Do You Want A Seat At The Table? On Navigating An Ivory Tower

Jan 25, 2019 | Experiences | 0 comments

Do You Want A Seat At The Table? On Navigating an Ivory Tower

Who’s Newsroom is it Anyway?

By Javanna Plummer


“I’m stoked they’re paying for you to go to South Africa,” another student said to me.

At Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Masters students are required to take a reporting trip somewhere outside of Chicago, and my trip is to Johannesburg, South Africa. After finding out that Northwestern would cover my flight and housing, I put a status on Facebook expressing how happy I was, since the aid would lift a financial burden off my shoulders.

A few days after I made this status, I passed by this other student, and he made this strange comment. I have not forgotten it.

Maybe it was the way he said it, or that he was referring to a status I had put up days ago, or how his tone screamed, “Affirmative Action is disadvantaging white people!”

His “praise” was likely racism in disguise.

I don’t believe he is actually “stoked” that Northwestern is paying for my trip. He is likely mad that I am getting a virtually free trip while hardworking people like him must pay out of pocket. I mean, what made me so special that I should have my trip paid for?

This, I feel like, is what he meant to say, or what he said when I was not around.

What he missed in his backhanded remark is that I still have to cover other trip related costs (like insurance, getting my passport, putting aside spending money, etc). Then, Northwestern is astronomically expensive, so I have to keep up with my rigorous coursework while maintaining a part time job because new expenses seem to pop up every other week. I also have massive debt looming over my head when I finish school.

A picture taken in front of the Medill School of Journalism on Northwestern University’s main campus in Evanston, Illinois.

A picture of Johannesburg, South Africa, where I am headed in a few weeks.

His comment bothered me because it was generalized and willfully ignored this larger context. All he saw was a Facebook post of me expressing excitement without also considering my EFC of zero, my lack of disposable income, and the barriers to entry in a white male dominated media industry.

When I found out that Northwestern was paying for me to go to South Africa, I was relieved. Without that assistance, I probably was not going on the trip.

Like most Black Americans, visiting Africa feels almost like a Mecca; a homecoming. That’s why I took my excitement to Facebook.

Yet, in a manner all too common for white people, my classmate had to rain down on a Black person’s parade. He was likely just jealous that a minority was able to get something that he couldn’t get – as if Northwestern (partially) sponsoring one trip was comparable to 400 years of second-class citizenship in a country that benefited people who looked like him every step of the way.

When he spoke, it reminded me of white students saying Black students go to college for free. I laugh at that because the multiple loans I basically had to take out would strongly beg to differ. Weeks after the incident, I keep thinking about that bizarre comment.

It illustrated so much for me.

Photo taken after I performed at an open mic night hosted by the Nu Sigma Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

After earning my Bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee University, a Historically Black school in Tuskegee, Alabama, I knew there would be difficulties in transitioning into a Predominantly White Institution for graduate school, and his comment reminded me of my hesitation.

Every time I mention that I go to Medill, everyone tells me how lucky I am, but I don’t always feel lucky. Sometimes, I feel anxious, which is why I try to focus on the positive moments, like this time “Tuskegee” held more weight than “Medill.”

Once, I introduced myself to this lady, and I said I go to Medill, and she was impressed but indifferent. Then, when I name dropped Tuskegee, her whole face lit up. She was excited to hear that I went there for undergrad. Her excitement made me feel good because it countered the constant denigration HBCUs face both explicitly and implicitly.

During the Gubernatorial elections, President Donald Trump, a constant culprit of anti-Blackness, made an anti-Black statement (no shocker there).

He encouraged Florida voters to elect Ron De Santis, Andrew Gillum’s opponent, because De Santis was a “Harvard/Yale educated man” as opposed to that “thief” Gillum, who is a graduate of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.


This tweet was a roundabout way of downplaying the educational value of HBCUs. This strategic vilification of marginalized groups by Trump made him a constant topic of discussion in a “Media and the Marginalized” course I took last quarter.

Ironically, or perhaps not ironically at all, the same student who made that offhand comment made me raise my eyebrow in that class too. During one class discussion, he pegged me as a Trump apologist; he questioned why news media focuses so much on Trump’s flaws – as if Trump is not an open racist and misogynist.

So, when he made this later comment, it did not surprise me, but it did bother me because it made me hyperaware of my intersecting identities.

Some people think social justice advocates talk too much about race, but they don’t realize how far America must go before it can even begin to deem itself “post-racial,” and this inherent race problem extends to higher education.

One day, I walked into a class and almost every professor was a white man, as most of my professors have been. Then, I was the only Black girl in this class and one of two Black people.

As I experience these things, I over-stand that I am breaking concrete ceilings just by being at Northwestern – in this Ivory Tower.

After walking into that class, I later wrote a poem titled “I don’t want to be your token Black anything.” My main premise in that poem was to illustrate how crippling it is to think that Black people, especially poor Black women, often place ourselves in uncomfortable settings just to get half of what was given to others at birth.

Then again, anything worth having is worth fighting for.

It is disorienting to think that we just got an anti-lynching law, but the delay shows how our fight for freedom is ongoing.

Therefore, I founded Rwebel Media to establish Black voices in the media landscape; I want to establish a platform promoting stories for us and by us – stories we will continuously tell at the tables we build ourselves, ensuring that everyone has a seat.


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