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Minnesota Merengue
Kizzy Charles-Guzman
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When I announced last spring that I was going to attend Carleton College in Minnesota, a private school that’s only about 10% black and Hispanic, my friends nearly passed out. I received all sorts of advice, warnings, and words of encouragement.

My favorite was: “Just keep in mind that you’re going there to study, not necessarily to make friends. So if they don’t want to befriend you because of your race, don’t you mind them. Keep your nose in your books. Know what I’m sayin’?”

Even though I was sure Carleton wouldn’t be that bad, and I’m used to interacting and relating to people of different races, I admit that I was nervous about attending a “white” college. My friends swore that I was doomed. But to my relief, going away to a mostly white college has been a very rewarding experience.

Yes, there are very few minorities in my school and I wish that the number of students of color who go away to white colleges would increase. I have always thought that more minorities should be empowered in America, especially through education.

Many people of color I know believe that minority students attending white colleges feel very uncomfortable, but white colleges will continue to be white colleges unless minority students start applying to and attending them. It will be a different experience, like realizing that there is a lot more beyond the cities where they’ve lived all their lives, but it doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. I don’t feel uncomfortable at all at Carleton, because people accepted me and made me feel like I belong.

This may be partly because I have not had the upbringing—or outlook on race—that the average American teenager has. I lived in Venezuela for 15 years before my family moved to New York. My mother is a light-skinned Venezuelan and my father is black, from Trinidad.

In Venezuela, most of my school friends were white. They were the children of Spanish and Portuguese immigrants and we all attended the same private Catholic school. Unlike my school, my neighborhood had all complexions: black, white and everything in between.

Although we are all Hispanic in Venezuela, race is still an issue. Most people are dark-skinned, but in general the lighter you are, the better your position in society is. Over there, being light-skinned is considered a sign of prosperity because a lot of immigrants from Spain, Portugal and Italy came to Venezuela and eventually established businesses. In other words, the upper class in Venezuela is usually white.

So in Venezuela, I was aware of race, but since I never had any racist experiences it was not a big deal for me. That all changed when I moved to Brooklyn and I realized that, because of the great racial diversity, everything seemed to be turned into a race issue.


Most of my friends were either black or Hispanic, and they always wanted to show me how racist America was. They had been born in the U.S. and, having lived all their lives in poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn, they learned to be aware of the inequality of the races. To me, it seemed like they spent their lives looking for, and finding, signs of racism rather than uplifting one another and reaching out for a better life through education.

They were always reading into small things, like when we went out one day and got into an elevator where there was an elderly white lady. Everyone thought that she gave us “funny” looks and grabbed her purse, afraid of us because of our race. Quite honestly, I did not see her do such things, but hey, majority ruled. Maybe they were right. Maybe I was unaware of my surroundings.

When the college application process came around, I applied mostly to private schools because I needed a scholarship. (Many private schools offer scholarships for low-income and minority students because they want a more diverse student population.). I didn’t pay attention to the schools’ minority rates until after I applied. All I knew is that I wanted to go away.

But by the time I got on the plane to fly to Minnesota, I was convinced that I was going to hell. I had come to expect a bleak place where everyone would be mean to me because of my race.

During the first day of orientation, I walked into a room with about 200 students, almost all of them white. My first thought was, “Wow, I don’t have blue eyes. What do I do now!?”

image by Ed Marquez

As the days went by, I noticed walking around campus how few minority students there really were. Blacks made up less than 7% of the students and Hispanics made up about 5% of them. In some classes I was one of two or three students of color.

I couldn’t help but notice how “white” the school was, but everyone was so nice to me that I felt very comfortable within a few minutes. The other students would always smile and talk to me. Freshmen were always happy to talk about “how they ended up in Carleton,” and invariably, we ended up knowing someone else’s life story by the end of the night.

It helps that my roommate and I are also really close. My friends at home are surprised because my roommate is white and loves just about every sport, while I consider exercising a punishment. Still, we get along very well.

Not only were the people in the school nice, everyone in town was too good to be true. Strangers always smile at you and say hello when you pass them by in the streets. People are always willing to help you and give you information, and, get this, if you ask them for directions, they will often walk you to where you’re going if it’s nearby. In New York, all we get from people in the streets is attitude, rudeness, and catcalls.

When I arrived on campus I never thought about hanging out only with the other students of color, despite having been told that white people wouldn’t really want to be my friends. I only thought of being myself, and if people liked me, they would accept me. I never felt that I had to reach out to white people or that I had to lay out my culture to them so that they would “learn” from me.


What I did notice was the attitude of the students of color. Most of them had grown up in large cities like Chicago and Los Angeles where the minority rates are much higher. Most of them had lived in segregated neighborhoods or attended segregated high schools. That made them feel a little out of place at Carleton.

For example, the students from L.A. were used to living in Hispanic neighborhoods and had only had black or Hispanic friends, so being around so many white people was foreign to them. As minorities, the students of color at Carleton feel that we need to stick together since there are so few of us.

They don’t always say it’s just because of race; one of my friends from L.A. says she spends so much more time with the other students from L.A. because they “have had the same experiences.” She grew up in the same neighborhood as a couple of them and feels a strong connection to them.

She hangs out with me sometimes because I’m also Hispanic, but she thinks I can’t even relate to her as well as her friends from L.A. You see, I don’t have Mexican parents who moved to that particular neighborhood, so I don’t really know “where she’s coming from.”

Most of the minority students have views similar to my friend’s. They don’t want to learn from other people; they want to hold on to their own cultures. They want to join only culture-related clubs, leave the parties as soon as the DJ plays country or alternative music, and sit around complaining about the lack of minorities on campus.

I do not agree. Maybe because of my background, I see things differently. So I don’t stick to one crowd at Carleton. I have a lot of friends of all races. I’ve joined clubs based on my interests, not on race. I’m even developing a taste for country music.

I don’t want to take away from my college experience by being exclusive about the people I become friends with. Instead, I enjoy seeing how people can relate even when they come from different backgrounds. I like that I can see our cultures mixing in small ways, like when I came back from a meeting and there were about nine people hanging out in my room, listening to my salsa tapes, even though six of the people were white.

That night we just talked and joked around and all we listened to was Latin music and some reggae. I was intrigued that they had chosen my music, so I asked them why they were listening to salsa and they just said, “Because we like it.” Later, I felt really stupid that I had asked.

I love Carleton. I’m glad that I get to experience life around both white people and students of color. I do hang out with the students of color, but being around them is not all I want to do.

This is America and whites are still the majority in this country. Chances are that my future bosses will be white, so why should I be scared of white people? I’m not denying that there is racism in the world. I just think that, especially when we go away to college, we should appreciate all cultures and make an effort to cross, not create, barriers.

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(NYC-1999-01-24)

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