read about how and why they created it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where are you from?

Ella: I’m from Dallas, Texas. I live 20 minutes from downtown in these suburbs, and I spent most of my time working in downtown, so I’m very close to the city.

Mai: I’m from Nashville, Tennessee, and I am also pretty close to downtown — about nine minutes away.

How has growing up where you did influenced you?

Ella: I’m pretty lucky because, being in the suburbs, I did grow up in a very safe environment, or at least I always felt safe where I was, but I was able to also connect with my culture because Dallas is such a diverse area. I wasn’t necessarily in a pocket or anything where I was just limited to one perspective. There was a lot of culture and a lot of things going on in Dallas that were specific to that area, so I guess if I was going to say how the city influenced me, I was able to be friends with a lot of different people, and not just one homogenous type of person with the same background and political perspectives. I definitely was exposed to people who were coming from different backgrounds than me, whether it was being extremely conservative or not even just conservative but racist or sexist or homophobic, but I also had the opportunity to meet people who weren’t like that and were more in touch with their cultural identity, which I’m not sure you would find if you were in an area that was not diverse or just had one mainstream culture or population.

Mai: I grew up living pretty close to downtown for the early part of my life, and then my mom got married, so I moved to the suburbs, and now I’m back closer to downtown. My middle school was, like — it’s difficult to describe the geography of Nashville; it’s not a well-planned city — but it was in a bad neighborhood, and it wasn’t looked at very great by most of Nashville, but then I went to my high school, and my high school was in the middle of downtown. It’s on our Broadway — the main street — and it is a very prestigious school. It’s supposed to be, like, the best school in the state and all this kind of stuff, but definitely having those two contrasting experiences was really interesting for me. The middle school that I went to, I would say it was 10 times better. The teachers cared way more about people whereas the high school was very much just caring about numbers and not really about people as individuals, so I feel like that really shaped my understanding of things. The middle school that I went to was really Black, so I felt at home there most of the time, whereas my high school was really, really white.

Ella: I had a kind of similar experience. The first high school I went to was extremely white — I don’t even know if it was the majority, but it was definitely the norm and the standard. I went to school with a lot of Trump supporters, so during the elections there was a lot of racial tension between the white and Black students, and I felt like there wasn’t a whole lot of support from students who were non-Black POC at my school.

We had like an issue where students had made these memes where they were basically lynching other Black students at our school and it went viral, so I had to go to school and go to class with a lot of students who thought lynching was funny, or I knew that their parents or grandparents were affiliated with the KKK, so that was also really hard to deal with because my family, my ancestors — it’s all in Texas. I was very much aware of the fact that their family and their ancestors had probably done things in the past that attacked mine, and then they were even attacking me in the present. They would make these memes, and they would basically put Black students’ names on lynchings and stuff like that, so I took that very personally, obviously.

I switched schools to go to a school that I knew was more Black. That was, like, two miles away, but the culture just shifted immediately. Their rules were a lot more strict there. They had a lot more punitive actions and punishments. They actually enforce the rules, whereas at the white school, they didn’t enforce any of the rules. We couldn’t even drink the water from the water fountains [at my new school]. At my old school, I never had any doubt that the water was clean or drinkable, but at the school where they had, like, three times the amount of Black kids, it wasn’t. I didn’t drink the water there. We still have a lot of de facto segregation where we live. Dallas didn’t even fully desegregate until 2003.

So then I switched because I hated that school, too. I felt like I was always being treated like I was a bad kid. I had never experienced that before because I lived in a very white community. So, I switched to this other school where there were barely any white kids. It was mostly kids who were from different religious backgrounds. There were a lot of kids who were Muslim at my school, whether they were African or they were Middle Eastern or whatever. White was not the norm, and a lot of kids at that school did not like white people because they had experienced islamophobia from Christians and white conservatives after 9/11. They rejected white as a norm or the standard, and I didn’t have to experience as much racism at that school as I did at previous schools. But yeah, so that has kind of made it difficult adjusting to a PWI [predominantly white institution] where white very much is the norm, and white very much is the standard. I’ve kind of had some culture shock here because I was so used to being surrounded by kids who had similar experiences to me in my last years of high school.

Mai: For me it’s the opposite. I went to a very liberal white school. We definitely did have some conservatives, but they always talked about how they felt oppressed [laughs]. It was similar to CC in a lot of ways. We had a lot of performance activism and white feminists. That’s what high school was like for me.

