HBCUs – The Institutional Antidote to White Fragility

I have a new hero. Her name is Alicia Ahalt. I don’t know her personally, but what I see I like. I came to know her from a Facebook video she posted addressing her choice to send her son to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) founded in 1887, my alma mater. On the surface, it’s one woman’s statement on the power of HBCUs. Underneath, however, it is a powerful testimony to the obstacles, pitfalls, and frustrations that come with navigating the world as a black parent.
You should watch the whole video, but because I talk about these issues so frequently in the race dialogues that I facilitate, I thought it useful to highlight a few important points in her statement.


White Fragility

How difficult is it to talk about race? More specifically, how difficult is it to speak truth to power about your lived experiences around race to people who want to believe that racism is a thing of the past? Ahalt’s opening salvos answer those difficult questions. She buffered her video with a written warning in the caption: “VIEWER ALERT! This video deals with RACE. If you aren’t comfortable viewing an honest expression then please don’t watch it.”
Her statement highlights an uncomfortable truth: the real struggle of being black in U.S. society is often silenced by undue consideration for white fragility. What is white fragility? It is the pain experienced by white people, often accompanied by white tears, when they are forced to confront the reality of antiblackness when they would rather stay cocooned in their beliefs about their own goodness, refusing to entertain the idea of their privilege. Ahalt gives a warning because, as she acknowledges, she is THAT “black friend” for many whites in her circle. That reality carries with it the the limits of many interracial friendship. Frequent conversations about antiblackness can be a drag. So being a friend, Ahalt offers hers an out.
But the deeper question is why can’t Alicia, and so many of us, bring our whole (black) selves into our interracial friendships? Or into the workplace for that matter? It’s yet another psychological tax that blacks sometimes pay to try to remain mainstream and palatable.
As I read on Facebook the other day, if you are white and you haven’t had a real conversation about racism with your black friends, you are really just associates.
Being honest about race and racism won’t always be rewarded. When I talked with Ahalt, she told me that one of the biggest disappointments about her post was the fact that many of the white people that she considered friends said nothing. Nada. Had no response at all to her pain or her epiphanies.

Racial Bias in K-12

While the spark for Ahalt’s video had to do with reactions to her son’s choice to attend FAMU, she testifies that her defense of her son in the educational system started much earlier. She recounted her fight to have her son accepted into the honors program at his school. Despite his stellar academic performance, it was the opinion of her son’s teachers that kept him out of the program initially.
This is more than an isolated example of bias; it is a pattern. A study by the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Vanderbilt University found that, when compared to white students with the same academic standing, blacks students were 54% less likely to be recommended to gifted programs. While not definitive, the study points to “racialized teacher perception” as the culprit. Stated another way, it is likely that implicit bias against black students is at work in these cases, including the experience of Ahalt and her son.

Microaggressions Everywhere

There is little more wearing on the soul than having to constantly rebut and disprove stereotypes that are heaped onto you. Ahalt discusses this in the context of navigating the college admission process. She describes speaking to financial aid officers who automatically assume that her household qualifies for a Pell grant, a federally subsidized grant for students in financial need. It boggles the mind that a college staffer can simply look at a person and determine the content of her tax returns but, apparently, if she is black, it’s worth a try.
This type of stereotyping falls under the category of a microaggression: an indirect insinuation that is loaded with racist assumptions that remind the person at the receiving end of their difference. So what’s the big deal? If these were isolated incidents, it would be one thing, but for many people of color, microaggression are near-daily assaults that try the patience and psyches of even the most resilient. (For a better understanding of the impact of microaggressions, watch this excellent cartoon from the folks at Fusion Comedy.)

The Difficulty of Addressing Race

The experiences of the Ahalt family bring up a serious question: Why has the black community been unable to sustain more institutions to educate black children and groom them for excellence, empowering them with high expectations and a a sense of self to combat the devastating effects of  anti-black  racism? Why is the support for the institutions of higher learning that serve this very purpose —our HBCUs — so lackluster? The sad truth is that many who questioned the Ahalt family’s decision to send their son to FAMU were black people. Unlike the white critics, who, like our U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, know almost nothing about HBCUs, many black people know full well yet turn their noses up at them. This crowd views the education provided by Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) as inherently better.
There is no doubt that PWIs are powerhouses in the field of education, fueled by centuries of privilege that begat the resources, reputations, and connections to allow them to thrive. History has dictated that HBCUs have proportionately less of all of these. These inequalities compounded over decades expand the gulf between PWIs and HBCUs exponentially.
The antiblackness of both blacks and whites means that HBCUs are viewed, many times unfairly, as less than optimal options. But, interestingly enough, we have seen black students at PWIs contend with rampant antiblackness on their campuses. One only has to remember the #blackoncampus conversation for a glimpse of the marginalization that black students, as well as black staff and faculty, experience  almost daily. Remember the nooses that were found on campus in Maryland? The blackout of pictures of black faculty at the Harvard School of Law?

The HBCU as a Refuge

Perhaps the parts of Ahalt’s video that resonated with me the most were those that dealt with her son’s and her family’s experience on the campus of Florida A&M University. After braving the difficulties of Educating While Black, the Ahalt family found on campus a reprieve and respite from a racial battle field. It was a place where they could be assured that their son would be judged not by his skin color, but the quality of his mind.
I could identify with this sentiment because, when I visited the campus in 1992 as I was considering my own choice of colleges, FAMU seemed like a racial oasis. By the time I graduated from my small town high school the following year, and after experiencing up close the pain of racism, I couldn’t get to Tallahassee fast enough. Racism hurt and I wanted a break. FAMU fit the bill.
My lived reality at FAMU was more than I could imagine. After years of being one of a handful of promising black students in predominantly white classes, it was thrilling be surrounded by brilliant and talented black students all the time. And, as opposed to only two black teachers I’d had during all of my years in K-12, my courses were instructed by black men and women who emitted and demanded excellence.
My time at FAMU cemented my pride in my blackness and confidence in my humanity, something that is not easily attainable in the mainstream world, then or now. It has been the gift that has kept giving. I pray for the same for young Mr. Ahalt.