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Penn State Alum: Few 'Happy Valley' Memories Here

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Nekose Wills offers an iconoclastic account of being a black woman at Penn State, the football powerhouse hit by child sex-abuse allegations. She can't share the widespread lament for a community that never made her feel welcome or even safe.

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Nekose Wills offers an iconoclastic account of being a black woman at Penn State, the football powerhouse hit by child sex-abuse allegations. She can't share the widespread lament for a community that never made her feel welcome or even safe.



(WOMENSENEWS)—At a certain point in the days after the Penn State sexual abuse scandal blew up in the media, I reached my breaking point with all the shock and disbelief about how such things could happen in "Happy Valley."

I am a Penn State alumnus.

One thing going to Penn State taught me was that any institution of learning willing to concede its entire identity to its sports teams has dropped the ball and missed the goal. Curiosity, openness, skepticism, criticism are all basics of intellectual life but these values run contrary to being a football powerhouse school, where domination and celebration of the status quo are rewarded. I learned and experienced this lesson very well at Penn State.

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In 1996, I started Penn State and began one hell of an education in race relations. I was 18, had just left home and was very excited about my next four years of freedom and adulthood. Reality hit in the second week when I walked into a women's studies class. The assignment: list the power and privileges of your race and your sex and then do the same for the opposite race and sex.

I am black. I am a woman. I could be wrong, but as far as I could tell, I was the only black student in the class. I had nothing to say about the power and privileges of my sex or race, but my 70 white classmates sure did.

The general belief was that any black person who wanted to go to school just had to call up the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) or get an athletic scholarship. Some said white people could not walk down the street in North Philadelphia without being beaten up by black people. One young white woman from South Africa was earnestly upset that she was not eligible for any African-American scholarships. She said she was "more African American than any black person here."

Not Making This Up

I wish I could say I was making this up, but I am not that creative.

Essentially my classmates were telling me that if more black people were not in universities, it was because we were too lazy to pick up the phone and cash in on our UNCF funds, or maybe we were too lazy to cash in on America's acceptance of blacks in sports and entertainment, or as I like to call it my "run, nigga, run" theory.

They were concerned about being able to walk down the street in North Philly when the Klan capital of the United States was 45 minutes away from campus and the town of State College, that surrounds Penn State's University Park campus, has a known history of violent racism against blacks. For example, there was a documented 1988 incident of blacks being attacked in downtown State College.

I left class thinking, "How on Earth could people be so incredibly ignorant?" Then went back to my room and cried. I returned to class on Tuesday to stand up and challenge all my classmates' stereotypes. Afterwards, I cried some more.

I was going to have to complete four years at this school. My parents drove me four hours in a car filled with of all my worldly possessions. There was no finding a new school, especially after all the time and energy invested in getting me there. Transferring was not an option.

Nor did I consider dropping the course. In 1996, I was still drinking the Kool-Aid of the strong black woman rhetoric, which was seeping into my psyche. Unfortunately, I was too naïve to realize that the "strong black woman" social construct was not created to benefit me.

Making Friends Advisable

If you weren't Greek or did not join a club, there wasn't a whole lot to do on campus. Making friends was definitely advisable. I made two good friends freshman year. We would hang out in the dorms on Friday and Saturday nights. We had a great time just talking, laughing and joking. The resident assistant would often knock on our door to tell us we were talking too loud and being disruptive with our voices. We had not yet put the pieces together that it was our presence, in general, that was disruptive until we heard two white women playing soccer in the hallway, very loudly at that, and the RA said nothing. We were flabbergasted and quickly brought that oversight to her attention.

Both my friends transferred by the end of our first year.

Not me. I wasn't going anywhere. I graduated with dual degrees in media studies and women's studies in 2000 and completed an honors thesis. I made new friends in the Caribbean Students Association, which became my refuge.

During the football games I used to help the Caribbean Students Association sell items for the bookstore. The booths for the University Book Store were inside the stadium, and you had to walk past us before entering the narrow passages that led to the seating.

I remember vividly the first time I entered Beaver Stadium and saw 100,000 blue and white faces screaming in excitement. I was terrified. I'd studied mob mentally in Sociology 101 and did not really want to be a part of it. I got out of the stadium as quickly as I could and went back to the safety of the bookstore booth. I never went back inside the stadium again.

Dangers of Sports Glorification

Contact sports are obviously hard on the athletes, but more, by this point, should be understood about the dangers of unchecked sports glorification.

Someone named "Erica" left this reader comment on an AP story about the Penn State scandal: "Twenty years ago, the University of South Florida in Tampa covered up at least six sexual assault complaints against a star basketball player who was about to take the team to its first-ever NCAA tournament. In the most egregious case, the female victim of an alleged rape was encouraged to withdraw her complaint in order to stop the harassment she was suffering from members of the team and their friends. Her decision occurred in the office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, who oversaw both student discipline and the athletic department. The conversation took place over a coffee table that was a replica of the USF Bulls basketball court. The vice president would later say, wrongly, that she had "recanted." (I know all this because I was the St. Petersburg Times reporter who spent more than a year uncovering the story, with the help of concerned faculty members. My findings were confirmed by an official state investigation. [Check St. Pete Times archives on 12-8-91 and 1-25-92, among others.] )

I, meanwhile, know what I know about Penn State from the four years I spent there, earning a degree. Throughout my "Happy Valley" days I heard about and witnessed several disturbing incidents of discrimination and harassment against blacks, both verbal and physical.

One young man I knew was beaten up after visiting a few of my friends in the dorm. The two white attackers made it clear that, in their book, black folks were not welcome. The incident never made it into the Collegian, the State College local newspaper, or the police blotter.

The same way any talk and suspicion of child molestation was hushed up, so was this.

All of these memories have resurfaced after this recent scandal, making me cringe at stories casting the "incident" as a regrettable blow to Penn State's community identity. If you never truly felt welcomed or included, it's hard to see it as a place worth cherishing.

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Nekose Wills is passionate about living her life to the fullest. An activist, feminist, friend and non-conformist, she learns, educates, informs and entertains through her writing, one of her favorite forms of self-expression.

For more information:

NOW Calls for Broader Investigation at Penn State:
http://now.org/press/11-11/11-22.html

Reader comment on Penn State scandal story:
http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2011/11/penn_state_sex_abuse_case_rive/3032/comments-newest.html