I Went to a PWI, and for that … I am Thankful

As Black students at the University of Missouri spark national protests against racist institutions of higher learning, some question if historically Black colleges and universities are the answer to racial injustice.

Much like the Arab Spring, Black students are protesting racial injustice on college campuses in massive numbers, and are seeing the swift removal of white leadership that has failed in its charge of inclusivity and racial tolerance. This week, the students of the University of Missouri successfully ousted President Timothy Wolfe for his failure to protect Black students. A slate of resignations soon followed at other universities across the country.

In the thick of this powerful moment are disparate voices suggesting that Black students would fare better at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). 

On a cursory level, the argument is compelling — institutions of higher learning expressly designed to educate marginalized Black bodies are a noble staple in Black culture. And as someone who ardently and unapologetically believes in educating our own, and developing our own institutions for the purpose of advancing our particular interests, HBCUs fulfill this notion admirably.

On a deeper level, HBCUs — like all things Blackness — are diverse. Some HBCUs fully embrace the foundational mission of self-determination. Others are trying desperately (and frustratingly) to appeal to the white mainstream. Classism, colorism, and respectability politics are also rampant at some HBCUs.

But the pitting of predominately white institutions (PWIs) and HBCUs is inappropriate and misguided. As Damon Young explains on Very Smart Brothas, prospective Black college students weigh a myriad of factors when determining the schools best for them.

I’m six years removed from the transformative what-college-should-I-go-to process. Six years later, as I bemoan my six-figure student loan debt, stare at the fancy degree hanging on my wall, and recount the plethora of jobs I’ve been passed over for because I’m a highly visible Black radical … I think about how college was instrumental in who I am today.

I went to a PWI.

Northeastern University — nestled in the racist ultra-white city of Boston — was where I spent 4 years discovering what it meant to exist in a Black female queer body in predominately white spaces.

Howard University was in my top 5. Dead set on becoming a political broadcast journalist, a DC-based university was appealing. But HU lost my SAT scores, and I had to pay (again) to resend them. This administrative blip reinforced my anti-Black stereotypes of the time.

In my high school years, I was a moderate post-racialist. While I knew racism was still palpable, I didn’t think of it as the suffocating system of oppression that I now know it to be. I didn’t think racism existed in my white savior friends. I thought racism was a stale remnant of a fucked-up nation’s past — an artifact that existed in the pages of my history textbooks, but not in the everyday mechanics of my immediate life.

Furthermore, my experiences with Black students were defined mostly by pain and insecurity. Slut-shamed and teased, I wanted desperately to fit in with my Black classmates, but couldn’t penetrate the popular inner circle. My attempts led to my humiliation and a tainted reputation. And honestly, I still carry the scars today.

Doubt, anger, and fear were factors in my college decision making process. I did not want to relive my insecurities … I wanted to forget them. And during a college tour, seeing so many self-assured, confident, dope ass students on Howard’s campus reignited those deep-seated troubles.

So I bypassed Howard and went to Northeastern, an emergent university on the brink of global recognition.

But in Boston, my troubles took a different shape. My Blackness was the constant survivor of poking, prodding, suspicions, fetishization, and external discomfort. My Blackness was unhidden and bare — a truth I never holistically acknowledged.

The racism and prejudice I faced led me to The Autobiography of Malcolm X — a book that scared me in its accuracy of contemporary race relations despite being penned some 50 years prior.

Soon I was able to give language and analysis as to why my Black female body was the subject of hyper-sexualization and white male gaze.

I was able to unpack my anti-Blackness as an unnatural and detrimental learned behavior subconsciously instilled in me to keep me from my People.

I was able to embrace the legitimacy of pro-Black radicalism, and was introduced to a pro-Black feminist queer politic by way of Alice Walker and Audre Lorde. 

I was no longer dormant. 

I can’t say for certain who and how I would be if it weren’t for my experiences at a PWI. I don’t know if I would be Black community organizer and blogger I currently am, or the race-neutral political broadcast journalist I wanted to become. 

And with the traumatic baggage I brought to my college applications, it’s possible that I would’ve grew into a self-hating respectable neoliberal who ferociously screeched “All Lives Matter” to impress my white male-bodied boss had I went to a HBCU.

It’s more possible that I would’ve been welcomed to the spirit and heritage of Black Love. That I would’ve been familiar with intersectionality and other concepts that now embed my pro-Black value system. That I would’ve unlearned my anti-Blackness sooner and healed my traumas. 

But I can certainly say that the claustrophobic nature of PWIs awakened my pro-Black radicalism. And for that, I am thankful.

*Featured Image Credit: snagged from social media

photo 1Arielle Newton. Founder/Editor-in-Chief. Get at me @arielle_newton. Get at us @BlkMillennials.


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