Let me be transparent: I am on a plane, flying from attending my HBCU’s Homecoming Weekend, so I’m more hype than a senior citizen on the Price Is Right; but I stand by everything I’m going to say in this piece. For a long time, I’ve tried to be rational and levelheaded. I figure alma maters are like kids: all of us think that we have the best ones. Accordingly, I’ve listened to some of my Black Sisters and Brothers tout the benefits of attending PWIs (Predominately White Institutions) or sending their kids to PWIs — quietly and respectfully. Not today.
You know how your mother would try to tell you that Frosted Flakos were the same as Frosted Flakes; and you convinced yourself it was true (‘though you had a nagging suspicion that your mom was lying when you’d watch cartoons Saturday mornings and the Flakos seemed to get soggy extra fast; not to mention that there was never a prize in the box). The PWI argument is similar. You want it to be (you almost need it to be because of the availability of financial aid, parents’ expectations, your need to excel in mainstream America, etc.) better than or at least equal to attending an HBCU. You relish in the number of former U.S. Presidents, CEOs, and millionaires who attended your PWI, the connections you’ve made, and the pedigree of the diploma. Your school is superior, you smugly think.
And, on paper, maybe you are right. You graduated from a school with a name that will impress many employers and clients; that will appear in the top 20 on most ranking systems. You registered for classes in less than five minutes online while sitting on your futon in tattered pajamas and eating potato chips — while HBCU grads are still in counseling for the 6 hours we spent in class registration only to have to go beg the volleyball teacher to let us in (and you still have a 60% chance that the school will pull you out of class in front of everybody because you have a $5.36 overdue library bill, so you aren’t really registered because HBCUs are gonna get their money). You may have lived in a dorm that was coed, with a computer lab, and 24-hour security, while HBCU grads were sneaking guys (who had called us on the hallway pay phone) past our 73- year-old dorm mother, in a back door that had a chain so rusted we could break it. You may have taken courses such as middle eastern 17th century tapestry, while we took ART 101. But–you didn’t go to the best school (at least not the best school for Black folks).
The data from multiple studies supports my thinking: graduates of historically black colleges and universities are significantly more likely to have felt supported while in college and to be thriving afterwards than are their black peers who graduated from predominantly white institutions.
Nothing beats comfort. We will sit our asses on the couch and watch 9 hours of Netflix with a greasy pizza because it’s comfortable. We will still call that girl who has the 6 cats that she talks about constantly, but we’ve known her since she was six years old and tell her about how much your mother and her bursitis is driving you crazy because we are comfortable with her. We will go to the same restaurant every Saturday because we are comfortable there and the waitress knows you by name. And this I know for sure: no Black person (any person for that matter) is as comfortable being in an environment where they are in a vast minority as they are in a place where everybody looks like them. No one. This is science, actually.
I don’t mean the type of comfort that fails to make you excel; but the type that provides the environment in which you are enlivened to excel. You are no longer stuck in the barely visible, sticky, intricate cobweb of institutionalized racism, ingrained stereotypes and daily microaggressions. You are free and comfortable to just be you; to just be Black.
Immediately, I know the “but I was in AP / honors classes with all White people” and the “I never had a Black friend” and the “I’m not culturally Black” folks are forming their protests. Please don’t. Just as there is a diversity of White people at every PWI (the intellects, the hippies, the democrats, the nerds, the rebels, the conservatives, and so on); there is diversity at HBCUs. Black people are not monolithic.
