When Black Students Call Their PWI an HBCU, It’s a Beautiful Thing

Snap was lit at Towson University over the weekend.

And understandably, we started debating it.

Yes, we would have loved for them to join us on our campuses. No, we don’t appreciate the public notion that the only thing HBCUs are good for is parties.

But there’s no difference in our brothers and sisters giving a nod to black schools in the same way that black men having intelligent, sacred conversation is described as ‘barbershop talk.’ There’s no shade in describing black folks dressed sharply as being in our ‘Sunday best.’ There’s no crime in describing good food served at a black-owned soul food restaurant as ‘like mama used to make.’

Does referring to ‘barbershop talk’ disrespect the shop as a stable black business, providing a good service and jobs to its community? Is calling someone ‘Sunday sharp’ disrespectful to religion, or the value of the black church? Is comparing food to your mother’s cooking disrespectful of the lessons she taught, or the home in which she reared you in?

The answer to all of the above is no, but we get sensitive about it with PWIs and HBCUs is because in the other examples, we aren’t checking for white appropriation, black assimilation, institutional discrimination, or cultural segregation in those spaces. We are all too happy to be separate and more than equal, because in our minds and in those moments, they are glimpses of what freedom looks and feels like.

Never do we stop to think that any and everything we enjoy as a people, is a direct result and response to separatist policy. All of the things we fiercely label and protect as ‘black,’ are because at one point, we had no other choice. And now that American culture has evolved into a small percentage of black folks cherishing these allowed spaces, we don’t want anyone, especially our own people, using them in derogatory ways against us.

But we can’t have it both ways, fam. We criticize and accuse black folks at large of assimilation and ‘selling out’ for choosing a predominantly white school over an historically black school, based upon a few personal anecdotes and the collection of idiots on Twitter who spark ‘white schools > black schools” debates.

But to criticize our people for referring to the little bit of safe and enjoyable space at those white schools as HBCUs? It doesn’t seem to match up with the rest of our cultural approach. We don’t do that to black people who live in predominantly white neighborhoods, who work in predominantly white companies, or who put their money in white owned banks — phenomena which are now generational, in large part, because HBCUs created the black middle class.

We may not like or understand that choice, but we don’t get to control how they label their freedoms in the context of that choice. And if they choose to label their black student union, or their black homecoming, or their black poetry slam, or their black college weekend bus trip as HBCU culture, why would we want to take that away?

Those same things are real elements of HBCU culture. And for as much of black culture that has been pilfered by white appropriation, we now want to draw the line on our own people intermingling with the limited space that, while they did choose it, doesn’t mean their choice was made to cherry pick elements of blackness from college life.

Here’s what cherry picking blackness really looks like.

What if HBCU students and alumni didn’t look at black PWI students as sellouts? What if we spent more time helping to make their situations better? Or if they couldn’t be improved, helping them to find those places more conducive to safe and productive learning?

And what if black PWI students did the same for us, instead of looking at HBCUs as second-class institutions inferior in outcomes and professional access, and worked to make sure they were more equitable with PWI counterparts?

All of us, no matter what schools we attend, are looking for the HBCU experience. We all go to college seeking to live and learn with like-minded people from similar backgrounds, hoping that we’ll also find some other black folks with whom we can broaden our perspectives.

For black students at predominantly white schools, fewer black students and fewer opportunities for free cultural expression are traded for more resources and a perceived “value add” to their degree. Black students at HBCUs trade the resources and academic branding for better college cultural experiences and a sense of black community.

And both of these trades work fine, until they don’t. But we can no longer afford to argue about it amongst ourselves, or in public space. Because while we’re arguing about the merits of HBCUs vs PWIs, the margins of opportunity are closing in around all of us while we really aren’t paying attention.

And that’s not good for black America at large.

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