An open letter to my White college-bound friends:
A few months ago, I wrote an open letter to my college-bound friends of all races/ethnicities about a potential benefit of attending an HBCU: a racially diverse faculty. You can refresh yourself by reading it here.
Now I’d like to keep the conversation going with some thoughts just for my White college-bound friends. Specifically, we will discuss four additional benefits of selecting an HBCU from a “White perspective,” and I will offer three bits of advice.
What’s in it for you: Four benefits
Let’s be honest: For White people who are used to being in the majority, becoming a voluntary “temporary minority” isn’t easy or necessarily appealing. But take it from me—a White male professor with nearly 8 years’ experience at HBCUs—you can get a lot from spending time in an HBCU. Here’s just a taste:
- You’ll learn that other groups of people are heterogeneous. Do all White people love country music? Then why do we paint Black people with a simplistic brush? It won’t take long on your HBCU campus to see Black people through a nuanced prism of difference rather than superficial sameness. This is important because no one wants to be prejudged. You’ll carry this benefit with you for the rest of your life too as you interact with people from all sorts of groups—religious, gender, ideological, socio-economic, and racial/ethnic.
- You’ll have a chance to wrestle with your White privilege. Don’t worry. No one is going to beat you over the head about it. Through intelligent conversations across campus, you’ll learn about the daily experiences of many Black people in America. Then you’ll be able to draw contrasts with your own. I won’t spill all the beans here, but I can tell you that Black people experience daily challenges you might have a hard time believing. Even going retail shopping for socks or getting behind the wheel of their own car can turn into productions because of racism. No one is taking away from our suffering and struggles, but being White… well, being White does have its advantages, even in 2014. More White people need to get this.
- Although you’ll be in the racial minority, you won’t be the only White person. According to a report from Penn’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions, Blacks make up approximately 76% of the HBCU student population, and Whites about 10-13%. Also, that number is going to go up because many HBCUs are actively recruiting White students, just like you. Hey, you won’t be the first, and you definitely won’t be the last!
- Empirical evidence from well-designed studies (e.g., Chang, Denson, Saenz, & Misa, 2006) suggests you might see some educational gains from a racially diverse environment. If true, this outcome is a serious bonus. Get any and every competitive edge you can from college to prepare you for life thereafter.
What you need to know: Three bits of advice
If you’re serious about adding an HBCU to your short list of college options, there are some things you need to know.
- Just like Black people, HBCUs aren’t homogeneous either! This interview with an outgoing HBCU president helps drive this point home.
- Your high school guidance counselor, friends, and family probably won’t know much, if anything, about HBCUs. What they do know might be misinformation (e.g., HBCUs are dangerous or academically inferior). Be ready to explain your choice rationally, respectfully, and passionately.
- College is like a smart phone. It’s powerful, but you have to tap into it. Use every feature. You can run for office. You can study abroad. There’s literally nothing you can’t do at an HBCU. I know this firsthand because of my own research where I interviewed non-Black students from three HBCUs. They did it all!
Given the increasing diversification of America, immersing yourself in an HBCU environment could be one of the smartest decisions you ever make.
And the fact is you probably won’t get this diversity at a White-dominated school. Professor Marybeth Gasman and Rob Shorette (a White HBCU graduate) make this point in their article, HBCUs, Places for All to Learn. They note astutely, “a White student at [a White institution] can navigate his/her way through college without having truly interacted with issues of diversity in meaningful ways.”
Are you interested in stretching yourself beyond so many of your White peers? If so, an HBCU could be the place for you. It’s not the only place to explore diversity, but it’s a great option.
Andrew T. Arroyo is assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Norfolk State University and an affiliate at Penn’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions.