In a ‘Sea of White’: Living as a QPOC on campus

From the first day of my freshman year, I realized quickly that I wasn’t the average Williams student. I arrived early to campus because of First Gen orientation. I remember walking to Paresky on moving day and seeing all the white students and families moving into Frosh Quad and Mission. Because I didn’t know how to process it all, I sent a snap to my friends and captioned the photo, “Sea of White.” Then, some of my friends snapped back, acknowledging my fear with the crying emoji and a heart breaking into two pieces. 

I knew we weren’t in New York anymore. That day is burned onto my memory. It terrified me to see so many white people in one space. My high school had nine white students out of more than 500. I lived in Harlem, an area known for its blackness. Sure, gentrification is transforming my neighborhood for the worse, but it is still a neighborhood full of people of color (POC). That was the only world I knew for 18 years, until I came to the College.

Coming to Williams was a huge culture shock. In response to lack of diversity, the College brings students like me to break the mold of the white, athletic, wealthy, legacy student that is the norm at elite institutions. I’ve now realized that, even though the institution is beginning to open its arms, the student population probably wasn’t ready. Sometimes I feel like I am a part of a strange social experiment that will never end.

As a queer, fat, first-generation Dominican student from a low-income background, most of my freshman year felt like I was on the outside looking in. I knew most spaces at the College weren’t meant for me. For example, in terms of the party culture here, Lord knows that I cannot go to Hoxsey and have a great time. I mean, those scenes are not my cup of tea.

One of the common complaints that I have heard from the queer POC community is that it is hard to find romantic fulfillment. I suppose it was naïve of me to think that I would find my husband here at the College. Since the queer community is so small, everyone knows everyone, and it can get awkward rather quickly if there is a one-night stand (I am speaking from personal experience).  I’ve made my peace that I won’t find my future husband until I leave this campus for good.

After surviving a year here, I realized that there are a couple of things I needed to do to keep my sanity in this unfamiliar world. Of course, there were a few students that could relate to my life experiences, and those students became my close friends, the people I can depend on to understand me. And those are the friends I still depend on when there are issues at home or when we want to listen and dance to bachata or reggaeton. I also realized that I won’t be going out every week, and I would have to wait until there was a party sponsored by the Black Student Union or Vista.        

There are simply flaws that I have to accept because it doesn’t seem like this community will change any time soon. 

Before I end, I need to clarify one thing that has been on my mind. I am writing this article for the non-white students. At first, I felt the necessity to explain my narrative repeatedly, so the majority of students on this campus could understand me and my struggles. But I run myself into this hole if I try to find validation from others. Sure, it is great if I can get someone from a privileged background to understand my point of view. It makes me feel better that I can have that effect on someone, but that is not my objective here.

It is, just like when I write my fiction, to reach those people who feel like outsiders looking in on the purple bubble because their narrative is not what this school is used to. The feeling that comforts me most is when someone comes up to me and says that they can relate to my narrative. I don’t have to ask them to explain more about it. There’s an immediate mutual understanding because we both have to navigate the College similarly.

Leonel Martinez ’20 is from New York, N.Y. He lives in East College.

  • Man with Axe

    It is a shame that the students who seem the unhappiest at virtually every college in this country these days are the ones who are wrapped up in their race or other identity.

    As an aside, I wonder if you had any empathy for the nine white students in your high school?

    As another aside, why do you think that “…gentrification is transforming my neighborhood for the worse…” Why would it be worse to raise the property values, bring in jobs, lower the crime rate, and so on?