Living Black in Indiana 1

A wall mural in the 500 block of Philadelphia Street depicting a black and white child playing together paints Indiana as an inclusive community, but for the many minority students who have come through Indiana over the years, their experience didn’t match the idyllic image.

Editor’s Note: A project three months in the making, Living Black in Indiana is an in-depth look at minority students’ experiences in a predominantly white college town as well as their experiences on the IUP campus. In the first of the four-part series, we examine the community’s relationship with minority students.

In some ways, Indiana is like Tea Capps’ hometown of Waynesboro.

Both are sleepy towns in rural Pennsylvania with fewer than 15,000 residents. Both are located in predominantly white counties.

So, when Capps arrived in Indiana from Waynesboro some five years ago to start college, she had an idea of what to expect. She knew what life would be like as an African-American student in a largely white community. She’s lived it her whole life.

Living with racism – blatant or otherwise – is as normal as breathing for Capps. Frankly, it has always been a part of her day-to-day life, and it was no different in Indiana.

“I’ve lived in Indiana for like five years, so just being in Indiana, I’ve experienced it more,” Capps said. “Indiana is like where I’m from, a really small town, so I’m not surprised. It’s nothing new to me. I’m used to it at this point, but I shouldn’t have to be used to it.”

Having had first-hand experience living in a largely white community, Capps adjusted to Indiana without much trouble. She held an off-campus job. She spent summers in Indiana. And in May, she completed her degree in English.

However, not all minority IUP students adapt to Indiana like she did. For many, living in Indiana comes as a culture shock, in the truest sense of the phrase. It’s a truly foreign experience.

“It was completely different than anything I was used to,” said Walt Pegues, a 2018 graduate and a four-year member of the football team. “Growing up in Philly, I’m from the inner city, a very, very urban environment. The inner city, my entire life, Philly was kind of all I knew, so Indiana was definitely a bit of a culture shock being there.”

Like Pegues, current senior Na’eem Allen-Stills grew up in Philadelphia and was taken aback, to say the least, when he arrived in Indiana.

“I had never experienced racism before I came to Indiana,” said Allen-Stills, a student leader on campus who served as the president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council and the Omega Psi Phi fraternity in 2019-20.

Based on the contrast between Capps’ and Pegues’ stories, it seems a fair assumption that minority students at IUP experience the town of Indiana in very different ways. Similarly, minority students experience varying degrees of racial prejudice in the Indiana community. Some see more than others; some hear more than others. But the consensus among the nine current and former students The Penn interviewed is that every minority IUP student experiences racism in the community, direct or otherwise.

* * *

AT LAST COUNT, 94.8 percent of Indiana County’s population of 84,073 citizens was white, according to a July 2019 estimate by the U.S. Census. The most diverse town in the county, Indiana’s population was 86.1 percent white according to the same estimate. And according to IUP’s enrollment figures for the 2019-20 school year, 72.7 percent of IUP’s student body population is white.

While the IUP campus is more diverse than the rest of the community, black and brown IUP students are inevitably thrust into the local community anytime they leave campus, and that’s where they feel most uncomfortable and targeted.

Whether it’s going grocery shopping or getting an oil change, students described a sense of “being watched” when they step foot off-campus.

“There’s been times when I’ve gone to certain stores out there … and just had that feeling of being watched, feeling like the sales associate is paying a little more attention to you,” said Makala McGinnis, a 2017 graduate and former president of the Black Student League. “Definitely at Walmart, I’ve definitely gone to self-checkout and have been watched before.

“I’ve actually gotten stopped at self-checkout before on my way out the door and asked to see my receipt while I watched other students who weren’t minority students walk out carefree and they weren’t asked for their receipt to be shown.”

Currently a junior and president of the peer mentoring group Creating Higher Standards, Kiara Williams has had similar off-campus experiences. One incident in particular stands out in her memory, which occurred with her family by her side.

“I feel like a lot of the issues that go on for us African-American students are outside of the campus,” Williams said. “When you go to the grocery store, you’re stared at. I’ve been followed before multiple times. When I first moved in to school as a freshman, me and my mom, brother, sister and my dad, we were all standing in Walmart, and my mom was helping me check out all the stuff that I got … and the worker in the self-checkout was literally standing behind us, watching us to make sure that we put every single thing we bought through the scanner.

“I’ve never stolen a day in my life. My mom has never stolen a day in her life. … It was so crazy to actually see somebody do that.”

