Will an HBCU Make My Kid Too Black?

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(The Root) —

"My daughter is now entering her second year at a top historically black college. She has done well so far, but her father and I have realized that compared to the environment in which she grew up (we live in a mostly white area with some community members of different backgrounds and nationalities), she has a very different life experience now. To be blunt, all of her close friends and the women who are in the sorority she will likely join, as well as the majority of her classmates, are black.


"We made a point not to raise her in a segregated area, and I'm now worried she may be losing those abilities to interact with 'mainstream' America after her HBCU experience when she enters the job market. Her father worries about her becoming 'too black' and I want her to be prepared for the real world, and I'm afraid she's not living in it at this time. Do you think we should consider a transfer for her based on these concerns?" —Thinking About Switching Out of an HBCU

The answer to whether I think your daughter should switch schools midcollege because of your concerns is simple: No.  

And it's not because I don't think you should seek out the best-possible educational experience that will offer the best fit and the greatest advantages to her. Not at all. I assume your family thought through all that when you were considering a variety of HBCUs and other schools (often referred to as "predominantly white institutions," or PWIs, if you want to be evenhanded with the acronym) a couple of years ago.

But I do think and hope that you might cease to worry about this "too black" and "prepared for the real world" stuff once we clear up some of the assumptions underlying this whole dilemma.


The first one I'd push back on is the idea that the preparation offered at HBCUs is inferior to that offered at PWIs because of HBCUs' mostly black student bodies. (Since there are 105 HBCUs across the country, with varying rankings, missions and levels of resources, just as there are all different types of PWIs, I think it's important to be clear that we're comparing schools that are ranked similarly to what you've described as a "top" HBCU, with the exception of the race thing.)

"HBCUs offer phenomenal education, so a parent should not be concerned that graduating from an HBCU would limit a student's opportunities," says Julianne Malveaux, former president of Bennett College.


Plus, says Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, they're not a bad way to prepare for the next degree your daughter might want. "Most black students who are at elite graduate schools come from the Ivy League or from elite HBCUs. If you're running around at Harvard, you're going to see students from Spelman, Morehouse, Howard, Hampton … Those schools have a pretty rich track record of sending students to grad school," she says.

And they're not just there; they're doing just fine. "Students at more selective HBCUs do incredibly well at highly selective organizations for graduate schools," Gasman explains, adding that when it comes to HBCU students who have enrolled in her institution's graduate program, she's observed that "they can flow in and out, they are really self-confident and they can easily code-switch."


That confidence could come in part from HBCUs' well-known reputation for being nurturing and engaging. (Interestingly, Steve Derrick Mobley, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Counseling, Higher Education and Special Education at the University of Maryland-College Park, said research shows that nonblack students at HBCUs enjoy that same benefit.) Or it could just come from being well-prepared academically.

But to convince yourself once and for all, take a look at this study, which concludes, "The treatment effect of graduating from an HBCU relative to a non-HBCU is positive with respect to labor market and psychological outcomes across three decades."


What else do you really need to hear?

Probably not much, but I do want to touch on the assumption you made about diversity, and the idea that your daughter is going to struggle to interact with "mainstream" America because she'll be so used to engaging with who you seem to believe will be one particular type of black person at her HBCU.


Not true. First of all, it's not as if there isn't diversity among black HBCU students. "There's religious diversity, diversity in terms of socioeconomic status, country-of-origin status, region of the country, everything from first-generation college students to fifth generation — there's a tremendous amount of diversity," says Gasman.

Plus, did you know that 13 percent of HBCU students are white, and the percentages of Latino and Asian students have skyrocketed in recent years? And it just so happens that there are nonblack faces at the front of the classroom, too. "Not only are the student bodies very diverse, but the faculties are some of the most diverse in the country, and that's a stark difference compared to most predominantly white institutions," says Mobley.  


And of course, when it comes to exposure to the diverse experiences internationally and domestically, HBCUs, just like any other schools, offer opportunities well beyond the classroom. "Many of our HBCU students take a junior year to travel internationally or do an exchange program with a PWI, so if there's a concern about a multicultural experience, that's an option," says Malveaux.

Feel better? I hope so. I absolutely understand that you want the best for your daughter and would hate to see her at a disadvantage of any kind. But it seems to me that if she picks up on your anxiety about how she'll fare in the world as a black person, it could give her a sense of deficiency and self-consciousness that would only compound whatever actual bias she faces in her postcollege life.  


Your daughter could probably do just fine at any school. But at this point, she's already at an HBCU, and there's definitely no evidence that it's going to harm her. She should stay. As a bonus, she might get an education about how her racial identity and community are more than just burdens that threaten to hold her back if she doesn't manage them properly. If so, I hope she passes that lesson on to the rest of the family.

The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.


Need race-related advice? Send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com.

Previously in Race Manners: "Will Dancer Daughters End Up Like Miley?" 

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