Celebrating Black Excellence in the Many Forms It Takes: Thandiwe McMillan ’20

Thandiwe McMillan ’20 is an ambitious creative at Swarthmore. The senior, originally from Brooklyn, NY, transferred to Swarthmore her junior year and has since been a sprinter on the track team, a member of drama board, a wardrobe manager, an assistant for the costume shop, a lifeguard, and a Diversity Peer Advisor Intern.

As a theater major, McMillan finds joy in learning, acting, and creating in general. When I asked her about her passions, she spoke about her love of making clothes and accessories in the costume shop and pointed at the bag she was carrying: a beautiful, fun, and colorful over-the-shoulder that she had made. 

For McMillan, sewing is a way to ground and affirm herself. 

“This school can get really chaotic and stressful, and I often feel alienated here. So sewing helps me focus on something — a project — and feel really relaxed.”

McMillan feels her experience of alienation has mostly come from her experience transferring to a predominantly white institution as a Black woman.  

“First of all, I feel like it’s harder for Black women to make friends with non-Black people in general. I think that it’s easier for Black men for some reason. There are many stereotypes attached to Black women, and I think that people either subconsciously believe them or strongly believe in these stereotypes and don’t befriend us easily.”

Accordingly, McMillan feels that people are cautious around her. She wonders what her experience would be if she came to Swarthmore as a first year. 

“I’m curious to know how I would answer this question if I came in as a traditional student, because I know it’s much easier for [a first year] to come in and everyone’s looking for friends.” 

As we began to speak about the main topic of the feature, Black excellence, McMillan told a story of her own reconciliation of the term and conception of it. 

“When I think of Black excellence, I think of Black people or a Black person being open-minded, kind, humble, and collaborative. They are aware of their social responsibilities and actively speak up for their community on a small or grand scale.” 

But this was not always the case. McMillan’s understanding of the term has changed through time.

“I think that my perception has changed over the years because when I first heard that I thought all of that — like excellence — is just like a person who ‘made it.’ [Someone] who used to be poor, but now is wealthy and successful … But now I think more of someone who is for social justice and healing, and they are open minded.”

Additionally, McMillan believes the drive to acquire knowledge often is an important ingredient to excellence though she also recognizes the difficulty in the Black excellence terminology. 

“I do think that a form of excellence is either being educated or wanting to educate yourself in general and on social issues … you don’t have to be educated already because not everyone has access to certain resources, but wanting to bring about equality? That’s a part of excellence.” 

McMillan experienced a specific shift in her perception of Black excellence after transferring to Swarthmore and believes there is no correct definition. 

“The Black student body here [at Swarthmore] is an example of Black excellence, or one could say we are on our way to achieving Black excellence. I think maybe Black excellence is like wanting more for yourself and others … I’m still discovering what it is.”

McMillan was homeschooled in middle school and her first year of highschool. She spent three years in highschool and completed senior and junior year in one year. In high school, McMillan had to fend for herself.

“My school was huge. There were like 4000 students, and I dealt with racism there and there were a lot of antagonizing people”. 

After graduation, she took a gap year in Madrid where she developed her independence and after found her way to Borough of Manhattan Community College. 

“There were challenging classes. Many people think of community colleges as super easy but many of these teachers have graduated from prestigious institutions: Columbia, NYU … and  actually teach at prestigious institutions as well as community college. I learned a lot.”

In contrast to the challenges she faced at BMCC, the transition from BMCC to Swat was strenuous, one reason being that McMillan felt she wasn’t the help she needed. 

“I felt like there were a lot of people saying that they supported me, but not many actually supported me. There’s a lot of ‘you can talk to me if you need me’, but I never felt like I could talk to these people if I needed them, because they weren’t consistent with what they said.”

McMillan had to adapt to the every-day, taken-for-granted aspects of Swarthmore life that most begin adjusting to their first semester as first-years, as a junior. 

“I’d never experienced dorm life and here I was an upperclassman, just thrown in here. I sometimes questioned whether or not I belonged at this school because people were so articulate, and I felt like I couldn’t articulate myself a lot in class so that was definitely a challenge. I later realized that many students here use words they think are complex and state their opinions so matter-of-factly when they don’t know what they’re talking about, so it’s important to fact check.”

Like many Black students at predominantly white institutions, McMillan felt what it was like being one of, if not the only Black student in a classroom in contrast to a space with more representation. 

“I’m in [a] hip hop class now and [it’s the class] I’ve been with the most Black students. In all my other classes … it was really weird, people would talk about Black issues, and they’d just look at me solemnly. I also realized that being in this institution made me realize that I had to speak up for myself more.” 

As for the year-long Celebrating Black Excellence series, McMillan is appreciative of it, but also feels that there needs to be a more concerted effort to support the Black community. 

“I think there are many programs or talks set in place to speak about injustice to people who already know what injustice is. And I think that these talks need to be targeted to people who are the ones that are inflicting harm on the Black community,” she said. 

She continued:

“I also think that having allies is important and people need to recognize what it means to be a good ally. Having Black friends is not enough to say ‘I support Black people’. What’s important is being proactive and calling out injustice and getting involved in Black issues —not overstepping boundaries—but knowing how to get involved without overstepping those boundaries.”

But for McMillan, support for the community of Black students at Swarthmore needs to come from within it as well. The problems the community is facing are both external and internal. For McMillan, the Black community can be very comforting and uplifting, but there are aspects of it that trouble her. 

“There’s a lot of competition within the Black community: who visits the BCC the most frequently, or who is more involved, or who’s dating someone outside of their race, things like that. The ‘cancel culture’ at Swarthmore is ridiculous. This adds on to the oppression of Black people, and that’s why communication and being open minded is very important. If we, as a Black community, want to see changes, then we also have to work within ourselves to make sure that we’re accepting everyone and knowing their story and where they’re coming from.” 

Overall, McMillan believes Swarthmore is responsible to its students and must work to protect and listen to Black Students, not just in the name of the ones who are currently here, but for future students.

“I think that the school should speak to Black students and ask us what we want instead of guessing and trying to put these little practices in place to make us feel safe when they don’t really know where we’re coming from, or what we want. Also, they need to accept more Black people [and] more people of color — specifically Black people, because there are 6 percent of us [here] and that’s ridiculous — into the school. There are just so many issues with the structure of this institution, and I could go on for an hour about this, but I’ll just leave it at that.”

McMillan credits her own specific upbringing and personal story along with her identity as a FLI and transfer student with her development as a thinker. During our interview, McMillan exuded her unapologetic and authentic self as well as her compassionate way of looking at the world. Her last thoughts embody true thoughtfulness, honesty, and awareness of self.

“Sometimes I try to think outside the box and outside of my own story, just to have a different perspective, but it’s hard to do that.”

Although she’s a senior and we are not back on campus and able to see her walking the halls, I suspect we will see McMillan soon, commanding a stage or maybe something else.  

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