That is the question I asked myself as I stared at the following tweet:
No shade?? Honey, you threw shade all the way back to my forefathers with this tweet. Although her page is now private this very public tweet caused a major firestorm that I am sure @med_school12 did not anticipate when she tweeted this. A little research informed me that she is an undergraduate student at James Madison University, a PWI. This means that she in no way is able to make such a broad, sweeping opinion and present it as fact. No ma’am.
The debate over PWIs and HBCUs is nothing new. Every year as thousands of black students pack up and head to college, we debate the nuances of both. I am aware of the backlash blacks receive for being “sell outs” for choosing to attend PWIs just as I am aware of blacks being accused of having “Hillman Syndrome” because they attended a HBCU. Personally, I do not care. All I care about is that black students are given the chance to sit in a classroom and receive an education at the collegiate level if they so choose to.
That is why I have shied away from this debate. But this tweet…rubbed my spirit wrong. So wrong that I broke away from a term paper to tweet my concerns for why this young woman of color would make such a statement. Then I realized that she, along with those who defended her, have no idea that they bought into the superiority of “whiteness.” That whiteness equates to rigor. Although she did not mention race, it is implied in the nomenclature: Predominately WHITE Institutions versus Historically BLACK Colleges and Universities.
We all know the legacies of HBCUs. But the legacies of PWIs need another reexamination. The legacy of PWIs, particular southern PWIs are clouded in racial segregation and white supremacy. The legacies of HBCUs are the response to that racial segregation and white supremacy. Black students were routinely denied admittance to PWIs because of COLOR. Black students who could not afford the migration north were left with no opportunities at the collegiate level, especially in the American South. This means that @Med_School12’s grandparents would have received a denial letter from the institution she attends now. Also, PWIs would routinely hand over “scholarships” to black students to attend an out of state school, just so they would not apply to theirs. But it gets better! I can imply from her twitter handle that @Med_school12 either loves the BET show “The Game,” or she wishes to attend medical school one day. I would hope it’s a desire to attend medical school. I wonder if she knew that states HAPPILY gave money to HBCUs to establish graduate and professional programs so black graduates would not apply to theirs. Yes, HBCU presidents (shoutout to Dr. James E. Shepard) lobbied states for money to establish professional and graduate programs so their students would not face rejection from PWIs. Lastly, let us not forget the violence that black students were subjected to for attempting to integrate PWIs. Does anyone remember James Meredith? I am pretty sure that was not mentioned in freshman orientation. But it was an ugly stain on University of Mississippi’s otherwise “glorious” Dixie southern past.
HBCUs are not without issues. However, that had NOTHING to do with the education I received. My tenure at North Carolina Central University was indeed rigorous. NCCU put me through the ringer before it let me snatch that degree. I anguished over failed exams, cried over classes I could have done better in. I watched my friends fight over the right to not only graduate but graduate with honors. When I graduated, I did a little shout right on the field. Yes, while my parents watched, I had a “Won’t He do it?” moment. I must have been a glutton for punishment because the following fall; I was back for that Master’s. In reality, I knew there was no better program for me. This M.A. in History program was top notch. I learned and was cultivated by the best. We were required to take a Foreign Language Exam, sit for Master’s Comprehensive Exams and successfully defend a thesis of original research before our professor allowed us to hope that graduation was possible. I know PWIs who never even heard of a comp exam until their doctorate program. My cohorts and I walked around like zombies in the months leading up to graduation. By the time I snatched that degree from NCCU (again), I knew that I was well prepared for life at the doctorate level at Morgan State Univetsity. I have a friend who received the same master’s degree from a PWI, yet called me freaking out about writing a historiographical essay as a doctoral student, a skill I learned in undergrad. So yes, the path to my degree was rigorous.
I commend any person who makes the decision to attend college. It is not an easy feat, no matter the instituion. I am not one that buys into exceptionalism, the notion that an institution is sooooo great that it’s above criticism. But HBCUs are constantly attacked for their “perceived” inferiority and I am over it. Sick of it actually. Let us be great! Even though she did not intend to throw shade…she caused every person reading that tweet to take pause. The degree comes from the GPA. The GPA comes from the grades and the grades comes from the ability to perform. So when she questioned the weight of the GPA…she called into question the entire academic experience at HBCUs.
Recently, a young black high school student was bashed for his decision to turn down an Ivy League school in favor of an HBCU. At the end of the day, he made a decision based on proximity to his home and funding. There were no racial issues in his decision. I know black people who chose PWIs because it’s “better” but could never tell me how. Let’s be clear…being black does not mean you have to attend a HBCU…choose a PWI as long as you are making a decision not clouded by mythology. Or that you think that because you attend a PWI that you are given a slice of “white privilege.” Oh and before I’m hit with the “employers choose applicants from PWIs over HBCUs” statement…allow me to flip it this way. What is a black student and a white student from the same PWI were up for that same position? At the end of the day your PWI will not shield you from racial discrimination. It will not protect you and give you special powers. Sorry.
A friend of mine pointed out that HBCU students trash each other. Ummm yes…this is true (HEYYY AGGIES!!!!) but that trash talk is limited to football games and who has the best “yard” or homecoming. But when it comes to its central core mission, and the education of young black scholars, we stand united. I was inspired by the rallying of black scholars in the Twitterverse who came to the defense of not only their HBCUs but the legacy of HBCUs in general. I understand that in the process some people tweeted things that were deplorable and disrespectful to this young woman. That is unacceptable behavior. But I wish this young lady would understand where the sensitivity comes from. It comes from a legacy that we are taught and will defend. It is a legacy that we are proud of.
HBCUs are important because it gave us a chance at the same education that PWIs had to be forced by federal law to give us. If you want to have this debate then I welcome it. I am open to an exchange of dialogue that will foster growth and development. There is much that PWIs and HBCUs can teach each other. But what I will not allow are advocates of PWIs to come to the table with feelings of superiority…and I will not allow them to leave that table feeling victorious because they left HBCU alums and current students feeling inferior. Because when I snatch that degree (for a third time) I will proudly proclaim that ALL my degrees belong to a the “rigor” of a HBCU.
Bridgette Robinson is a graduate of North Carolina Central University where she received both her B.A. and M.A. degrees in history. She is currently enrolled in doctoral studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. She is also an adjunct professor at Prince George’s Community College and Howard Community College, where she teaches American and European history courses. Her research interest includes gender and class issues as it intersects with minority groups. Her blog, “The Misadventures of a Black Woman Scholar,” can be found at tmbws.wordpress.com.