This week a video went viral of members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity singing a racist chant about excluding “niggers” from their fraternity and hanging them from trees at the University of Oklahoma. The video sparked the closure of the SAE chapter on the school’s campus, protests on and off campus, and the expulsion of several students involved in the video. It also sparked a resurgence in the ever-raging debate on the pros and cons of Black students attending HBCUs and PWIs via the Twitter hashtags #SAEHatesMe and #HBCULovesMe.
For months, I’ve intended to write a blog post about my experience at Howard University but never got around to it. But given the interest in the HBCU/PWI debate, and because high school seniors are currently in the process of deciding which college to go to, I decided that now is the perfect time to add my two cents to the conversation.
I did not want to attend Howard specifically because it was an HBCU. I assumed it lacked diversity. I envisioned it being ghetto. I didn’t think it reflected the real world. But I graduate in May, and I now believe it was the best, single most important decision of my life. Howard has played a pivotal role in forming my identity, and I honestly feel indebted to this institution.
Many Black students and parents share similar concerns about the HBCU experience. Students are often told they are too smart for HBCUs and steered away from them by their parents or school counselors. So, I want to debunk some of the myths about HBCUs and talk about the three most important things I got out of my four years at Howard that Black students simply cannot get at a PWI. These are the things that changed my mind about HBCUs.
If you’re one of those doubtful people, hopefully I can convince you to join #TeamHBCU. At the least, I hope this post better equips students to make decisions about what school will be best for them.
Here it goes.
Culturally Relevant Education
At an HBCU, you are always learning things that are relevant to your identity as a Black American, inside and outside of the classroom. From discussing African American and continental African history, to talking about current events that are relevant to the Black American experience, to holding conversations with my peers about colorism or the appropriation of Black culture by White artists, I always feel like I’m learning about me. Always. And I personally needed this – I had no real exposure to Black history in elementary or high school.
Now, that’s not to say we don’t learn about anything else at an HBCU – of course we do. And that’s not to say that Black students at PWIs never talk about Mike Brown and Iggy Azalea – of course they do. But they have far fewer conversations like these because there are so few spaces in which to have them, outside of the monthly Black Student Union meeting at the Black Culture Center, or whatever they call it. Frankly, they have to pick a date, time, and place to talk and learn about being Black. That’s not necessary at an HBCU.
At Howard, I feel immersed in Black ideas, Black culture, Black people. And I love it. It’s necessary. It’s the reason why Black students at PWIs have Black Student Unions in the first place: there is value in Blackness and Black spaces. At an HBCU, you don’t need a Black Culture Center or a club – the entire campus is both. The entire campus is a safe space that caters to you.
Yea, I said it. I would argue that HBCUs are more diverse than many PWIs, especially large, public state PWIs.
First, let’s talk about the demographic make up of HBCUs and PWIs. Many public state PWIs have a student body made up of around 80 to 85% White students, and 15 – 20% everybody else (students of color). Similarly, at many HBCUs, the student body is around 80 – 85% Black and the remainder is non-Black students. It’s the same demographic breakdown, except a different group is in the majority.
But at large, state PWIs, many – if not most – of the students in the majority hail exclusively from within that state. Too, many are of the same socio-economic background. This is not the case at many HBCUs. As a result, there exists a wealth of diversity on HBCU campuses that in many ways is not present on PWI campuses.
Before attending Howard, I hesitated to apply to HBCUs because I wanted “diversity” and I didn’t think I would find it at an HBCU. I was wrong. Black people are incredibly diverse. I have met students from all over the country – California, Texas, Georgia, New York, to Alaska and Hawaii. I marvel at the uniqueness of the cultures that exist amongst Black people in different parts of the country – from the slang they use, to the dances they do, to the music they listen to. Too, Howard has students from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds. There are students on this campus that grew up in the inner city and can barely afford to be here, to students whose parents are B-list celebrities and are paying for their education out of pocket, and everywhere in between. Students hail from 67 different countries. It is this breadth of backgrounds that produces the diversity of experiences that produce diversity of thought – the true end goal of diversity in an educational setting. Such diversity of thought is often lacking on campuses where the majority of students hail from the same state and went to private school in the city or grew up in the suburbs, as is the case on many PWI campuses.
