Black Stereotypes Do Not Define An HBCU Experience

Blackness, and thereby the black college experience, is not a monolith.

I recently read an article in which the author argues that although she attended a Predominantly White Institution (PWI), she still had a Black college experience. While defending the existence of her Black college experience amidst the backdrop of her PWI institution, the author made a few points that were, frankly, infuriating.

I am a fifth generation Black college alumna, a descendent of the founding president of Tuskegee University, and a Ph.D. student studying Minority Serving Institutions and more specifically, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). This essay caused me great angst. Riddled with stereotypes, short-sighted misconceptions, and an incomplete understanding of the essence of HBCUs, the author minimized “the Black college experience,” to “the hood, fried chicken, spades parties, Flamin’ Hots with cheese and Frooties, naturalistas, baddies with freshly installed bundles,” and many other pervasive stereotypes.

“Blackness” is not defined by expertise in card games, fluency in salty-sweet snack foods, or even weaved or natural hair. To be clear- there is nothing wrong with this experience. To be precise- it does not singularly define the Black college experience. Blackness, and thereby the black college experience, is not a monolith.

There are 105 HBCUs across the country. The catch phrase, “the Black college experience,” and the frustrating binary of “acting black or not acting Black” might lead one to believe that every Black college scholar indulges in Fried Chicken Wednesdays, homecoming fashion shows and Greek life on the yard. That is not the case. Such experiences might be a thread in a larger quilt of undergraduate experience but it does not embody the entire Black college experience.

The author simply misses the point. Although HBCUs were founded with the same principal mission to educate Black Americans, the power of HBCUs is not in their homogeneity. It is in their diversity. It is because they provide a space to embrace and expand society’s restrictive definition of “Blackness.” This is one of the reasons why so many students flock to the nation’s HBCUs- to escape the stereotypes that are often prescribed throughout their formative educational experiences.

HBCUs do not function as a subculture within a dominant culture. They provide the privileged opportunity to be of the dominant culture.

In a very personal choice, I chose to attend Spelman College. Yes, for a Black college experience- but not the experience that the author suggests. In fact, many of the occurrences that she lists did not exist at my institution nor did they exist in the HBCU experiences of my family and friends. Contrary to the vivid imagery that the author presents, my institution’s unique experience was in its commitment to build the confidence and intellect of Black women.

Black college experiences are as widely varied and nuanced as Black experiences overall. A Black college experience can range from surveying the Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Modern Art at Fisk University, to tilling the fields of the first urban work college model farm at Paul Quinn College, to witnessing history made as Morgan State University is lauded as a national treasure. These institutions, and the experiences therein, offer more than the trifles of “Hot Cheetos with cheese” and “Frooties.”

The experience of a Black college provides a space for Black students to enjoy the full spectrum of collegiate life. It welcomes Black students to run for office, to dance on the dance team, to participate in the debate team, to join any fraternity or sorority of their choosing, and to sing the Negro National anthem at the football game. It inspires the world as students scream with excitement at history made with the announcement of an international win from the nation’s first black women’s robotics team. It reinforces the notion that both the curriculum and the classroom were built specifically for your success. It allows students to discuss the merits of Black English as a language without sneers and critique from those foreign to the lived experience. HBCUs do not function as a subculture within a dominant culture. They provide the privileged opportunity to be of the dominant culture.

We are in a seminal moment in American history in which we cannot afford to accept, perpetuate, and confine ourselves to stereotypes of Blackness. I am not saying that all Black people should or need to go to a Black college. That is a very personal decision. While I advocate and support PWIs expanding the resources available to students of color, a Black college experience is more than just the support of the Black student association, the campus NAACP chapter, step shows, and homecoming festivities tailored to Black students. With absolute certainty, Blackness and a Black college experience are not solely defined in “[f]lamin’ [h]ots, spill[ing] tea, or shoot[ing] dice.” Rather, it is in HBCU classrooms that deeply committed and accomplished Black college professors teach Black college students the exact opposite.