Ella: Yeah no, I fucking hated the first high school I went to. They would literally have people chanting in the middle of class or in the cafeteria saying stupid shit, like ‘Build the wall,’ or I’d have to hear these kids rant about immigrants in the middle of history class. They’d be like, ‘Immigrants are this. Immigrants are that.’ And then they’d be talking about their Irish heritage, and I’d be like, ‘You’re a fucking immigrant’ [laughs]. Like, what? It was just mind blowing.

When you’re in an area where white is the norm, or a classroom setting like that, you’re always having to be on the defensive because you have kids who are attacking—even if they’re not attacking your identity. I personally don’t feel like I can let it slide if they’re like attacking other people. You know what I mean? I’m just like, ‘No, that’s not how that works.’ I think it’s weird coming here where there’s a lot of performative activism, and you do get a pat on the back when you say the right thing, but growing up, I was always attacked for standing up for what I believe, if that makes sense. It wasn’t a cool thing. For me to have as many friends as I did and still be able to do that was definitely difficult because I was pretty well-liked in high school, but people would be like, ‘Well, why do you think that? Why do you say that?’ They didn’t like whenever I would share my opinion, so I’d basically just be like, ‘Well, fuck you. That’s my opinion,’ and just kind of leave it at that. I was not very apologetic or anything. I think it’s difficult because people want to be well-liked, but they also don’t want to be targeted or feel that their voices are being oppressed — like they can’t be who they want to be.

Mai: That’s really funny, Ella. I didn’t realize we had opposite experiences. I was not well liked, and I didn’t really care [laughs]. I just got onto a lot of people, but I don’t know… Racism at my school was very, like, democratic. They were very good at hiding it and convincing people that it was rational, and also education in Tennessee is horrible. We had a girl who asked us if the Holocaust or slavery came first. She was like, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s the Holocaust,’ and we were like…

Ella: No… Yeah no, the people at my school liked me, but they — I’ve said this before — they basically acted like I was the president of Black people. They would come to me with shit and they’d be like, ‘Ella, what do you think about this?’ I’m like, ‘Bro, leave me the fuck alone. I’m doing my homework right now. I don’t have time to deal with you.’ It was just very silly. I guess I kind of had to be able to discern when to numb myself because it was just so extreme, but yeah, I was low key chilling.

I think it bothers me more being at a PWI where it’s performative activism and more insidious racism. The way I’ve always thought about the South is — and this is kind of a stereotype of people in the South not being well educated in a way that’s sometimes a classist thing — but I’ve always thought of it like: they’re like this because they don’t have the right sort of education, or it’s the culture and things like that. I’m a little bit more understanding, and that’s why it doesn’t bother me because I’ll just brush it off as like, ‘Oh, well they just think that because they’re dumb.’ It’s easier for me to think about it that way, but coming to a PWI where you know people are educated, and they still choose to be racist — I think that’s a lot more difficult to grapple with. Because you’re like, ‘Why?’ You know what I mean? I feel like they should know better, so it’s definitely more difficult.

What were your thoughts about CC before you came, and how did that compare with the reality?

Ella: I think it’s kind of hard to judge the school because we are in the middle of a pandemic. I feel like, in the same way that a lot of the underlying issues that were already there in the United States were exacerbated by the pandemic and brought to the forefront, it’s the same with CC. That is not to ignore that there’s a lot of faculty and students on campus who have been voicing their concerns for a very long time. The fact that they still have all these tenured professors who have very strong reputations for being racist is kind of alarming. Obviously these problems didn’t just come because of the pandemic, but I kind of feel, in a way, like I’m held to this standard where it’s like — I’m on financial aid so I shouldn’t be allowed to judge the school; I should be grateful to them for giving me financial aid, but I definitely did experience culture shock when I came here.

When I came here I expected it to be different from the conservative high school that I went to because they had this whole thing about the anti-racist campaign and this and that, and they definitely pushed that when they were doing the admissions and the open house, so that was very enticing to me because I had never even heard of anything like that before — an anti-racist campaign. I was like, ‘Oh my God, anti-racist? I would have just settled for non-racist.’ You know what I mean? I came to school super excited. I was like, ‘I’m so excited. I’m not going to have to experience these same things here.’ Like, ‘I’ll be appreciated, I’ll be valued.’ So I came here with all these expectations just based off the whole anti-racist campaign, and a lot of our friends have joked that we basically felt catfished by that campaign [laughs].

