HBCU or PWI? The Black Experience vs. Expanded Cultural Understanding

Recently, actress Taraji P. Henson was quoted in an article saying that she would send her son to an HBCU, like Howard University, so that he would avoid “racial profiling.” In an article on the Essence website, Henson described two separate incidents in which he son was racially profiled by campus police on two separate university campuses. So, to avoid that from happening again, she decided that she is sending her son to a black college.

Earlier that same week, my boss and I had a similar conversation about where he wanted to send his young daughter when she eventually went to college. He said that he wasn’t sending her to an HBCU because he wanted her to have a more well-rounded experience.

“Although I love Lincoln, there’s a very limited view of the world that they present to you. There’s only so much they tell you, only so much they expose you to. I understand that they want you to get the black experience, but the world is much more than black and white.”

He asked me the same question, and I wasn’t able to give him a straight answer. Since then, I’ve been mulling over the same question. When I have children, I know that they will be noticeably black so there is always that fear. Do I send them to an HBCU to avoid racial profiling from campus police and students? Or do I send them to a college where they’ll experience more?

My answer is simple: it is the child’s decision. Although every parent wants their child to attend their alma mater, it is ultimately the child’s decision where they want to go. In this case, I’ll make a case for both HBCUs and PWIs.

HBCUs are living history. Many of them were built prior to, during, and after the Civil War. They served as important places of higher learning for disenfranchised African Americans, many of whom were former slaves. HBCUs instill a sense of “blackness” in students and help students, black and white, appreciate African American history and the contributions of African Americans to the world. Being at Lincoln, I have learned more about black history and my own history than I ever would have learned. I feel more connected to my history and my roots and have developed a deeper sense of understanding and appreciation of the sacrifices of those who came before me.

However, the cultural understanding is very limited. All my lessons are tailored to the “Black experience”, an experience that I have struggled to understand. Growing up around mostly Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic people, my experiences and the way that I saw the world were vastly different. Granted, I was educated about the black experience through my father and for me, that was enough. I always dreamed of attending a college where I was exposed to more cultures, ideas, viewpoints, and experiences that Lincoln offers.

And that’s where PWIs come in. PWIs are becoming increasingly diverse and you can encounter any number of people from any number of countries at PWIs. When I studied in London, I encountered everyone from white British, black British, Pakistani, Columbian, and all the other nationalities. It provided me with a deeper sense of culture and I learned things I had never known. My lessons were not tailored around one particular viewpoint and my mind was opened to possibilities. Possibilities that did not exist at Lincoln.

So, when my future son or daughter asks me, “Mom, should I attend an HBCU or a PWI”?, I’ll give them one simple answer. “Attend the college that fits you. But know at the end of the day, the world is more than just black and white. Be sure to explore all the colors in between.”

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