Illustration by Shenuka Corea

We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

NYUAD enrolling its first African American male student in nearly eight years embodies a challenge for underserved and underrepresented communities around the world.

Apr 28, 2018

Dear Admissions,
Why am I the first?
After being open for eight years, why am I the first African American male student at NYU Abu Dhabi?
Being black and from the U.S., there are definitely firsts worth celebrating: the first black female billionaire, Oprah Winfrey; the first black female winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison; and the first black President of the United States, Barack Obama. Although these are tremendous feats, there is a crucial undertone in each of these accomplishments: they were all long overdue.
Growing up, I felt confined by American society’s limited perspective on what it meant to be young, gifted and black; I viewed NYUAD as a new beginning. My wide-eyed preconceptions about life at NYUAD changed when I learned that I was the first African American male to enroll in the university.
There is an obligation that comes with being a first, because we stand on the shoulders of the giants before us. There is an overwhelming feeling of responsibility to always project a positive representation of your culture. During my first few months at NYUAD, I felt like I was constantly being monitored, with people staring and waiting for me to resemble a familiar stereotype. Throughout those months of being hypervisible, I tried so hard not to be the last.
Gradually, I realized that there was nothing for me to prove. I was doing so much for others that I lost sight of the reasons I chose to come here. My focus was on proving that I belonged, which I thought would prove that African Americans belong. In school, we are taught that showing is more effective than telling, so I was determined to show the worth of having African Americans on campus. I was ready to set the precedent for African American male students. Luckily, a black staff member intervened. I then came to understand that I should not be responsible for proving my own self-worth, let alone the importance of an entire culture of people.
This realization still does not answer my original question: Why am I the first? With a parent institution located a mere subway ride away from an epicenter of African American culture and heritage, I had anticipated that the campus-wide African American population on Abu Dhabi’s portal campus would be greater than three. I did not understand why a U.S. institution in New York City, one of America’s most multicultural cities, would struggle with accurately representing their own country’s racial diversity through its delegation of students in Abu Dhabi.
The issue with having only three voices is that the African American experience is homogenized both in and out of the classroom. I should not be expected to represent the perspectives of 47 million people. Unfortunately, I have grown accustomed to shouldering the burden of sometimes being treated as a monolith. This is a commitment I did not expect to be faced with at NYUAD, a place that boasts unprecedented diversity. Yet, the burden of representation is an experience shared by many of us, who are one of few students from our countries.
At first, I gave you the benefit of the doubt. After all, Abu Dhabi is halfway across the world from the U.S. and far away from many African Americans. The city is peripherally out of reach. I looked at my culture with a judgmental gaze and thought we, as African Americans, were hindering our own global advancement by not taking advantage of these opportunities. As a community, we are constantly faced with institutional struggles and disparities, making it challenging to turn our focus outwards.
However, that is what I did from a young age, and history shows us that many others have done the same. Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Susan Rice all looked outwards to address the internal mechanisms of racism in the U.S. Nevertheless, racism is entrenched in the nearsightedness of many African Americans. Given NYUAD’s claims to promote the global accessibility of higher education, this characteristic of the African American experience should have been considered and, as a result, more specific outreach should have been conducted in our spaces. You should have intentionally come to us, the underserved, instead of assuming we would come to you.
That is why I am writing this letter.
This letter is not intended to cast blame. It is meant to highlight the underrepresentation of African Americans on our campus, a problem you are largely in charge of resolving. This letter is meant to advocate for the value of diversifying the American student population and establishing a precedent for how other nationalities are represented on this campus.
African American students should be more than a statistic or a check on your diversity to-do list. We represent unique perspectives the world needs to hear. Being historically disadvantaged, we are accustomed to being isolated in our own country. I have found that Abu Dhabi promotes the idea of multiculturalism and embraces our inclination for diplomacy. We frequently navigate intercultural settings and represent our community to the best of our ability. Being young, gifted and black, we have gained these skills in the classroom, the meeting room, at conferences or on the stage. We are eager to apply these skills in a global arena. Young African Americans, like myself, are tired of being proportionally and systematically underrepresented. Searching for world-class idea factories, we seek answers to our struggles. We want to be a part of the solution.
At NYUAD, I learned how much African Americans have in common with others around the world. I bonded over shared experiences with other students because my problems — our problems — are the world’s problems. I grew to have a new sense of comfort and support in this community. With this newfound confidence, I willingly take part in the cultural education of my peers as a teacher and ambassador.
NYUAD is a testament to the significance of empowering young people to be cultural ambassadors. However, the social experiment that is this university is critically flawed without the voices of students coming from underserved and underrepresented communities around the world. We have the skills and the passion; all we need is a platform. NYUAD can be this platform.
So, Admissions, thank you for accepting me into this community, but there is still much to do. I hope you read this letter carefully and take my thoughts into consideration. I have come to love NYUAD, and I am committed to working with you to make it the best institution it can be.
Otelo Reggy-Beane Class of 2021
Editor's Note: The author’s definition applies to those who are descendants of slaves in the United States and extends to black citizens of immigrant descent, who have a generational connection to the U.S. or have spent a significant period living in the U.S.
Otelo Reggy-Beane is a contributing writer. Email him at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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