There are very few conversations I find more cringe-inducing and exhausting than the debate over whether or not it is best for a black student to attend a predominantly white institution of higher learning or one that is historically black.
Everything ain’t for everybody, and not enough people on either side of the issue know to respect that stance. Even so, as much as I try to steer clear of these debates, there is a certain disingenuous argument when it comes to those who choose to attend a black college or university that irritates me. It is this idea that to attend one is to escape from “the real world.” Moreover, it is the idea that being in a majorly black setting means that you are surrounded by sameness.
They are both sentiments seeped in stupid, marinated in fallacy and broiled in the false belief that the white man’s ice is cooler.
The Talk’s Aisha Tyler is the latest example of this, and it’s a pity that she would use her platform to perpetuate falsehoods about what it means to attend a black school. Speaking with Money magazine, Tyler called on black students to be “be brave” and enroll in schools where there have been incidents of racism. Why? Well, to help white students evolve from their racial prejudices.
Tyler argued, “When incidents of discrimination happen, that is the real world. You know, if someone doesn’t write something nasty on your dorm door, that doesn’t mean they are not thinking it.”
Well, anyone black and awake in this country knows that. Besides, if you’re a member of a minority group, you have your entire life to contend with someone’s biases against you and the various ways in which they will manifest. Why is it so important to rush to it sooner rather than later?
Though Tyler notes that you should “decide what you can tolerate,” she goes on to say, “What would we be like if black people didn’t go into the heart and didn’t try to change things? We would have made no progress in the country. Bravery is the engine of change.”
In other words, be the academic equivalent of Viola Davis in The Help. To quote my King Beyoncé, “N—ga, nah.” I am sick of people—especially other black folks—putting the onus to curb white racism on its victims. No black student—particularly those likely going into debt to advance in a society that actively tries to make sure they don’t—ought to be overly concerned with fixing someone else’s stupid.
While you can respect those who decided to do what’s best for themselves—in Tyler’s case, attending the prestigious Dartmouth College—the use of the word “brave” is troubling because it suggests that those who don’t make this choice are behaving in ways that are cowardly.
As for her advice for black high school students, Tyler offered this: “Step out of your comfort zone. Don’t pick a college that replicates what you did in high school. Test yourself in an unfamiliar context so that you can learn to succeed no matter where you are placed, so that you know you can excel.”
This weekend I will celebrate my 10-year college reunion. As I’ve explained to many people, Howard University is the most diverse setting that I’ve ever been in. To limit the definition of “diversity” to race is to belittle and trivialize a term that has always been far broader than the likes of Tyler will ever give it any credit for being.
I was not initially comfortable at Howard University. If anything, being around well-off black people was an experience I knew nothing about. I often joked at the time that many of the students I came across were “TV black people.” I had no idea there were so many of them. During my time at Howard, I met black people from every inch of the world. I knew there were black people all over, but I got to experience them firsthand, and I learned how different and alike we are. There is much diversity within our own race. Who is to say that going to a black school by default means that you’re diverting to your “comfort zone”?
And in terms of “the real world,” it’s a world in which white high school dropouts are as likely to get jobs as black college graduates, and one in which black graduates of Harvard University have the same shot at a callback for a job as a white graduate of a state college does. My niece will be attending Xavier University in New Orleans this fall, and her choice was rooted in the school’s record of sending more black students to medical school than any other college in the country.
She is no less brave for her choice than any black teen going to a school like Dartmouth. Any black child daring to dream is brave. Good for Tyler that Dartmouth catered to her need for diversity in terms of how she viewed it, but Dartmouth is not every white school. And, for that matter, Howard University is not every black school.
However, I’m not the one with the problem of generalizing black and white schools and what the choice to attend either one means. Aisha Tyler is.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him on Twitter.