Frankly, the idea that HBCU campuses are not diverse stems from the notion that Black people themselves are not diverse – that we all think and act the same. Students look to PWIs specifically seeking diversity, despite the fact that most students are White. It is understood that White people can be diverse. The same must be recognized about the Black community.
At an HBCU, you are in the numerical majority. This allows you to achieve a level of comfort with yourself and with the people around you that is not possible when you are one of 150 Black kids out of 2,000 students at a PWI.
For one, the burden of representation and the threat of racial stereotyping are non-existent. You don’t have to worry about whether people are going to think this about you or that about you because you are Black. You don’t have to worry about “representing well.” You don’t have to worry about whether your peers think you are there only because of affirmative action, or worry about you’re opinions, experiences, and contributions to discussions being devalued because “of course you think that. You’re Black.” You won’t experience overt racism or constant racial microagressions. You can be yourself and be at ease with the knowledge that your presence is valued, your opinions are respected and appreciated, and that excellence is assumed of you, no less than. You don’t have to feel like you must prove anything to anybody.
Additionally, you experience with the majority of the student body a certain cultural connection, and relate to them in more ways than you would most students at a PWI. This manifests itself in ways that may seem insignificant until you are in an environment completely void of all of them at once. That means things like people understanding the slang you use; to being familiar with classic songs by Erykah Badu and Snoop Dogg; and having the rhythm to join you when your song comes on and it’s time to hit the latest dance. Too, Black people interact with each other differently amongst themselves than they do in mixed company. That’s a reality.
Being in an environment in which you feel comfortable is critical to the college experience. After all, the campus you choose will be your home for four years. People often want to learn from being outside of their comfort zone, but there is a difference between being forced outside of your comfort zone on occasion and learning from that experience, and never, ever being comfortable at all. The former can occur on an HBCU campus. By contrast, four years is a long time to be uncomfortable in your own home. The kind of comfort and connection achieved at an HBCU allows for an honesty and an openness with your peers that enables you to explore and learn about yourself and from others at a greater depth than is possible in an environment in which you feel alienated – or worse, rejected. Too, it facilitates the development a groundedness in your Blackness and a confidence necessary for navigating the rest of the largely White world in professional spaces and elsewhere.
At an HBCU, you never feel starved for Blackness. At a PWI, starvation is the norm.
There is something truly magical about the HBCU experience. That is not to say that you cannot enjoy, learn and grow from a PWI experience as a Black person. Many people do. But it is to say that the cultural climate at an HBCU – being surrounded by Black people just as beautiful, brilliant, and driven as you are – can do things for your personal growth and development as a Black person that a PWI cannot, simply by virtue of the fact that there are so few Black people. Too, you will be pleasantly surprised – if not proven right – by the diversity on campus. You’re an interesting person. Other Black people are just as unique and interesting as you are. And the friendships you forge with them on campus will last a lifetime. Plus, it’s a lot of fun. From the poppin’ homecomings, to the step competitions, to the parties, Black people know how to turn up! Attending an HBCU is a once in a lifetime cultural experience. It’s not one you want to miss out on.
I strongly urge Black high school students to apply to and consider attending HBCUs. Visit a campus. Attend an HBCU college tour. If you have questions about the rigor of the coursework or career opportunities post-HBCU graduation, talk to current students, alumni, and administrators. Do some research. But don’t write them off for reasons as baseless as the ones I chose. And recognize that when you stereotype HBCUs, you are stereotyping yourself.
I hope this helps. Students, share it with your friends. Parents, share it with other parents. Teachers, share it with your students!
Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, DC. He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter. He is a weekly contributor to Politic365 and an aspiring journalist. Follow him on Twitter @myblackmindd.