I don’t feel like they followed through at all. I think it was just a sticker that they put on their laptop, and they’re like, ‘Alright, we did it’ [laughs]. ‘We fixed all the racism on our campus,’ but I’ve definitely experienced a significant amount of microaggressions and hostility here on campus. So coming here, yeah, I expected it to be anti-racist. I had high expectations, and I think the school did kind of fall through with that. Basically anything that I’ve been doing hasn’t really been as a result of the school or the administration, it’s been through the help of my Bridge mentors or my academic advisor, Professor Lewis, or my block one professor, Dr. Chan. I have been struggling developing a sense of belonging here, and the school administration has not helped me. It’s been my own stuff.

What I would say is that the Bridge Program did help a lot with that, so I think that’s a great program that they have. Bu yeah, I definitely was expecting to feel welcomed, appreciated — like I fit in. And I mean, I’m OK with not fitting in, you know. That’s OK, but I think people do want to feel like they belong at their campus, and so when you do experience microaggressions it definitely impacts your mental health. It makes you feel very confused, angry, and kind of hurt, so it’s hard to feel like you belong when you are having people attack your identity or your culture.

I think it’s hard for some people to understand that microaggressions are so personal because they’re attacking your identity, and they’re also attacking your entire family, especially if it’s things like, ‘Oh, Black people are lazy,’ or ‘It’s Black people’s fault that they experienced all these things.’ I’ve heard those things on campus here, and I haven’t even been here that long [laughs]. And it’s sad, too, because I was also expecting — like, the different cultures that I’ve been exposed to and the people of color, whether they’re Filipino or Pakistani or something, they’re all very much in touch with their cultural identity, so I was expecting when I came here that the POC here would be too, but there’s definitely a broad spectrum. There’s POC who are immigrants from Mexico and support ICE, and then there’s POC here that are like, ‘Fuckin’ abolish ICE.’ Like, they started their own sorority where their philanthropy effort is to release immigrants bonded in prison here in this community, so it was just very shocking to meet POC who were so racist also. I’ve seen it before, but that was not the expectation I had coming here. How about you, Mai? I feel like Mai has had a lot more experiences than I’ve had.

Mai: [Laughs] Unfortunately. Hard to keep up with all the things that have happened since I’ve been here. Coming to CC… I mean, with the schools that I had available to me, it was basically: go to somewhere where there’s not going to be a lot of Black people or go to somewhere where there’s only Black people, especially because I was really choosing between CC, HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities], and one other white school. So, I kind of knew that it was probably going to be a little bit difficult, but my admissions officer was Darius, and I interviewed with him, so having a Black person for my interviewer was like — first of all, I was really thrown off. I was expecting my interviewer to be this old white man because that’s all I’ve had before, and then it was this young Black guy, and I was just really surprised, but it definitely opened me up a lot more to CC.

I mean, I knew it was going to be an issue, but I didn’t really think it was gonna be that serious. People talk about Colorado as this really progressive state and, like, going out West is so much better than the South because there’s not as many racist people out there, and that’s just not really true. I had to learn that the hard way.

I feel like the stuff that I’ve faced at CC has kind of been from all sides. I had an issue with my Bridge professor where I really just felt like she was invalidating my experience and opinion as a Black woman, and that was really disappointing because she was someone who prided herself on being very conscious and understanding race very well, so that was difficult. And then Ella and I both, and a few other people in our class, have experienced a lot of tone policing as Black women by other members of our class, not even just the white kids in our class. It’s also been the POC kids, but we had multiple incidents where any of the Black women in our class would bring something up in the group chat and they would be accused of being very aggressive or mean or rude when that just really was not the case at all.

Ella: Yeah, and we would be very passive — like, not even aggressive at all — and then the white guys in our group chat would come in and be aggressive as fuck and everybody would be defending them. Group chats are just toxic. We figured this out, but keep going Mai.

Mai: That and anytime any of the, like, three Black guys in our grade would come in and say the same thing, they would also get praised for it, and any time that the white girls would come in and say the same thing — or even just non-Black people of color. It really was only an issue when Black women brought that stuff up, and the things that we were bringing up were basically just asking people to follow the social distance protocols at the beginning of the school year. It was really just the bare minimum stuff. It wasn’t like we were asking for a lot. Then, I had the only other Black student in my Block One class give a really offensive and racist presentation, so it’s just very weird being here. I’m not used to having all of this racism come from every angle and every side, but you know I have definitely found a sort of community, even though I don’t really love CC as a whole as much as I thought that I would. The Black Student Union and chats for Black people at CC — anything like that — are very welcoming and inviting, so I’m glad to have that.

This week’s Perspectives has been broken up into two installments. Check back next week for more on Ella and Mai’s experience at CC thus far, as well as how @cc_blackvoices was started.

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