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Iowa State seniors Chrishelda Green and Markus Flynn talk about how they are perceived as students of color, and how they deal with hurtful micro-aggressions on campus. Michael Zamora/The Register

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Black students at Iowa's public universities say they feel isolated and diminished by racism on their largely white campuses. They describe experiences ranging from unintentional slights to blatant slurs. Here are four students' stories.


'She has to room with a n-----'

Timesha Bailey, UI freshman

The Saturday before Thanksgiving, University of Iowa freshman Timesha Bailey was in her dorm room when her roommate and two friends entered. The roommate saw Bailey, but the two friends didn't.

As the friends started looking over the room and noting how nice it was, one remarked, “Yeah, the only bad part is she has to room with a n-----.”

“I’ve actually never experienced anything like that beforehand,” said Bailey, from Peoria. “I knew the possibility when I came here. But I never thought it would be used toward me in my presence and in my room.”

Bailey said she sat up and stared at her roommate, who shooed her friends out of the room and apologized profusely.

“I just looked at her, contemplating,” she said. “I didn’t say anything until after she came back. I knew that if I said something right away, it was not going to be the right thing to do.”

That night, Bailey stayed with another friend. And for the two nights after that, the roommate stayed somewhere else.

MORE: Iowa's black college students: We don't feel welcome

University staff decided it would be best for Bailey's roommate to relocate to another dorm.

“I think they were great,” she said about university officials. “They were very supportive.”

Before that Saturday, Bailey said, she and her roommate “were fine. We got along with each other. I honestly don’t feel that she felt that way at all.”

The two haven’t seen each other since before Thanksgiving.

The incident made Bailey question whether she should transfer. She said her mother eventually persuaded her to continue at Iowa.

“I blamed myself, because I knew what I was getting myself into when I chose Iowa," she said. "I don’t know why I was so shocked, because I knew something like this could happen.”

Video: ISU students on overcoming lack of opportunity

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Iowa State seniors Chrishelda Green and Markus Flynn question how they can go about changing a system they feel is stacked against the black community. Michael Zamora/The Register

'They just wouldn't listen to me'

Markus Flynn, ISU senior

Markus Flynn experienced culture shock as soon as he stepped foot on Iowa State University's campus as a freshman.

Flynn, now a senior studying kinesiology, is from suburban Chicago.

"I went to high school with more black people than there are at Iowa State," he said. "It was just a completely different feel."

Because just 3 percent of the state's population is black, Iowa universities turn to large metropolitan areas such as St. Louis, Chicago and Minneapolis for minority students.

Students say the pairing of predominantly white students from Iowa with out-of-state black students sets up a strained dynamic that can lead to black students feeling alone.

"You really just gravitate toward black people," Flynn said. "It's something inexplicable. It just happens."

When assigned to work in groups, Flynn said he is often ignored in class, regardless of how well he knows the topic. He remembers once being assigned to work with three other students in an English class.

"They had a little triangle discussion where nobody was looking in my direction," he said. "I just stopped talking, because my input was not even considered. They just wouldn't listen to me."

Flynn said he doesn't attribute every awkward social situation to race. But he does believe there are systemic problems in Ames, reflecting problems of the larger society, especially rural America.

"There's nothing that Iowa State specifically has done to create this environment," he said.

'You're black. You have to know this song'

Melanie Majeed, UNI sophomore

After moving from St. Louis to Cedar Falls, Melanie Majeed said her race has come to define her college experience at the University of Northern Iowa.

"I wake up every day and think, 'Mel, you're black,'" she told the Register.

Sometimes, she watches every seat in the classroom fill up except for those surrounding her desk. Often, students make assumptions about her knowledge of popular culture.

"'Oh, you're black. You have to know this song,'" other students have told her.

Majeed feels like she was lured to UNI to improve diversity. Recruiters promised her what seemed like ample financial aid. But she soon realized she was short of the amount it took to cover her college costs.

"I feel like we're just a check," she said.

MORE: 'Can I touch your hair?' and other racial microaggresions

After speaking with an adviser, the College of Business decided to offer her scholarship funds. Otherwise, she would have had to drop out after her first semester, she said.

Still, the experience soured her.

“You’re playing with our lives," she told administrators during a November forum. "This is something that I’ve planned on doing my whole life."

 

'People would rather stand than sit next to me'

Chrishelda Green, ISU senior

Iowa State senior Chrishelda Green said she’s never experienced blatant racism, but she regularly picks up on racially tinged slights.

“Let’s say I’m on the bus, and there’s plenty of seats around me. People would rather stand than sit next to me,” she said. “That happens very often.”

Green says many people outright ignore her. Others glare at her as though she is a "caged animal," she said.

She also has watched white students hold black faculty members to a different standard than with white instructors, she said.

And Green said she’s been tossed plenty of awkward and offensive questions from her white peers.

“'Where are you really from?'" they ask the Waukegan, Ill., native. "'You look so exotic.'”

After a while, she began to second-guess herself.

"It's one of those things where I would feel it, and I could bring it up to someone else, maybe a white counterpart, and they wouldn’t see it the same way," she said.  "I would have to question it more, like, 'OK, is it just me?'"

Green said despite it all, she’s enjoyed her college experience in Ames and is deeply involved in the Black Student Alliance. She has found community with other black students on campus.

But she would like to see the university make a bigger effort to make campus a more welcoming place for students of color. She cited as a possible model the training about discrimination, harassment and Title IX that all students, faculty and staff were required to take in 2014 to increase awareness surrounding sexual assault.

“If we can make that a mandatory requirement so that all students are aware of what that looks like, why can’t we make sure students are aware of what hate is and what cultural diversity is?” said Green, who is majoring in child, adult and family services.

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