Why I chose a white university.
"Are all of your friends white?"
That was not the response I'd expected after telling a member of my study abroad program that I'd graduated from a PWI: Predominantly White Institution. She looked at me as though I'd attended school on Mars instead of at my racially-diverse state university, located a mere eight miles away from her historically black alma mater.
And then there was the time I'd told a coworker that I'd chosen the University of Maryland. She assumed I went to Howard. "Oh," she said, in a tone that sounded like, "why not?"
President George W. Bush is scheduled to issue a proclamation honoring America's Historically Black Colleges and Universities and designating Sept. 7-13, 2008 as National HBCU Week.
I appreciate the contributions HBCUs have made throughout history, too, but for me, a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) was never a consideration.
At my private, predominantly white high school, I was one of eight African-American students in my graduating class. After that, the idea of being in an all-black academic setting seemed overwhelming. I would have to go from one end of the racial spectrum to the other, and after four years of all-white, all the time, I was tired of extremes. While the idea of going to school with more people who looked, acted and even sounded like me was definitely alluring, the idea of various shades of humanity co-existing within the parameters of one campus intrigued me much more. I wanted to be a part of that experience. I wanted to teach others about my race while also learning about theirs through everyday interactions, dynamic classroom discussions and events that promoted mixing and mingling across color lines.
Of course, each day was not a "We Are the World" learning experience, and there were some racist moments that sparked tension between the students. There was the time that a group of students held a "thug party," where white students dressed up as gangsters and mimicking hip-hop artists. And then there was the time that police used pepper spray, nightsticks and pulled a gun while breaking up a campus party with black students in attendance. Although I was no longer a student when a noose was hung near the campus cultural center, I can only imagine the effect of that incident on race relations at the school.
These events were upsetting, but they also reassured me how important it was for blacks to have a presence at PWIs. We could teach other races an important lesson on what it means to be black and nix some erroneous, preconceived notions about our race. For the white student whose only knowledge of black people has come from BET, we could show him that we don't all aspire to be rappers. This learning experience could also go both ways and prove to blacks that not all white people are The Man.
My experiences on the teaching side of race relations assured me that my presence and those of other blacks were needed at my non-HBCU. While taking a class on contemporary cultural issues, I was able to introduce my oh-so-knowledgeable and well-rounded professor to the concept of men on the "down low." Of course, closeted gay men exist in both white and black communities, but I was able to benefit from the dialogue that had started in the black community, thanks to E. Lynn Harris and his novels and J. L. King's book, On the Down Low. To my professor, the idea of men who had sex with other men in secret but often paraded around with a woman on their arm to display their heterosexuality, was unheard of. When I turned in a paper on the topic, I was sure it was not news to the rest of the class. The lively discussion that followed proved me wrong.
Sometimes I didn't have to consciously educate white folks about black culture. Simply being me was enough. While supervising the campus gym one afternoon, one of my staff members surprised me by saying she was really glad that she came to our school because it was the first time she was able to interact with so many other races. Her comment was a rare one, as I'd so often heard the opposite from many of my African-American classmates. But when she made the comment initially, I braced myself and prepared to give her a list of ignorant things you should not say to black people, such as "Is that your hair?" But once she explained why she felt this happiness, I dropped my defensiveness, and we had a very candid conversation about race. At her midwestern high school, most of the students were white with the exception of a handful of minorities.
In an academic environment that has a racial breakdown that's comparable to the entire United States, I began to realize that my university had a lot more in common with the real world than I'd thought. School shielded us from the harsh realities of the working world and the financial obligations that Sallie Mae would soon demand, but it taught us how to tolerate and accept those who were culturally different from us.
Everyone benefits from sitting next to someone who looks different. HBCUs definitely have their own appeal, but I still have no regrets. Those daily opportunities to combine classroom discussions on skin color with real-world experience gave me the kind of education that neither I nor my white peers were prepared for.
Delece Smith-Barrow is the lifestyles producer at Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive. She is a 2006 graduate of the University of Maryland-College Park.