On the morning of Orientation for the University of Iowa, I stood, along with hundreds of other students in line waiting for my Welcome Packet. When I reached the front of the line, instead of handing me my packet, the girl behind the counter said, “Oh, my goodness, you have to come with me Riiight Now!” Confused, I followed. She led me over to a table labeled “Multi Cultural and Diversity Center”. There, the girl handed my packet to a woman and left. “Welcome, you must be Melissa Holland,” the new woman said. “We just wanted to make sure that you were aware of all the opportunities offered to students like yourself here at the University of Iowa.” She paused to open my packet and pull out a piece of paper with a map on it. “This is where the Diversity Center is located. It is very important that you come visit us today. We offer many programs including a range of tutoring opportunities that are tuned to your needs.” She then placed a gold star sticker over the Diversity Center, smiled and handed me my packet.
Later that day, as I was forced into a cramped room where we were told to “fill out our schedule”, the graduate student assigned to help us came over and stood behind me as I filled in my scantron circles. She leaned over and softly spoke, as if no one else could hear, ”If you need any help, just let me know.” She then smiled and continued to stand behind me leaning up against the wall.
Hours later, my day was almost over. All that was left, was for me to have a meeting with the head of the English department and have my schedule approved. I had spent about two weeks researching professors and designing a schedule, so I felt prepared. However, I hadn’t prepared for the meeting at all. As soon as I walked in, I was handed a list of recommended classes. Of the classes that were offered 75 percent of them began with the words African American. The rest included Native American Studies, Cubancentric, Jazz ect. You get the picture. The woman behind the desk looked over my schedule and then looked at me. “You know, there is a poetry class similar to the one on your schedule taught by this wonderful teacher who just joined us. She is African American and very intelligent and exciting.” I told her I did not wish to change. She then leaned closer and said, “You know, many professors enjoy having students like you in class.” Like what, I asked her. “ You know, with your type of experience.” Oh, you must mean my experience of taking care of myself for the last eight years, or my extensive travel experience, or that I am an Iowa City Native. I said and left the room.
What do all of these experiences have in common? Stigmatization. Even though people don’t see stigmatization as racism because it is not directly linked to hatred, aversion, or even distrust, stigmatism can affect societal behavior towards people. The stigmatization was that because I present as African American, I must need tutoring, help filling things out, and that my interests lie more firmly in African American or minority history, literature, and culture. Jews, are another group of people who have endured vast stigmatization. In the Middle Ages, the stigmas were all negative. It was thought that Jews were more likely to steal, lie, commit murder, submit to the Devil’s seduction, and were unclean. Some of these stigmas prevail today, and have grown throughout time. For instance, most people think that if you are Jewish, then you must come from money, are Anti-American, and will cheat you if they can. Throwing off stigmas such as these are very difficult to do. More than anything it requires large groups of people refusing to acknowledge stigmas and to start looking at each person as an individual instead of a representative as a whole. Unfortunately, my experience is not singular. While the University may have thought they were reaching out to me as a student, they ended up isolating me from the get go, making me feel different from the other students who were standing in line, and making me feel uneasy about the University’s view of students of color or otherwise.