Remember Maggie? You know, Denise Huxtable’s roommate during sophomore year of college. Yeah, that Maggie, Maggie from Hillman. The white girl whose parents probably never imagined their innocent daughter would leave the heartland to share a dorm room with a colored gal—until she did. They had bunk beds and everything.
I always thought Maggie seemed like she managed OK, but I couldn’t help watching A Different World every Thursday at 8:30 p.m. without wondering what on earth possessed that girl to enroll at an HBCU. Not that the fictional Hillman wasn’t a perfectly fine school for anyone to attend. I just found it kinda strange that someone like her would choose to go there, instead of someplace else, like Mills College or Mizzou.
But I loved the show, so, of course, I kept watching and assumed they knew something I didn’t. Denise, Jaleesa, Dwayne and Ron had no problem with Maggie Lauten being there, so why should anybody else? If Maggie decided to run for SGA president of Hillman and ran into some problems, I’m sure the producers would have had a nice, neat way of sending a lesson to the viewers about how ugly it can be when the tables get turned against white people. Especially at the end of apartheid.
But in the real world, a non-black girl attempting to represent the student body of a historically black college is a different world altogether. Nikole Churchill, the newly crowned Miss Hampton University, has recently learned this first-hand.
With roots that can be traced to both Italy and Guam, Churchill hails from Hawaii. Earlier this month, she wowed the professional judges of the Miss Hampton University competition—two of whom were part of the National American Miss Pageant, with a hula dance. Not an African dance, or heck, even something from Flashdance—a hula dance.The nursing major from Hampton University’s Virginia Beach campus went up on that stage and and had the nerve to be herself. She wowed the judges.
But she also managed to offend her peers in the process.
Not unlike this year’s judging process, a great deal of reactions to Churchill has a history that had nothing to do with her. Colorism on black college campuses is well-documented. There is a perception that the campus queen crown always goes to students of lighter complexions. Many female students felt it was yet another slap in the face that the crown was handed to a woman who is not identifiably black and—although she could—doesn’t openly refer to herself as a person of color.
In news segments that aired across the country, many students exposed resentment over a campus queen that did not accurately reflect them. At least in part, this may have been attributed to the fact that student voices were not part of this year’s judging process, something that is customary at many HBCUs.
Stacey Holman, Miss Dillard University ’92-’93, feels that the absence of student judging may be part of the reason why the campus is divided over the pageant’s results. “My experience regarding the election of HBCU college queens has been through the student body. If the college or university has local members of the community as judges, that does not necessarily reflect who the students believe should represent their school,” the New York-based filmmaker shared. “Perhaps Hampton's election process needs to be reevaluated.” Other Hampton students expressed concerns that their new campus queen might not be able to properly connect with and reflect the student body of the university, considering that she attends a Virginia Beach satellite campus of Hampton University that has only 90 students in total and has spent most of her years at Hampton several miles away from the main campus.
So Churchill fired back at her peers by bringing Obama into it. In a letter to President Obama, the 22-year-old nursing major stated that she thought the dissatisfaction over her being chosen as campus queen was based on the color of her skin, and asked him to visit the campus to speak about diversity and racial bias.
But not all Hamptonians reject the notion of a non-black queen representing their campus. Stephanie Redding, a 1999 graduate of Hampton University, feels that selecting Nikole Churchill is a great example of the university’s commitment to inclusion. “Hampton had some non-black students when I was there, and I'm sure that number has continued to grow. As long as she won fairly, it is fine with me. It is an example of diversity.”
Upon realizing that not every student felt the same way about the idea of her wearing the crown, Churchill later issued an apology, saying that she wrote the letter in reaction to a few and “blew the issue out of proportion.”
As part of her platform, she plans to help instill self-confidence in girls between the ages of 11 and 14, proudly representing Hampton while doing so. Still, she was met with jeers as recently as last weekend at the Pirates football game. It doesn’t seem like the “What’s that white girl doing up there?” questions will disappear anytime soon.
But historically, there have always been non-black students in attendance at our nation’s historically black colleges and universities. Ironically, Hampton University was one of the first HBCUs to establish a school for Native Americans in 1878. Black colleges have had white valedictorians and white campus queens. Today, many HBCUs are actively marketing to other ethnic groups in an effort to stay viable. And although you may be hard-pressed to count them on more than one hand on many campuses, they’re not there by mistake. That doesn’t take anything away from the rich legacies that so many HBCUs have given to our country.
Maybe the best thing that Nikole Churchill can do is wear her crown with pride. Take more classes on Hampton’s picturesque main campus. Learn the traditions.Spend some time at “the café.” Get to know people. And although that last part won’t always be so easy, perhaps with time, she and the students she seeks to represent will realize that their worlds may not be so different after all.
Meera Bowman-Johnson is a graduate of Spelman College and an advocate for America’s HBCUs.