Justin Weldon, who played football at IUP and spent his summers in Indiana, recalls being pulled over by an Indiana Borough officer in the summer of 2016 for locking eyes with him at an intersection.

“He stopped me for looking at him,” said Weldon, who earned his undergraduate degree in 2019 and is now pursuing a master’s degree from IUP. “That’s what he told me. He was just like, ‘Yeah, I just came to check you out.’ … Just those little things, you think about ‘Why am I being stopped because I looked at a police officer? Am I abnormal for being here in the summer?’”

Weldon said he did not receive a citation, and the encounter ended without incident, but it certainly shaped his view of Indiana.

“That was one of two big instances that kind of changed my outlook on Indiana,” he said. “It was more like, ‘OK, now I see.’ This happened early on in my time at IUP. ‘Now I see kind of like what people in the town think about us.’”

* * *

DEFINED AS MICROAGGRESSIONS, these are acts of indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination. While they may not be aggressive, blatant acts of prejudice, they are insulting nonetheless to minority groups. And in Indiana, minority students are subject to daily microaggressions.

“Off-campus, I feel like I definitely dealt with the microaggressions every day,” said Jamaal Gosa, who graduated in 2014 and was one of three founders of Creating Higher Standards. “Even walking into a store, sometimes I get uncomfortable. … Maybe I don’t feel like talking today. And if I don’t talk, I’m labeled as aggressive or I’m mean.

“I deal with ‘What sports do you play?’ or things like that all the time. Why do you immediately label me an athlete? Whenever I’d say I was an education major, people were like, ‘What?’ They question, like I shouldn’t even be in that field. It’s like you don’t belong here. And it bothers you, and it travels with you, and subconsciously it remains with us. You think about this.”

As a cashier at a local pharmacy, Capps experienced microaggressions almost daily. Like when white customers compare her to a black model in a promotional photo in the pharmacy’s window.

“Customers will always say, ‘Oh, you look just like that person,’” Capps said. “And I get it every day. … And I can’t disagree. It’s when I disagree, they’ll be like, ‘Oh no, look, look, look, she looks just like that person, right? That black person on the wall. That’s you, right? You model for the store?’ And I get that every single day, and it’s ridiculous.

“I shouldn’t be censoring myself to make customers comfortable and agreeing that I look like a random black person behind me. … Everyone looks alike. It’s just weird to me that I have to feel the need to censor myself, and it’s something that makes me very uncomfortable.”

Other minority students, like 2018 graduate Briana Rainey, experienced microaggressions in the form of being purposefully skipped or not served entirely at local eateries and bars. Some wait at crosswalks, watching cars whiz by them, not slowing down or letting them cross the street.

By definition, microaggressions are unintentional sometimes. Rainey recalls multiple instances when classmates in her fashion merchandising classes asked to touch her hair, “not realizing the ignorance of that.”

McGinnis experienced unintentional microaggressions, too, and she used the opportunity to educate the person on the other end of it.

“There is racism in Indiana and some of it is unconscious, or some of it is unintentional,” McGinnis said. “I’ve definitely been in situations where I felt like things were done to me or said to me and they were racially motivated, and I’ve brought it to the person’s attention who made me feel that way. Sometimes, they’re genuinely like, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for it to come off as x, y and z,’ but it does come off as that.”

* * *

IT DOESN’T STOP at microaggressions. Although seven of the nine students interviewed said they hadn’t experienced blatant racism while enrolled at IUP, McGinnis and Allen-Stills weren’t as fortunate.

Allen-Stills recalls seeing a pickup truck on multiple occasions drive through campus and downtown Indiana with a Confederate flag in the bed of the truck and one of the occupants shouting ‘F--- N-----' at passing minorities.

Not only is it blatantly racist, it serves as a form of intimidation, Allen-Stills says.

McGinnis knows all about that. A native of the Garfield Heights neighborhood in greater Pittsburgh, she attended the Punxsutawney branch campus as a freshman in 2013-14, and her experience in that community was unsettling at best. According to the U.S. Census, 96.4 percent of Punxsutawney’s population of 5,704 is white, and it is a most unwelcoming community to minority students in McGinnis’ estimation.

“Going to that Punxs’y campus the first year was definitely a culture shock. Punxs’y was beyond a culture shock,” she said. “My experience at the Punxsutawney campus was like blatant, full-throttle, racial-slurs racism. It was so blatantly racist at Punxs’y that we had a curfew to be on our campus by 6 p.m. They didn’t even want students going off-campus after 6 p.m. There was an active chapter of the KKK in Punxsutawney, Pa.”

