“We can joke like that, but you can’t.”
Last year, I overheard friendly banter between three HBCU alumni about which HBCU is better Howard, Morehouse, or North Carolina Central University. I chuckled listening to my colleagues talk about institutions as if they were competitive sporting teams and sat quietly not sure how I could contribute to the conversation — having been a graduate of a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). I watched as they compared homecomings and joked about the quality of entertainment that happened over the weekend of events that brought so many Black alumni together each year. As I giggled listening in, one of my colleagues looked to me and said clearly, “we can joke like that, but you can’t.” I was taken back by that statement and yet it provoked some thought.
My first job after graduating college was working for the first historically Black college, Cheyney University. And, although a couple of my family members and friends attended HBCUs, I had not experienced what it was like to attend a college with a mission that centers on my identity or to go to a school where people who looked like me made up more than 8% of the student population. I never attended a homecoming that was exciting or thrilling enough to return and never experienced going to class and being amongst the majority. The truth is I am an outsider.
That day was monumental for me because it allowed me to understand the invisible boundaries that have the potential to influence my work as someone who aspires to do higher education research and research particularly related to HBCUs. I experienced these gatekeepers at my first job at Cheyney; when I was considered untrustworthy because I had not attended an HBCU. I experienced it as a person working at a research center focused on highlighting institutions like HBCUs, which serve students of color and provide avenues of educational attainment for students — many who look just like me, come from low-income backgrounds, and whose parents never stepped foot on a college campus prior to graduation. I understand the hesitation to feel protective of HBCUs as they are hubs of culture and centers of Black excellence, yet have been underfunded, undersupported, and perceived as inferior institutions by many outsiders. I get it. I know and believe like many HBCU alumni that HBCUs must be protected at all costs.
I may not have attended an HBCU, primarily as a result of a lack of information as a first-generation college student, a desire to stay close to home, and because it was cheapest to go to my state’s flagship institution, but I am not the enemy. I am not here to penetrate any HBCU camaraderie nor claim to comprehend what the HBCU experience is like. I want to share the value and significance of these institutions having worked so closely with the students that these institutions have transformed. We must end this HBCU vs. PWI debate and build community regardless of the choice of your undergraduate institution. I may be an outsider, but I am not an adversary. In a country where the value of the educational institutions are under constant questioning and the HBCU list is dwindling, HBCUs (and their alumni) cannot continue to gatekeep who is able to advocate for these incredible institutions.
Brandy Jones is the Assistant Director for Communications at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also currently pursuing an M.S.Ed in Higher Education from the University of Pennsylvania.