I’m the Only Black Girl in My Fine Arts Major
I don’t know if you’ve ever walked into a class and instantly realized you’re the odd one out. Or walked into another class after that one just to realize the same thing. And then the following day you’re in a different class but the same situation.
If you haven’t, then the easiest, most unidimensional way to describe this feeling is isolating. If you have, then I feel for you.
Unfortunately, I’m not referring to being the only Vans in a room full of Yeezys (though for Parsons The New School with a roughly $65,000 per year price tag, that can literally happen.) What I’m referring to is being the only black woman in my year, in my major. A major that, generally speaking, lends itself to many wonderful black female artists such as Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, and Ellen Gallagher.
Initially, I figured I was bugging: “Oh, maybe my next class I won’t be the only one?” or “Okay, maybe we just aren’t taking the same classes this semester?” As my time at Parsons went on, this steadily turned into less of a question and more of a fact, the fact being that I was the only woman who looked like me in any of my classes.
This unfortunate fact does not counter the other fact that The New School as a whole has a beautifully colored student body with around 40% being international students. Nor does it counter the fact that I have a beautiful, black Parsons family made up of friends from the other design majors.
But returning home and explaining this concept — that I’m the only black kid in my classes — to friends, family, mentors and past-teachers alike, I get responses ranging from “Really?” or an understated, “That’s weird,” to a definitive “That doesn’t seem right… something is wrong.”
Naturally, since enrolling at Parsons in 2014, I’ve had many “wtf” moments that stem from this diversity dynamic. Those experiences include having a heated argument with a TA over the N-word (which led to an awkward moment of him saying it and me wondering whether to hold my tongue or go off) and being the only artist in a class to make work about racism (which affects us all if you haven’t gotten the memo). It wasn’t until a university-wide students of color meet-up that I met another black girl who was a year ahead of me who studied the same things I did and felt the same way I do.
“Oh, my god!” she said when I told her I was majoring in fine arts. “There aren’t a lot of us out here. Welcome!”
That exchange happened in my first year and as I go into my third year it turns out that she was right. I can count the amount of black girls who I’ve taken Fine Art studios and seminars with throughout my three years on a singular hand; usually always in another major that feels more expansive and diverse than my own. The biggest pitfall of this class dynamic is critique. Discussions on natural hair, violence against black women (including trans and queer women), economic disparity due to decades upon decades of racial violence, hell, even conversations around ebonics can go awry as meanings get lost in unending explanations for an audience the piece may or may not have even been made for.
Majority reaction I’m familiar with is people either walking on eggshells around my pieces or showering me in variations of the phrase, “That was so powerful.” Paintings, videos, performances: the lack of relation (in experience of black youth, black girlhood, and southern black femininity) between me and my peers transcends the medium.
Naturally, I take compliments where I can get them, but I shouldn’t feel the need to thank not only God but Jesus whenever my professor steps in to disseminate the conversation. Every student who spends money on their education should be able to receive adequate feedback especially when it comes to such a pathos-focused practice that’s supported by an audience/artist relationship. I understand that we’re all at school to better ourselves and I understand that we all don’t have the language to communicate our every thought nor do some of us feel the agency or deem it appropriate to comment on a piece, be it because of privilege or a lack thereof. I encourage every emotion and thought that comes with a peer critique, though, and I encourage others to do the same whether it’s a simple, empathetic head nod for every comment or leading the critique with my own questions about how my peers feel.
With less than 10% of Parsons’ student body identifying as black and/or African American, my issue adds up: I am part of that small percentage (compared to the two largest demographics, Asian at 23% and white at 48%) and chances are the others aren’t majoring in fine art. That being said, I know that Parsons is by no means a bad school and that there are black girls out here making meaningful work everyday. What I question is why aren’t more of them here, or better yet, is Parsons even trying to bring us in? As an institution that promises inclusiveness for everyone who walks through its doors, how can they work to prevent this feeling of isolation for not only me, but every student of color who feels “other”?
What I want from my institution is to not feel like the odd woman out. I know that I don’t go to a traditional, fine art-specific school, but there are women out there like me. There are more women who I know can do exceptional things and I want them to have more than what I have. I want them to change the game and be able to have the reachable support and feedback of women like them who have experiences like them. I want the white cube to be more colorful (artists and critics alike) and I want more black women who can tear this school, NYC, and the world the fuck up with their thoughts and hearts.
Illustration by Beau Bouie