Taking up space. At first glance, it sounds impolite and inconsiderate. And yet, for those whose very existence has been suppressed for so long, it is one of the most radical acts of self-acceptance.
For centuries now, white people have had their existence validated in almost every space they occupy. They are used to seeing themselves everywhere and are comfortable with making their presence known in spaces that generally see them as the norm.
But what about those of us who have been constantly told that we are too insignificant to matter? While growing up, many Black students are taught to shrink themselves in order to be accepted.
We are taught to lower our voices, downplay our culture and speak only when necessary. We are told not to take up space if we have hopes of ever actually making it into certain “elite” spaces. It is no wonder why so many Black students grow up seeing themselves as background characters, even in their own lives.
For students of color, taking up space is not something that comes as easily to us, especially when our very ability to do so has been repressed for so long. Being that Black students account for only 6.4 percent of the Rutgers—New Brunswick population as of 2019, many Black students, like myself, have found that we are often the only Black student in some of our classes.
Though this is at times isolating, it is no wonder then that so many students of color often question their place in the University community and find it difficult to actively voice their opinion in the classroom.
When one becomes aware of this issue, it is obvious to see that this silence in the classroom stems from the harmful conditioning that Black students have been subjected to for so long. Across campus, so many Black students are merely receiving instruction and are hesitant to claim their education. From the lessons I learned, I offer some ways that we as students of color can begin to take up space and make our presence known.
Change starts with acknowledgment, and so we must first become mindful of the negative inner critic that so many of us have unconsciously internalized from the world around us. Following this acknowledgment, we must strive to carry ourselves as though our presence truly matters, because it does.
When entering a space, whether in person or virtual, strive to carry yourself as though you matter. We have earned our seats at this school and deserve to be here. So try to sit up straight whenever possible and look the professor and fellow students in the eye when speaking to them. Continuously remind yourself that you are deserving.
When you want to speak up, remember to give yourself permission to be anxious. So many of us have a habit of downplaying our opinions or answers. We convince ourselves that what we have to say does not matter because that is what we have been told for so long.
Well, let me be the one to say that it does matter. It does make a difference whether you speak up. Allow the surge of emotions to run through your body. Acknowledge the incessant voice telling you to be quiet. Feel your sweaty palms and thumping heart. Then speak up anyway.
By choosing to attend university, we are already defying so many odds. We are paving the way for ourselves, our communities and those to come. That is no ordinary feat. It is imperative to always remember that there is an entire community that wants to see us succeed. So take up all the space you need.
We have to learn that in order to make space for others, we first have to hold space for ourselves. Though it may be rebellious, acknowledging our worthiness is a much-needed act of self-love that can bring forth so many rewarding opportunities.
Since 1919, when it became the official song of the NAACP, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" has been the national Black anthem. This is no coincidence, except in our case, we are lifting our voices to not only sing but to declare our presence at Rutgers and other universities nationwide.
We can longer be bothered to behave exactly as others expect us to. We must remind ourselves that to take up space in places that were traditionally not meant for us is truly an act of necessary resistance.
Vanessa Darkoa is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in English and minoring in history and education. Her column, "As It Is," runs on alternate Mondays.
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