The Penn found no evidence that a curfew was enforced at the Punxsutawney campus in 2013-14. Similarly, The Penn could not independently confirm the existence of a Ku Klux Klan chapter in Punxsutawney.

The Indiana community’s racist tendencies aren’t directed only at IUP students. Locals who have spent their lives in this community face the same prejudices.

A 15-year-old ninth grader at Indiana High School, Amara Moore can relate. Time and time again, she has experienced her share of racism, and that’s what inspired her and close friend Becca Niel to organize a Black Lives Matter demonstration in downtown Indiana on June 3.

“It’s not necessarily aggressive physically, just verbally,” Moore said that day. “I’ve been called the N-word so many times. … And all of it’s happened in school and on the (school) bus. We’ve taken it to the school and the police one time, and nothing has been done about it. The kids didn’t even get suspended or anything.

“And they said it with a hard ‘er.’ They knew what they were doing, and then they try to play the defense card, that they didn’t mean it and it wasn’t meant to be hurtful, but it is.”

Amara’s mother and a lifelong resident of Indiana, Dr. Cybil E. Moore knows full well how unwelcoming her hometown can be to minorities. But she doesn’t shield her children from it. Rather, she openly discusses racial injustices with them, partially for their own safety.

“Their father and I, we talk to our children both, about what it is like to live and breathe in America in black skin,” an emotional Moore said. “We do have conversations on a regular basis about how you act around police, why if you’re in a group of people perhaps you’d get picked out and your friends do not because we do live in a predominantly white area. Or the assumptions that are made about our black children. There can be white children acting the exact same way, but my son is seen as being aggressive whereas theirs is just being a regular kid or a regular boy. But not my child, my child is being aggressive. This hurts.

“It hurts that your black skin is considered a pre-existing condition or as something that you can assume my guilt just because of the skin that we live in. And we are tired. We’re so tired. I don’t think people understand how tired we are. Mothers of color are just tired, we’re tired of burying our children because of the skin that they live in, their God-given, beautiful skin.”

“It’s exhausting to say the least,” Rainey said. “Being black in America, not just Indiana, is exhausting.”

* * *

IN HIS HEART, Indiana Borough Council President Peter Broad knows Indiana can do better.

He admits the community could be more accepting of all minorities, especially IUP students. At the same time – and it pains him to say it – he also knows there are close-minded community members who will likely never change their prejudiced views.

As progressive as the 12-member borough council is these days, there is a faction of the population that will always be on the opposite end of the spectrum.

“The whole council, 100 percent, is very welcoming,” Broad said. “The whole community? Probably not.”

The borough council wasn’t always diverse or as forward-thinking as it is today, but progress has been made in recent years. Of the 12 council members, two are minorities, and the council stands united on matters of social and racial equity.

“We’ve had a very mixed bag in this community, but the council itself, we staged a coup a few years ago,” Broad said, “and got rid of all the old troglodytes on it. We’re a pretty progressive bunch. We don’t always agree on everything, but we definitely agree 100 percent on this.”

So what can the council do to create a more inclusive Indiana?

“As a government entity, there’s limited things that we can do,” Broad said. “But one of the things we have done for several years now, we have tried to instill an awareness of diversity issues among our police, who are the ones who are most likely to have unpleasant contact with people in the community.

“Our police officers are from small-town rural Pennsylvania and they might have the same prejudices that their parents have, but they get better at it. And we have written into the employee handbook, including the police officers, language that specifically prohibits any kind of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, et cetera.”

Over the years, the council has also launched other initiatives aimed at raising the community’s awareness of the racial biases and prejudices that are inherent in a predominantly white town. Some of the initiatives have come and gone, while others are ongoing.

“For several years, the president of the IUP chapter of NAACP did an internship in our police department and worked with the individual police officers,” Broad said.

According to Craig Bickley, the Assistant Vice President for Human Resources at IUP and the advisor to the NAACP chapter at IUP, the internships have not taken place “for the last several years.”

“Internally we are discussing programming with both campus and borough police,” Bickley wrote in an email to The Penn.

Broad also pointed to an ongoing program with Dr. Abigail Adams from the IUP anthropology department.

“Dr. Adams works with our police department on diversity training,” he said. “They do workshops. She rides along with them sometimes in the police car to try to keep them aware of these issues.”

