A White Foreign Guy at a HBCU: Chapter One

My first semester: first steps in a new environment, a new perception of who I was, and who I represented in the American society.

click here if you haven’t read the prologue.

My first few days at Lincoln were a mix of nerve-breaking attempts of conversations and ego-boosting interactions with the opposite sex. I was still playing soccer, but game after game I started realizing that the sport I once loved was only becoming my primary source of income. So, to tingle my curiosity I would often end up wandering around campus, most of the time with my roommate and teammate Elias (or the guy from the airport, if you forgot). During these walks, there was something that soon became clear: they had never seen a foreign white dude walking around here.

The even more interesting fact was that they loved it. People remembered me from my lame Facebook post, and their excitement made me wonder if my presence there was the coolest thing that ever happened on Lincoln soil since 1854. “Are you the guy from Italy? That’s so crazy,” they would start saying. But that first remark was often followed by a specific question: “why did you come to Lincoln?”

I didn’t know the answer (now I do, but I’ll tell you later). Why did I go there? Why was I in a predominantly Black school in the middle of nowhere? Will these people understand me when I speak?

“Studying in the USA was my dream, and I was recruited here for soccer.” That was my answer. All the time. I memorized that line and I would blurt it out as soon as I heard the question. The reactions were different, mostly changing based on the sex of the person. The guys would give me a confused look and say stuff such as “that’s wassup,” and “Lincoln got a soccer team?” Girls were more “awwww that’s so cute. I love your accent,” or the more adventurous ones would approach me with “say something in Italian.”

In this whirlwind of cultural exchanges, my attempts to build everlasting love stories or epic bromances were always abruptly interrupted by one key factor: my impossibility to grasp a sense of what people were saying to me using their slang. Hearing unknown jargon like “Yo bro, what’s poppin’,” or “it’s lit,” only helped to cut conversations short and fill the air with awkwardness. To make things worse, my heavy Italian accent made it almost impossible for my American friends to understand me. The result was an exchange of several “what?” until one person got too tired (them) or too frustrated (me) to keep talking.

Even with my phone it was the same deal. I purposely had a plan that didn’t include phone calls because I quickly realized it was a waste of money and energy. Yea, for one year I lived just off text messages.

I soon became the quiet guy, who only spoke when extremely necessary. I thought it was a bad thing; all the others did not. It added to my character and people became even more curious to learn how the hell I ended up there. Every day, someone stopped to exchange a few words with me, and even more shockingly a few girls stopped me to ask for my phone number. Now, I’ve never thought I was a bad looking guy, but I definitely didn’t think I was ranked high on the handsome scale.

This unexpected raise in popularity favored my initial adaptation in an environment I still knew very little about. One day, I was in my room when I heard a sudden noise coming from outside. Then I saw a crowd holding posters, number-shaped balloons, and torches. “A riot?” I thought.  I walked outside and followed the crowd, which stopped on the top of the campus hill. Someone had put bleachers there and I climbed on top of one. Now I could see what everyone was going so crazy for. There were four guys, standing in a straight line, wearing masks, and jabbering incomprehensible words. I had no clue what I was watching, so I asked “what’s going on here?” Someone looked at me like I was out of my mind, “it’s the Alphas’ probate.” That didn’t really help me understand. But I still responded with a “oh that’s right, the Alphas’ probate,” without even knowing the meaning of the word “probate.”

That was my first interaction with Greek life. My teammates Junior and Michael were part of a fraternity as well, and I would often see them wearing purple and gold t-shirts. They were members of Omega Psi Phi, but called themselves “the Bruhz.” Along with Elias, they were the people that made me feel accepted into this new world from the very first day. They weren’t just my teammates; I saw them as my friends.

One night, after one of the frequent school parties, Elias and I were walking back to our room when we saw Junior and some of his fraternity brothers. They aligned in some sort of formation and started hopping, stepping, and singing stuff that obviously I couldn’t understand.  It was a show. “You know, one day I’ll be part of it,” Elias told me with a confident look on his face. “Hey, maybe one day I’ll be part of them too,” I didn’t know anything better to say. Elias started laughing in way that made me wonder if what I just said was the funniest joke ever. He definitely thought I was a fool. Was it because I didn’t look like them? Was it because I didn’t know anything about Greek life? Was it because I was a White guy wanting to be in a predominantly Black fraternity?

I took that laugh as an insult. For the first time I felt I was being profiled based on my race.  I never really cared about people asking me if I was a fan of Jersey Shore or if I was part of the mafia. It didn’t matter if people didn’t know that Alfredo sauce was not really Italian and yea, I knew how to cook but not because of my nationality. That laugh was different. It made me feel a little closer to the people I was living with every day, the ones that angrily said stuff like “racism” and “white privilege” and at that time I couldn’t understand why.

I took that laugh and I made it my motivation. I became curious about Greek organization, I started participating at events and researching about the purposes of fraternities. Beside the fun and partying aspect, I came across terms such as “service,” “giving back,” and “scholarly achievements.”  I always enjoyed helping others, but there wasn’t much “scholarly” about me.

However, that aspect of me changed when I received the worst news of my first semester in college. The athletic director called a meeting with the men’s soccer team to notify us of their decision to cut the program due to budget shaortage. The thing I loved the most was gone. Forever. That also meant I was going to lose my scholarship. “Now I really have no reason to stay here,” was my first thought. Then, something came to my mind and entirely wiped out my first reaction. I loved Lincoln. I realized that I had good friends, I was somewhat popular, and I finally could focus entirely on the real reason I was there: my education.

I decided to stay. To remain active, I decided to join the track team. The assistant coach at the time, Coach Ford, saw me running two miles in little under 11 minutes during a random practice in soccer preseason, so she asked if I would be interested in joining the team. I wasn’t totally excited about running in loops for apparently no reason, but that was it; I was a track star. Losing soccer also gave more time to experience the college life. I joined a couple of organizations, I partied like an animal, and in the classroom I was a straight-A student. I had found the perfect balance and I felt I was seamlessly integrating into my new environment.

That is, up until the last few days of the fall semester. It was a regular Saturday night and the plan was to go to a dorm party with some friends. That night I made the mistake to drink more than usual, and I ended up passing out. The next morning Elias told me how public safety came to the room, saw me drunk as a skunk, told us to shut down the party and to take me back to my room. Nothing crazy you would say. Well, Lincoln is a ‘dry campus’, meaning no alcohol whatsoever… supposedly. I should’ve gotten arrested. That event per se didn’t mean anything but a few months later the same accident happened to my friend Ian, a guy from Kenya I had met a few weeks earlier. He got arrested. I didn’t. He’s black, I’m white.

Was it possible that…? But the school I attend…  Yea, I didn’t give much thought to it back then but now I realize how our racial differences might have caused a different result from our identical actions. Maybe, because I can’t be totally sure race was the only reason. Either way, experiencing another situation where race was the main factor moved me to look at myself in a different way. I no longer saw black and white as colors, but as a representation of a cancer that affects the United States.  I realized that despite the language barriers, the awkwardness and the cultural differences, I was White. And I was privileged.

The various Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, etc. hadn’t died yet, but I already didn’t like it. I had to do something about it. I couldn’t change the world of course, but at least I could give back and learn more about the foundations my school was built on and the culture of the students who took me as if I were their own family.


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