In the vein of “Higher Learning” and “School Daze” there is a spoof video that is premiering at 2014 Sundance called “Dear White People” highlighting the interactions of black faces in the white space of ivy league-esque collegiate education. I watched the trailer, and of course I identified with what I saw, then I realized, just how much did I really identify with it. I thought about it and posted it to Facebook as a nod of support to young blacks doing something, but I posted it with the note “I went to an HBCU, I didn’t have these problems.”
And I didn’t.
I took a step back and I thought about the conversations I’ve had over the years with my black friends who went to predominantly white institutions and since most of us have similar upbringings, I always wondered just what exactly went through their heads and how did they have to position their psyche’s and even their bodies to adjust to being in the minority. The concept of having a Black Student Union–or whatever equivalent thereof–in a collegiate setting is a foreign concept to me (yet it is still one that I embrace).
I identify more with “School Daze” than “Higher Learning” for obvious reasons. (For those completely unfamiliar, click the hyperlink and check the trailers’ out to get where I’m coming from.) Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” in a meta-sense deals with the internal struggle to define blackness amongst ourselves, while “Higher Learning” shows what that struggle looks like with a trajectory outside of the black community. From the iconic line of Laurence Fishburne as “Dap” squaring up with Sam L. Jackson’s character outside of the Kentucky Fried Chicken (before it was KFC) saying “You’re not niggas” versus the line of Omar Epps character “Run, nigga run” are deep commentary on the exact issue but from two highly different viewpoints.
I guess I want to ask the question to blacks that choose to go to the predominantly white schools be it for scholarship reasons or just personal druthers: Dear Black People, what else did you expect from white people? To be fair, that’s an honest question I’d ask a white person engaged in this conversation, what else did you expect from black people, but since this is a “Dear Black People…” segment, let’s stick with the former question.
Particularly for blacks that enter the prestigious enclaves where the 1% send their children, I am truly curious as to why do blacks knowingly enter this space and then lament about the working conditions. It’s comparable to someone fighting to get a corporate job on Wall Street in New York and then complain about the nearly 70 hour work week you’re expected to work–but you say nothing about that $170,000 check you get per year. I get it. If you’re planning to do work in a field where blacks are a clear minority, perhaps it does make sense to get acculturated as soon as possible, but usually the ones I hear offering commentary on this issue are only doing so because they want to keep some of their black cultural roots intact.
So again, I ask, Dear Black People, why did you choose this school?
Don’t get me wrong, at times when I see HBCUs make completely boneheaded decisions on behalf of administration, and when I see the same administration baby their students and mistreat alumni, hire bad presidents, fail to recruit, fail to fundraise I say to myself “And why did you go to an HBCU?” It has been an exercise in cognitive dissonance when I walk on predominantly white campuses and see the athletic facilities, the dining hall, the dorms (honestly, when I started college in the early 2000s, there were still HBCUs in the South that still did not have air conditioning in some of their dorms), and I have to ignore it just to console myself for choosing to educate myself at HBCUs.
This is not to ignite the debate about the necessity of HBCUs nor to debate one’s blackness as a result of where they received their undergraduate degree. What I am asking is what goes through the minds of blacks that choose to endure that particular fight as shown in the movie “Dear White People,” Dear Black People, why did you choose to go to this school?
Here’s the reason why I’m starting to not buy the argument like I once did. You chose to go to this school because of it’s name, and you felt some type of way about having Howard, Spelman, Morehouse, Tuskegee, Fisk, Dillard, Hampton, Clark Atlanta or any other HBCU on your transcript. Be honest. Tell the truth. No this isn’t a hard and fast rule, and frankly I encourage all high school students to go where the money is. But, this was a conscious decision about who you are what you want to be associated with going forward.
Where we go for college is one of the first major steps in declaring one’s identity. It’s something all high schoolers face once they walk across a stage and get a diploma. This goes across the board and goes for those of all income backgrounds and geographical settings. For those in small towns and rural areas, do they want to be the one who leaves and makes a name for themselves, or are they the one who wants to stay and watch over the family farm or business. Eighteen year olds are often faced with the pressure of being the first in the family to make it to college. Those that have a more privileged background, such as myself, the question was what type of name do I want to make for myself; I wasn’t faced with going to college or get a job or enlist, my toughest decision was trying to figure out which college did I want to attend.
