An open letter to my future college-going friends:
Consider the source. During your four or more years in college, you will sit through a lot of class periods—a lot of them! According to various national figures, if you attend the average mainstream institution, upwards of 80-90% or more of the instructors running those class periods will be non-Hispanic white. Meanwhile, the real America is far more mosaic in terms of racial/ethnic composition, with non-Hispanic whites representing 63% of the population. And this is to say nothing of diversity worldwide. Simply put, the information flow of most American higher educational institutions is controlled disproportionately by white people.
Please understand. I am not degrading the white voice. I am a white male! What I am suggesting is to consider the source of all that information you will amass during those endless class periods. No information is bias-free; it is naturally coated with the opinions and perspectives of its deliverer. Yes, this includes allegedly objective college professors like me. And, like it or not, some of our opinions and perspectives are shaped by our race/ethnicity.
The question for you, my future college-going friend, is: How would you like your hard-earned information? Served up narrowly with only a small slice of diversity? Or dished out with healthy portions of racial/ethnic variety to keep things interesting and better prepare you for life?
If you prefer diversity, I would like to invite you to investigate my neck of the woods: one of our nation’s historically Black colleges or universities (HBCUs). It is easy to write off HBCUs under the assumption that we are “all Black” (as if that is a bad thing?). In actuality, we are more diverse than you might think. I will leave student demographics for another time, but I do want to underscore our wonderfully colorful faculty. Robert Bruce Slater, writing in the Autumn 1993 issue of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, wrote accurately that “the only significant diversity in academic ranks in this country exists in Black colleges and universities.” (p. 67). Overall, white instructors comprise some 30% of the HBCU teaching force, with the remainder coming from other racial/ethnic groups. Since there is no shortage of white perspectives in the real world, you won’t miss anything.
Instead, you will gain much in terms of alternate racial/ethnic perspectives on information you once thought was settled. Early results of an original qualitative study I am conducting with a colleague on the experiences of non-Black HBCU graduates suggest that you will gain a different twist on historical and current events that is absent from many white-dominant schools. You will discover a cultural warmth and helpfulness among our faculty that is impossible to capture with words on a page. Essentially, you will experience new levels of open-mindedness that inevitably produce rare opportunities for self-learning, including learning about your own biases and cultural heritage.
Again: Consider the source. I am a white male of a race and gender that has, and continues to, hold sway in American society and around the world. (We call this hegemony in academic-speak.) Survival instincts would prompt me to direct you to higher educational centers filled with white male voices so I can further solidify my power. But those would be unenlightened survival instincts. In truth, the world is a crowded place with many voices. The true leaders are those who draw information from multiple perspectives, including different races/ethnicities. If I want to be a leader in this world, I must actively place myself in situations where I allow those perspectives to influence my life.
You would be wise to do the same. What better place than college for this to happen? Where better than an HBCU? See you next semester!
P.S. – If attending an HBCU is impractical for your particular situation, then you might investigate one of the nation’s many other minority-serving institutions, or MSIs. Although all MSI faculty bodies might not be as diverse as HBCUs, the key is to make your college experience a diverse one to prepare you for the real world. An up-to-date list of MSIs can be found here.
Andrew T. Arroyo is assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Norfolk State University and an affiliate at Penn’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions.