September 13, 2018

RUSSELL | To My 18-year-old Black Self

Print More

Hey man! Big congrats on getting here. I mean that. In a week you’ll forget about how hard you worked to get into a school like this and you’ll just get caught up trying to make it to the next goal, so please just pat yourself on the back while you still have time to reflect.

I’m sure you’re proud to surprise your high school guidance counselor who coulda’ sworn you were going to an HBCU. You’re gonna surprise a lot of people who ask where you go to school, so get ready to hear “oh wait that’s amazing” and “the Ivy League Cornell?” a few more times. For the next four years, this Ivy League Cornell will be your home and though it’ll be a wild ride, you’ll come out wiser than ever.

You’ve caught us at a great time: I’m proud to announce that this year there haven’t yet been any major racial incidents! But don’t be alarmed. We’re still in America. They’ll come.

I wish I could tell you it’ll be all dancing and singing and spreading love, like soul train or a good cookout. But it won’t be. You’ll write some angry Facebook posts and you’ll cry and you’ll pick up horrible habits, but I promise you by the end you’ll be glad it all happened because college is as good a time as ever to become a real adult.

As you’ll soon learn, the price of black adulthood is a hefty one. If you’re like me (which you absolutely are), you’ll get pulled over and questioned when you drive slow in Collegetown and if you eat chips near the sliding doors at Wegmans they’ll send someone to ask you if you paid for it.

Your peers won’t be any better: some will use the N word and think it’s funny, many will mix you up with your other black friends and a few will even commit hate crimes.

Through it all, you’ll be expected to know exactly how to deal with these offenders, but whatever you do won’t work because you weren’t put here to fix all of Cornell’s problems. You’ll try, though, or at least you’ll tell yourself you’re trying, and soon you’ll be jaded, and then frustrated, and then emboldened, and then frustrated, and then jaded again. You’ll make plenty of mistakes along the way, too, and you’ll be mad at yourself for saying too little in some instances and too much in others, or for protecting institutions you aren’t sure are worth protecting.

And soon you’ll be a senior sitting outside Bartels in a cheap suit, wondering if you really are “your ancestors’ wildest dreams.” By then, you’ll be scrambling to find a job because the allure of buzzwords like student leadership made you focus so much on these four years that you forgot to think about the life that comes after.

If I could impart to you any meager piece of advice, it’s this: never learn your place. Don’t let your background or your skin color or your hobbies or anything else dictate what you can achieve or what you can be involved with on campus. If you’re intimidated by anyone, work so hard that they eventually reciprocate the feeling.

Who cares if you feel like you aren’t good enough to be here? Fight for things you don’t deserve in the first place.

If you do all these things you might not win every battle, and you might not have the impact you expected, but it’ll certainly help. And you’ll need all the help you can get.

But no matter what you achieve here, remember that at the end of the day it’s not about how powerful you are or how cool you feel or how many of your friends think you’re a big deal. When you’re looking back at your college experience, you’re gonna care most about how it changed you. You’re gonna remember being 18 at a frat party and learning how to respond when your friends talk nonsense. You’re gonna remember being 19 and learning how not to be a leader. You’re gonna remember being 20 and realizing you don’t want to be the second black president. And these are all good lessons. You’ll need to learn them.

I know you’re probably overwhelmed; you’ve just arrived at your dream school and now I’m telling you it’ll be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. Don’t be scared, though. When you finally get to be that senior in that cheap suit, you might not have the world figured out, but that won’t matter. Regardless of what you don’t have, you’ll be satisfied and you’ll be proud of yourself.

And that’s all you can ask for anyway.

Paul Russell is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Russelling Features runs every other Friday this semester. He can be reached at [email protected]