White students at black colleges: What does it mean for HBCUs?

June 14, 2013

White people attend historically black universities all across the country and have been for a minute. Nothing new there. But every time I hear that a white person has attended an HBCU, it makes me wonder about their motives and what it means for the state of these iconic institutions.

In the last few weeks, two white women have come out about their experiences as Howard University students; the first, Alyssa Paddock. in an essay published in The Washington Post; the second, Jillian Parker, in a music video about her love for a black football player called “Mr. Football.”

Both the essay and video brought the public to their virtual soapboxes, a.k.a. Facebook and Twitter, to voice either their support or displeasure. Some commenters argued that Howard is hollowed ground, and that the presence of white students feels like an infringement on cultural space. Others shrugged it all off as a natural next step to a completely desegregated America.

Which brings me to a set of questions: is the white student presence on these campuses a racial move forward, or is it all a joke or a conversational topic to be raised over brunch years from now? Will the stories of being a white student at a majority-Black college be sandwiched between summers in the Hamptons and post-grad backpacking through Europe? Is attending an HBCU for white students the equivalent of spending a summer in Ghana? Is a white person who sets out, decides, applies and then attends an all-black-university the equivalent of a Darwinesque social experiment? And, does practicing a minority get anyone closer to understanding the daily struggle of being a minority? Let’s face it; the white student who would even consider attending an HBCU is not the student who is need of a strong dose of black cultural awareness because they already have it.

Parker, a graduate of HU and the singer of “Mr. Football,” was quoted in this piece as saying, “I really enjoy being unique and for that reason I appreciate my experience. I feel as though you have a bit more notoriety being so different at a place like this.” What uniqueness and notoriety would that be? Being white in a non-white environment? I am not asking these questions to be indignant but I really don’t understand. Is whiteness a talent?

Alyssa Paddock’s essay, “Why I chose to attend a historically black college-as a white person,” left me with questions than answers. In it she writes that she considered Howard, “…as a way to step out of my comfort zone and experience being a minority.” This statement feels like the equivalent of playing homeless for sociology class credit. And it got me wondering metaphorically speaking: how homeless can a college student be if they are only one phone call away from a hot meal?

The fact is HBCUs have never been just learning institutions. They have the daunting mission of not only educating but also, fostering a sense of self and purpose in black students who once were denied education because of the color of their skin.

Now that all colleges and universities across the country are open to those who have the grades, SAT scores and money, many black students still choose HBCUs to feel the connected morbid uniqueness that only a history of racial oppression can create. Those that attend are bound in the solidarity that once they leave the campus they are a part of a world that may grossly misjudge them because of their skin but on campus amongst the brethren they are safe. It is this that makes me wonder what really makes an HBCU attractive to white high school students?

Is it an overly insistent love of black culture? Is it a fascination with the curves of the ladies hips or the often-hyped myth of black maleness? Is it that they fit into the painted drywall backdrop of their hometown so well that the only way to really set themselves apart is to be the drop of milk in a sea of beiges and browns? My biggest concern is it feels like a search for the elusive “black experience;” through a collegiate-safari-like foray into the annals of the black history.

The reality is that as the world evolves into a blended state of gray the financial health of HBCUs is suffering badly. Of course if the only choice to stay afloat is to accept those who aren’t the intended demographic then the answer is easy. But the idea that there will be no Mecca versus an integrated one isn’t a thought that I want to absorb. The school is at an identity croossroad that meets at the intersection of financial stability and staying true to its roots. Like Georgia Ave, the iconic thoroghfare that HU sits on, everything eventually crosses here: cities (see Harlem, DC) and music (see hip-hop, Gospel) are a few areas where itegrity and finances don’t come out on the right side of black.

I am not condemning white folks who decide to go HBCUs I am just saying that I really don’t understand it. I guess the biggest part that I struggle with hails on the end of a Chris Rock joke. In his stand-up he clowned that there wasn’t a white person who would trade places with him and he’s rich! It feels like the white students who choose HBCUs are creating self-imposed hurdles that feel about as authentic as a rapper who shoplifts to beef up his arrest record.

Let’s be truthful here; all institutions are not created equal. Ivy’s look down on States which in turn look down on Communities and they all turn their collective noses up and laugh at continuing education through Online Colleges. And that is the beauty of the HBCU. It avoids the hierarchy set by majority rule, while being both part of the scene and completely separate. In fact, HBCUs battle as to who is the better school, but the chain of command isn’t as daunting; it just is. Like Negro League baseball, where stats are comparable with the National Baseball League, but the leagues are different even if they both play ball.

So, as the numbers of white students at HBCUs grows and I'm curious as to how this will forever change the unique mission of these schools. Do we still need HBCUs to serve as our own little space to be our uniquely black selves, free from criticism, and being asked to change our hair, our clothes, our way of speaking to one another to "fit in?" I guess the bigger question is: if the marginalized can’t have the margins to themselves, then what’s left?

 

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