I do my best to stay out of the never-ending PWI-vs.-HBCU debate, if for no other reason than that it can’t be “won.” The truth is, as a black person, there are perceived advantages and perhaps disadvantages to attending either one. My take is, go to whatever school you think is best for you and/or gives scholarship money. Sallie Mae ain’t no joke. The. End.
Whichever type of institution you choose to matriculate at—historically black college or predominantly white institution—it’s accepted that there will be vast differences between the experiences. Hence all the debates. And that’s why I was surprised to see an article over at Blavity by a black author equating her experience attending a PWI with attending an HBCU.
Before the article was edited because of reader backlash (you can see remnants of the original content quoted in the comments section), writer Sesali Bowen explained that she attended a large white university with a black population larger than those at some HBCUs. She spoke of chicken and spades tournaments being official events, the sale of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos on campus, and black homecoming events as evidence that she didn’t miss out culturally by attending a PWI.
If you just rolled your eyes, you had about the same reaction of everyone in the comments section. They were unmerciful about the original article.
“[W]hat you explained was nothing close to a HBCU experience sis,” wrote commenter Nallah Brown, who identifies herself as a graduate of Florida A&M University. “Seems like you have something to prove in this post? I am not sure why people have lately been trying to claim this HBCU lifestyle at a ‘PWI’, but it's totally out of context and wrong. It's like apples and oranges[;] they are not close to the same experience and that is okay.”
I’m with Brown, even if I didn’t attend an HBCU. In fact, my college experiences are closer to Bowden’s. I attended two PWIs, and while I loved my college experiences, never, ever would I equate them with being anything close to an HBCU experience.
My first stop was the University of Maryland, College Park, for undergrad. Its student population was around 30,000 people when I attended many years ago, with about a 10 percent black population. So, around 3,000 black folks. And yes, that makes the black population larger than those at some HBCU campuses.
So, yeah. If you go to a large school with a decent-sized black population, you get the numbers. But percentages matter. My friends and I used to play this game: “Spot another black person.” Walking across that gigantic campus at the height of the school day, we'd look around to see if we could find anyone with melanin in under 10 seconds. It's stupid, yes. But we often failed. Being 10 percent of a population ain't really a lot in the grand scheme. You still feel like a minority, because you are.
The b.s. Bowden describes about being on a PWI campus? All true. The over-policed parties? Check. Black people staking claim to a random space on campus? Check. Random racist incidents? Check. (While I attended Maryland, the campus elected its first black person for student body president. She got death threats and walked around with security for a while.) Microaggressions over blackness? All day, every day. Check. Completely separate events for black students and everyone else? Check.
And that's where Bowden’s whole original argument about black-student experiences at PWIs and HBCU fell apart. You don't deal with that nonsense on an HBCU campus. You don't pick out a single meeting space for your blackness to be unfiltered; you have the whole damn campus for that. You don't have to plan separate events because the main event is better funded and playing music you’ve never heard of.
On an HBCU campus, you don't have to deal with daily microaggressions over blackness, such as people wondering if you’re there as an affirmative action pick or asking stupid questions like, “Why do black people … ?” and then looking at you for answers, as if you’re the national spokesperson. A black person being the student body president isn't the sky falling; it’s been happening every year since the school’s inception. Not having to deal with all of this is part of the grandness of the HBCU experience.
My two best friends from high school went to Howard, which was 30 minutes away from my campus. I went to class at Maryland, and after class and every other weekend, I went up to Howard to escape my PWI. Once, I went to classes with one of my besties, an English Lit. class. They were reading James Baldwin, and next up was Toni Morrison. It wasn't African-American Lit. It was just regular ol’ English Lit. And they were reading about black folks? What?
That floored me. I was an English major who loved being an English major. Like, I took extra English classes just because. In four years, I was assigned only one black book to read in a nonblack class. And in that class, for that book, the professor always looked to me or the other black girl to weigh in. No one else.
History at my PWI? A day on black folks that was slavery, Jim Crow and civil rights. The. End. Back to white people. Want to learn about black people? Read a book or take an African-American-studies class. Black History Month? As far as official universitywide events were concerned? Maybe my memory’s bad. All I recall is an entire week of "Soul Food Day" in the cafeteria. And the greens still weren’t seasoned right, which made no sense, since half the cafeteria staff was black.
At my second white PWI, I wrote two essays about black culture. My well-meaning professor pulled me aside and told me to stop because I was “too good” to pigeonhole myself. I seriously doubt that would have happened in an HBCU classroom.
I also can't believe that Bowden tried to compare a PWI homecoming to an HBCU one. There is no comparison, and I’m not just talking about the football games and the marching bands. I’m talking about how, at PWIs, events for black students are relegated to the big ballroom at the student center for a party, while white students and alums take over the entire campus, including the parking lots. It’s just not the same thing.
You know, twice, when I was in school—or just out—my school’s homecoming fell at the same time as Howard University’s.
Guess which campus I was on?
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She is also a blogger at SeeSomeWorld.com, where she covers pop culture and travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.