Tour guides are responsible for leading over 40,000 annual visits to this beautiful gothic campus. Our commitment is an hour and fifteen minutes a week, but as a black student on this campus, it feels like a lot more.
We start at the Admissions Office and head toward Abele Quad. Parents and students ask me questions along the way.
"How hard is Duke?"
"What do you do for fun?"
"How is the social life like?"
We get to Abele Quad and I emphasize that Julian Abele, a black architect, designed the picturesque campus decades before he would have even been able to attend this school.
On other stops I talk about memorable experiences, amazing professors , crazy traditions , and lifelong friends. Before long, the tour is over. Parents and students clap and I direct them back to the admission office. Some families linger waiting to ask me questions one-on-one. A white dad tells me that he could “really tell my enthusiasm for Duke”. As I thank him, I see a black family linger behind, and I know what’s coming. It happens every time I have a black family or group on my tour (which is unfortunately not quite often).
“How is Duke for you?”
“How does Duke treat you?”
They’re not talking about me personally though. They’re asking how Duke treats its black students.
“Do you feel safe on campus?”
“Do you feel like you’re treated equally?”
Each time, I struggle to come up with an appropriate answer. I still don’t know how to grasp my time and experience as a black woman at Duke. The tour is officially over, and I say I’m going to be honest with them. I tell them that there are incidents that happen on campus, with an emphasis on the pluralizing ‘s’. There are many times where I’m still the only black person in my classes, something I naively thought would go away after high school. I tell them that the administration isn’t always the best about things, but the students make the most difference. Groups of students band together when bad things happen and are vocal about the change, they not only want to see but need to see. There haven’t been that many institutional changes, but the presence of people, even when it’s just a few, standing up against injustices that happen on our campus make me feel more comfortable than an email sent by the University to keep its image clean. I tell them that Duke is trying—kind of—but it still has a long way to go. I weave my words carefully so that I am telling them the full truth, but not tarnishing the image of dear old Duke.
One of the first lines in the tour guide manual is “portray a fair and unbiased opinion on campus life/activities”, but how can I do that when this campus is biased against students who look like me? Students who have only just been able to attend this University in the past 56 years (58 for graduate students).
I feel like I’m betraying black students on my tours when I tell them about how great O-Week is, how I was able to go abroad for the first time thanks to financial aid, and how crazy the basketball games are because I want them to apply and go here. I want to see more black students on this campus. The black population at Duke went down from 13 percent in the Class of 2021, to 10 percent in the Class of 2022.
I don’t tell these prospective students that the black students of the Class of 2022 were greeted with a racial slur at the Mary Lou before classes even started. I tell them about some of the engaging conversations I’ve had in class but leave out the “little things”. The microaggressions. The internal racism students are positive they don’t have because they have one black friend and Martin Luther King Jr. is their favorite activist. Having to hear non-black people sing ALL the lyrics to “Caroline” even though Aminé damn well said “if you ain’t black, don’t say n***a.” Having to see a #ThrowbackThursday picture of East campus in the 1960s when the school was segregated by race and gender posted on the school’s official twitter. Even worse, having students ask for it to be taken down, but having our sentiments ignored.
Duke, you need to do more. The diversity and inclusion you brag about isn’t simply putting non-white people on brochures or the website. It’s about actually doing something to help those students. It’s not about nostalgizing your racist past but finding a way to grow from and change its course even if it does upset a few older alumni. Hold your students and your staff accountable. Hold yourself accountable.
I’m going abroad in the fall (woohoo), but I don’t know if I can go back to giving tours in the spring. It gives me so much joy seeing students fall in love with a campus that I call my home, but at the same time I don’t want to lead others to believe Duke is everything it claims to be. I don’t think I can effectively be a representative of Duke University that the tour guide manual wants me to be while fighting against a University that does not completely value my place here.
To black students thinking about applying to Duke, know that you have every right to be here and more. Know that Duke as an institution might not be fighting for you, but there is a community here ready to help you whenever you need it.
Veronica Niamba is a Trinity junior. Her column "not another subtweet" runs on alternate Mondays.
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