The Look 2020
A student set out to document the experiences of his Black classmates on their predominantly white campus. These are some of their stories.
Last summer, before the start of his senior year at the University of Texas at Austin, Adraint Bereal set out to chronicle the lives and experiences of Black students at his predominantly white college. (Black students comprised 4.9 percent, or roughly 2,500 of U.T. Austin’s 51,832 students, in fall 2019.)
His photo project, The Black Yearbook, was meant to be complete before graduation, but second semester presented several unexpected variables. First, there was a pandemic that disrupted higher education and took a disproportionate toll on Black communities.
“The pandemic forced me to sit with the work longer,” Mr. Bereal, 22, said. Then there was the killing of George Floyd, which brought protests to Austin and many other cities around the world. All of a sudden, his project, which explores the persistence of anti-Black racism but also showcases Black joy and resilience, felt urgent.
“I think all those things go hand in hand with the bigger picture of just not being seen as this monolithic identity or entity and wanting to not be othered all the time,” he said. “And I think that’s something that really pushed me to keep going through it all.”
Here, three of his classmates talk about being Black at U.T. Austin, how college helped shape their identities and the year none of them saw coming. These conversations have been edited.
Rebecca Petty, 22, is from Sherman, Texas. She majored in fashion merchandising and consumer sciences.
Because I grew up in a predominantly white town, going to U.T. was a moment where I met and interacted with a lot more Black people my age for the first time. And it was really something that I really appreciated.
I feel that I am no one’s immediate thought when they think of what a quote-unquote Black person at U.T.’s experience is. But you can’t pigeonhole a Black person or a Black woman to be something that you think they are. We are a wide range of people who can do all types of things and break all types of barriers in all types of situations.
I was the first Black president of a predominantly white sorority on our campus. I think it gave the girls who look like me and are coming into college the idea that they could do this too. It’s an opportunity to give other women the courage and the foresight to take up positions like that in sororities that we weren’t always welcomed in.
In high school people would say, “You’re actually white. You’re an Oreo.” Black and white people were saying that to me. They would think it was so funny. And I was like, “I’m a Black woman and there’s no changing that. Maybe you don’t think I’m Black because I don’t act like the stereotype of what you think I should act like. But I most definitely am.” It’s always something that bothered me, but I just never talked about it.
I remember I saw a post about a woman talking about that on Instagram and it resonated with me, but I was so scared to post about it. And then I was like, this is a perfect time to explain to people how I feel when they say those things to me, because they probably don’t realize it.
So I did, and a girl I went to high school was like, “I’m so sorry. I know I did that to you and I never thought about how that would affect you.” That was amazing, seeing how people really wanted to listen in that moment and just sharing my story about who I am and what being a Black woman in America has meant to me for the last 22 years, how I think it can be better and what I love about it as well.
Jordan Walters, 21, is a history and African and African diaspora double major from Paris, Texas. They are one course away from graduating.
There’s a bit of kind of relief because school will be there in the fall, but once that’s over I just don’t know what exactly that would mean for me. I come from a very small town, and so it’s not like I can just go home and find this spectacular opportunity. It’s a very Southern, East Texas, racist, homophobic environment, so I don’t necessarily want to go home for that long just for my own well-being and safety.
I’m Black, queer, nonbinary and femme. I don’t know when my last day on this earth will be. So I really want to live every day to the best of my capacity, to do what I want to do, to do what love, to be happy.
These past few months have just been really, really illuminating and given me a better view of what I want out of life. A really life-changing moment happened when I participated in some protests in Austin, the first weekend a lot of the major protests were happening around the country.
That weekend, while trying to assist someone that was injured and in need of medical care, I was shot at by the police. Thankfully it wasn’t with real bullets, but it was still less lethal bullets that created significant amounts of damage for some of the people around me.
At that point, I think I had made the choice — though I shouldn’t have had to make the choice — that I was willing to give my life if it meant that more people like me would have a better life experience. That’s also when it like really cemented in my mind that the rest of my life will be dedicated to doing things for people like me and forcing my way into these different spaces and really agitating the norm everywhere I go.
Xavier McNeil, 23, is from Huntsville, Texas, and majored in public relations.
I’m from a little small town outside of Houston. There are literally more students who go to U.T. than in my hometown.
My parents went to college, but they didn’t finish, so they really don’t know a lot about college life and fraternities and sororities. So when I got to U.T., I really had no idea what they were about.
Fraternity life was very comforting, because it was just a whole bunch of people who look like me, with somewhat of the same type of upbringing as me, the same values, and I was able to express my experiences to everybody else.
Since U.T. is a predominantly white institution, it’s easy to get lost, feel lonely, or feeling like you’re not around your type of people. Because we do go to these classes with like 400-plus students, and there are probably like two or three Black people in one class.
I’m my mom’s only child, so me and her are close and she’s always talking to me about just being careful and staying in my house. Especially with the stuff about Ahmaud Arbery, she was like, “Don’t go for a jog.” And I like to jog a lot. She was like, “Just try to work out in your own place for the meantime and just be careful.”
Applying for jobs and interviewing on a daily basis, you get those people that feel like they have to say something to you to either make themselves feel better or try to make you feel better at the same time. I’ve really been feeling like people maybe trying to be fill a diversity quota or trying to make it seem like their company has a more diverse outlook because of the movement, to seem like, “OK, we’re this company. We accept your kind.”
I was interviewing for a P.R. company in Austin. The dude answered the Zoom call, and he was like, “Hey brother, you don’t have to dress up. You could have just chilled in your T-shirt.” And I just said, “Oh my bad, I just wanted to dress up for the interview.” He was like, “Nah, it’s cool, my brother.” I was just wondering why he kept saying “my brother.”
Then we did the interview and he kept saying, “We need some younger hip people around” and stuff like that. And I was just thinking, “Bro, I don’t know … just say you need some Black folk or keep it pushing.” People are trying to code switch to something they’re not. It’s trash and it’s funny at the same time.
The Look is a column that examines identity through a visual-first lens. This year, the column is focused on the relationship between American culture and politics in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, produced by Eve Lyons and Tanner Curtis.