Council vice president Gerald Smith, the lone sitting African-American member of the council, has also partnered with the NAACP in recent years to launch a series of public forums.

“It only had an effect on the people who went, and a lot of people went, but not the majority of the community in any sense,” Broad said.

That illustrates the greater issue at hand in Indiana: Certain pockets of the local community lack interest in issues of race and equality, and no amount of local forums will change their views.

“The people who could benefit most from it probably are the least likely to either want to or be able to, even, be part of (these events),” Broad said.

Broad encouraged all student activists to form a partnership with the council.

“We could as a borough work with you if you had people who wanted to organize these events,” he said. “We could provide resources, not necessarily financial right now. … But we have personnel who could devote time to working with you. … The council would be more than willing to help and to enlist the services of our paid staff as well.”

In the meantime, any and all minority students who are experiencing harassment should contact the Indiana Borough Police Department at 724-349-2121, Broad said.

“In this country, we can’t pass laws against free speech, no matter how hateful,” Broad said. “If it goes over the line, if it becomes harassment, then we can do something about it.”

* * *

FEELING OUT OF PLACE, alone and uncomfortable in a predominantly white community, minority students lack a sense of belonging in Indiana, especially in off-campus settings. They live feeling like outsiders, avoiding the local community as much as possible and staying to themselves.

“I kind of didn’t really feel comfortable interacting,” Pegues said. “I just kept to myself and kind of tried to just stay to myself and do what I had to do and get back in a comfort area as soon as possible.”

As if that’s not enough to cope with, minority students hailing from the greater Philadelphia area seem to be especially scorned by the locals. 

“I had a conversation with a tow-truck driver,” said Weldon, who grew up in New Jersey and went to high school in Easton, Pa., “and he was telling me that he knows a lot of people that he interacts with in the town, because he’s from Indiana, and (he said) they don’t like us being up there. They don’t like us being around town, and quote, ‘the Philly kids ruin Indiana,’ and it will be a much better town if the Philly kids weren’t here.

“Having those conversations with different people makes you realize how certain people or certain perspectives of some people in Indiana as a town, looks at people that are a part of black campus.”

Weldon’s teammate of four years, Pegues was one of the lucky minority students to have some semblance of a support system in Indiana. Two of his closest friends from high school also attended IUP.

“I always say, if I didn’t have them and I didn’t football, there’s no way I would have made it four years myself,” Pegues said. “Even after my freshman year, it was a tough year. Football, we were kind of struggling, but also just like the social aspect of it. … I didn’t enjoy going out and stuff like that, and that’s kind of all IUP had to offer in terms of that, in terms of things to do. But also, I just kind of felt out of place.”

For black student-athletes who stay for extended breaks – such as football players in the summer and basketball players over the winter break – the feeling of isolation is even worse.

“I’ve spent summers in Indiana,” Weldon said. “When there’s no students on campus, it’s literally I feel like I’m kind of alone. Definitely a feeling of being alone with not many people that look like you.”

Over time, these burdens take their toll on minority students, leading some to transfer and continue their education elsewhere. Perhaps that helps explain IUP’s low retention rates among black students.

According to the most recent figures available on IUP’s website, only 50.0 percent of black students came back for their second year in 2018-19, the lowest second-year retention rate among all demographic groups. Two years earlier, in 2016-17, that figure was at 53.6 percent. Meanwhile, IUP’s overall retention rate was 72.3 percent in 2018-19.

While the retention rates can’t be blamed solely on the local community, minority students’ experiences in Indiana certainly play a role in their decisions to drop out or transfer.

Even procedural and policy changes at local establishments sometimes feel like they’re put in place specifically for minority students, McGinnis said, without explicitly being labeled as such. She recalled a local bar instituting a dress code banning camouflage. The same bar also stopped allowing entry at 1:00 a.m., but McGinnis witnessed white students violating both policies and being allowed entry.

“One of the toughest things about being a minority, period – not even just in Indiana – but in this country in general,” McGinnis said, “is you never know if things that happen to you are just because they just happen or if it’s because of the color of your skin.”

“You always have to wonder ‘Are they not letting me in after 1:00 a.m. because that’s their policy, or is it because I’m African-American?’ … There’s always that thought in the back of your mind, ‘Is this happening because it’s happening, or is this happening because of the color of my skin?’ It’s one of the main things that I can describe Indiana as, is always wondering if what’s happening to you is racially motivated.”

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