Let me repeat that for the back of the class: Black people are not monolithic. Whatever your vibe is (rock music, sushi, European art, skate boarding, etc.); your background (only Black kid in your school, extremely wealthy or poor; first in your family to attend college or from a long legacy of college graduates; your Black group awaits you. AND…
They will never question if you got in the school because of Affirmative Action, or be shocked that your parents went to school or have professional jobs. They will never be impressed by how “well you speak” because they speak equally as eloquently. They won’t ask to touch your hair or ask you why you don’t wash it. They won’t ask you for your opinion about Obama, the kneeling protest, or the Chicago murder rates because you can “lend an interesting perspective.” They won’t “compliment” you by stating “you aren’t really Black” or “your people must be so proud”, or “you are so strong to have overcome”, or “I voted for Obama, too (though you are a Republican).” You won’t be in the middle of situations where you feel that uncomfortable tingling in the back of your neck and the bottom of your stomach that whispers or yells (depending on the circumstances), “I don’t belong.”
If you are honest, regardless of how elite your PWI was, you felt that feeling – a lot.
And the way I see it, you have the rest of your life to feel that way. 99.99% of us will leave college and start careers or attend graduate schools where we will be in situations where we sometimes feel as if we don’t belong. Why start before it’s necessary? Why?
Some argue at PWI graduates are better prepared to deal with White folks after leaving a PWI. Nope. Most Black folks, particularly college bound ones, have been preparing to deal with White folks since birth. That’s what we call, at base, surviving in America; and is fundamentally baked in to “succeeding in America.”
So, get your swagger, that mojo, that back straightener, that “thing” that tells everyone when you walk in the room that you love yourself, that you are confident, strong, capable (and yes, Black). You will have – at minimum- four years where every professor, librarian, custodian, computer aid, cafeteria worker, friend, thinks that you are capable of greatness. They will look at you and treat you as if, in you, there is enormous possibility. In every class you take, your history is not only considered, but celebrated (you are no longer invisible or less than). It’s that “thing” that causes so many HBCU graduates to out-succeed graduates from even the Ivy Leagues: you can’t accomplish much if you don’t think you are much. PWI graduates may gain more experience working in and for White America; but HBCU graduates gain the confidence to be leaders in White America (leading at corporations and starting their own). It seems that PWI graduates become better at fitting in while HBCU graduates are comfortable with standing out.
And we stand out—together. There is no tighter network for Black people than the HBCU network (people say that they attend PWIs and send their kids to PWIs for the networking, but frankly I don’t see where Black students make the same connections, are welcomed into the same groups, are given the same opportunities as their White counterparts). It’s impressive to say that certain rich, powerful people are in your classes; but if they aren’t open to befriending you, what’s the point? Go to school where you can make connections with people who want to connect with you. I don’t see where, as a whole, students who attend PWIs form and maintain the tight, life-long, true, friendships as HBCU graduates. HBCU graduates aren’t just in our friend’s first weddings; we are in the second and third ones too because we are still around.
Speaking of weddings—I dare a Black person at a PWI try to compare their dating life with an HBCU attendee. Yes, I know people date outside of their race; but it’s not the norm. Consequently, dating for a PWI student is like the menu choices for a vegan at a steakhouse.
No doubt there is a greater chance of finding romantic love at an HBCU than at a PWI, but there is a guarantee of achieving self-love. Most Black people leave HBCUs not just loving their Blackness, but having a bit of arrogance about it (in life, when the world around you keeps trying to convince you that everything about your race is wrong; there is something impenetrable about a Black man or woman who is confident in their rightness). HBCU graduates don’t just love being Black, but love who they are individually and uniquely as a Black woman or man. They walk through life taller and as if there is an army supporting them (and there is).
We, HBCU graduates, brag about our schools, attend our homecomings in droves because we got so much more than a degree. We made friends who are more like family. We attained confidence, acceptance and self-love. We learned about the excellence of our people; discovered the truth about our history, and became convinced of our greatness because we finally realized that it is indeed in our DNA. We became excited by our remarkable potential because we saw it in the eyes of everyone who looked at us; we heard it in the voices of everyone who spoke to us. Yes, our minds were broadened (HBCUs offer a commendable education); but our spirits were also nurtured. We learned not to become fans of our school, our mascot, our football team, our brand; but of ourselves, of each other. That’s the the ultimate win.