Thursday, July 16, 2009

Welcome To My World

When I wrote my recent post about HBCUs and white people's perception of the black folks who attend them, I didn't get a chance to touch on a lot of stuff because of space constraints.

On a certain level, I understand completely why white folks treat HBCUs the same way Michael Jackson treated black noses. (Is it too soon for that joke?) Hell, if I was white, I would avoid HBCUs like the plague as well. If I have choice between going to school with a whole bunch of folks who look, think and act similar to the way I do, or going to some place where I'm the only person of my race in my class, well that's an easy choice.

The thing is, I've heard many white people give that explanation for why they never considered attending an HBCU, yet I've rarely, RARELY seen one of them make the next, simple logical leap. I've rarely heard them ask:

"I wonder what it feels like for black folks who have to deal with that situation everyday?"

Black folks, particularly those of us who have achieved some success in the corporate world or who have eclectic interests, know what it's like to be an "only." I've lost count of the times I've gone to an event for work, or sat in a classroom and either been the only black man, or the only black person period. By now, it's just a part of my life.

That doesn't mean I don't notice it and that it doesn't force me to deal with things I'd rather avoid. It's just that by now I've decided it's something that goes with the territory. I can't pretend that it surprises or shocks me anymore.

I think it's fair to say that most white people don't have this problem. For them, much of their time at work or at play is spent around people who look like them. Sure, there are white folks whose interests and jobs take them into minority dominated realms, but they do no constitute a large segment of the white population. And, ironically enough, most of the white folks who do interact with minorities regularly echo many of the complaints that black folks have everyday.

Mainly, it's rough being an only.

Unfortunately, most white folks still don't get that. Many of them would not attend an HBCU because they would feel like fish out of water in a minority dominated environment, regardless of the quality of the education. I remember when I attended college there was this one fun-loving white guy I talked to occasionally who disappeared one semester from campus. I later encountered him at a nearby white institution, and asked him what happened to him. He said he just couldn't take it anymore, that he fit in better at the PWI. That guy gave up a full scholarship to my HBCU just to be comfortable.

The thing that many white people don't realize is that black folks are very familiar with that queasy feeling white folks get when they think about attending an HBCU. The only difference is that many, MANY of us get that feeling everyday of our lives when we try to take full advantage of the educational, social and business opportunities America offers.

We get it when we're getting ready for class, we get it when we're getting ready for work. When we go to Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, the feeling is there. When we're out at that new trendy coffeehouse, the feeling is riding shotgun. It's part of our life in America, it's part of what goes into being a Black American.

I'm not asking white folks to lose their queasy feeling about HBCUs, I actually think it's a normal thing. What I want is for them to recognize that this is happening to other groups everyday and then take some to consider what that means.

Consider our world.



Darth Whitey said...

I understand perfectly, you've done a terrific job in drawing the parallel.

I understand this because at my university, I had the lovely opportunity of drawing a black roommate my freshman year, a young man from East Saint Louis on a scholarship... who thought he was 2Pac. And he had a lot of friends there from the same high school who thought the same thing. And they weren't all that nice to me, to say the least.

My roommate was fine when it was just the two of us in the room but when his friends were around, it was not good. heh. It was very funny when they referred to me as a nggr though haha.

Sadly they all flunked out by the end of the first year except for one (who I always thought was more "thoughtful" than the others.) I remember coming back to the room to pick up a book or something at 10 AM and many times my roommate and some friends were up there playing Sega and drinking 40's, listening to rap songs decrying how unfair the world is for black people.

I think they couldn't get past being "others", they had this self-perception of victimhood that they propagated amongst themselves. Sad. Maybe they'd have been better off going to a mostly black school, although my school had a pretty big percentage of black students, relatively speaking, I'd say around 20%.

blackgirlinmaine said...

Preach! Yep, after 36 years on the planet and many spent in predominantly white settings, I know that feeling all too well. Can't really add more because you summed it up well.

Lisa J said...

You hit it. I wish I had looked more closely at HBCU's just for that reason. I think I was so used to be an only and figured it would keep going on forever, so why take a break. Now I sort of wish I had. I did know a white guy who went to Howard Law, he said he mostly kept his head down and did his own thing.

I wonder if your old white classmate ever personally reflected on how black folks feel in those situations based on his experience. Too bad he didn't stick around, I often find that if a white person is game and hangs in for a minute, they will often be accepted and really loved just for making the effort when they are in a mostly black situation. Shoot, I had a co-worker who grew up in an all black neighborhood and told me he seriously thought until he was about 7 or 8 that his family were just light-skinned black folks (he's half Italian) and to this day he seems to be more comofortable around black folks, at least at work and I've had several black folks at work say to me, "oh he's one of us anyway."

Dark Moon said...

I believe the parallel you made is completely valid and the fact that many whites fail to make that empathetic leap speaks volumes of the entrenched racial belief that Black are the ones tasked to conform to White norms and not the other way around because to do so is not only to be the “Only” in a Black space, but it also means lowering themselves to what they believe is culturally and socially an inferior base. White/European culture and norms houses the values that all races are supposed to aspire to, whereas Black culture is the counterpoint of what is deficient, damaged, unhealthy and pathological and is a means to escape from. Why would a White person go to something that they feel is beneath them whereas many Whites have no problems immersing themselves in Asian culture and traditions because they value it and see it as equal to White/European culture.

On the other hand Whites have no compunction to visit Black spaces as a lark, to infuse themselves with the fabled Black soul, or out of rank curiosity and Blacks, usually except Whites and non-Blacks into our spaces without many qualms. The hostility, the mistrust, and the outright hate that some Blacks have to deal with in learning institutions, corporate culture and even Whole Foods (I have experienced this myself) is nowhere near the same level of White in Black spaces as gentrification in many inner cities certainly highlights.

I would also add that Blacks take note of the queasy feeling, but also the hostile interrogatory notion from Whites of “What are you doing here?” you don’t belong in our space and Why are you here?, other than to pollute sacred white spaces and worst yet, from my experience having to prove your intellectual and social worth, because it is automatically assumed by Whites that you can’t possibly compete because we are assumed to be inferior. It is the notion that many Blacks have to deal with of knowing that we have to prove a reason why we should be in a White space.

Anonymous said...

Big Man
Most HBCU have been in existent over 115 years, and some black folks I know have members of their families that have been graduating from these schools for generations.

These same white folks you talk about, many of there immigrant families didn’t arrive until the early 20th Century, and parents didn’t get college education until the GI Bill was passed after World War II.

Why do we concern ourselves with there comforts in all black constructs!

Big Man said...


I wasn't concerning myself with their comfort, just pointing out that they regularly expect black folks to do something they don't do themselves.

Dark Moon

Thanks for a very impressive comment.

Raving Black Lunatic