At the time, I wanted to go to the University of Alaska at Anchorage (dead serious, I visited on a family vacation the summer before [yes, you'll catch the privilege all wrapped up in that] and was interested in the arctic engineering program), and for every white school I was interested in, I tagged it with an HBCU with it. Just so happened the HBCU, my 6th choice, offered me the most money and that’s where I initially attended. I had the experience of living through Hurricane Katrina as my college was in New Orleans. When the entire country opened its doors to any student from New Orleans seeking refuge, I was quite adamant that I wanted to go to an HBCU. Even my father was suggesting I go to UIC just to get re-enrolled. What I had done was engage in my own identity, and I wanted that identity to include a liberal arts education from an historically black college.
For the actors, writers and director of “Dear White People” to even create such a concept and act on it means that they have some cultural awareness of race relations in this country and are the physical embodiment of “black faces in white spaces.” Colloquially speaking, this makes them conscious blacks. By conscious blacks I mean they are conscious about how they chose to define their own blackness–however that may be.
But secretly, I think the black people that choose to invade these white spaces do so in a secret hope of being “the one” that changes the whole game. Secretly, I think there are some blacks who actually like being the only one in the classroom. Tell the truth and shame the devil. No one ever had to tell me, but it was a mark of a privilege being the only black male in my double honors World History class in high school. Morally, we know it’s wrong when the white teacher only calls on you when they want to hear the black side of things, but deep deep down there’s an ego leaping for joy that YOU get to be the one to speak on behalf of the race; that suddenly, like Martin Luther King, you are the voice of 40,000,000 black people in the whole country. All of it comes down to what you say.
Dear Black People, is that why you choose not to go to an HBCU? Just asking.
I don’t think there’s any work more noble than the liberation of the minds of young people regardless of racial or class background. This work can be found at HBCUs across the country as well as at predominantly white institutions as well. I guess, speaking from my experience, I don’t feel quite as sorry as I once did for my colleagues who went to predominantly white institutions and were met with institutional racism or the stark naked racism famously experienced at campuses like the University of Texas-Austin and University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa. Nor was there any worry of one of those famous “ethnic” parties where white fraternities and sororities dress up in black and brown face to make fun of blacks and Latinos.
Why? Because you had a choice.
If you chose your school because it was the top this or that in a field, that’s fine, but don’t get shocked when you encounter the institutional racism. It doesn’t make you more black because you went to a white school and encountered racism. And let me be fair, it doesn’t make me “blacker than you” because I made the decision to go to an HBCU. It’s like those memes and hashtags that we see ever so often that say #firstworldproblems. Indeed, the racism that you all experienced is a #PrivilegedNegroProblem.
This post-generation X and millennial generation of blacks seem to forget that they’re privileged. Let me rephrase that: that we’re privileged. Certainly more so than our parents and grandparents. At one time blacks didn’t have access to these white spaces, and we did just fine within our own community. But, it needs to be noted, blacks prior to civil rights era, if they were privileged enough to go to college, it was done so almost with the express intent to return back to the community as an underpaid teacher, or to provide a professional service (lawyer, doctor, dentist etc.) to their own community. The concept of upward mobility existed in a very communal sense, not in relation to what a larger economy dictated.
One of the primary arguments for not going to an HBCU is that “that isn’t the way the world is.’ Okay, valid enough argument. You’re right, the world isn’t upwards of 90% black, but what world is it that you want to be a part of where Dear White People want to touch your hair and are suddenly not racist because they have one black friend–or has the two black friend minimum kicked in yet?
So, Dear Black People, you aren’t better because you encountered racism at your college alma mater.
Dear Black People understand your talents and your smarts didn’t do nearly as much as your privilege did to get you into college.
Dear Black People racism still exists don’t be shocked when you encounter it.
Dear Black People there is life beyond your HBCU homecoming experience.
Dear Black People if your band days were the best of your life, you haven’t lived.
Dear Black People the food might have tasted better at an HBCU, but it certainly wasn’t healthier.
Dear Black People having fast food venues on campuses isn’t all that.
Dear Black People… you’re still black. Get used to it.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL