In recent weeks, calls for widespread institutional change at some predominantly white colleges and universities have captured the nation’s collective attention. On one side, free speech fundamentalists at schools like UCLA, Yale, and the University of Missouri insist that one’s First Amendment right outweighs issues of racial insensitivity. Nobody ever guaranteed a hostile-free learning environment, they say. On the other side, black students feel unsafe as a result of unregulated free speech masked as open intellectual exchange.
On social media, the response among some in the HBCU community has been unforgiving. The thinking is: black students chose to accept racial insensitivity the moment they enrolled at institutions where they would be demographically outflanked.
But the claim that HBCUs are safe shining cities atop the hill is mythical. Using instances of racial insensitivity and systemic disregard for black students at PWIs to claim HBCUs as the corrective is disingenuous if not outright irresponsible. They are no safer for black students than PWIs. And to say otherwise is to ignore the well-founded grievances of queer and trans students, students who dare speak out against sexual violence, and those demanding of their institutions adequate resources and facilities.
There is clearly precedent for this myth. Throughout the American social and political imagination—exemplified through literature, television, and social life—HBCUs possess a savior-like quality, rescuing students from the cruel white world beyond their gates. Implicit in many avowals of HBCU life is that safety is rewarded by the mere fact of being black. This thinking is the basis on which Ta-Nehisi Coates recalls his undergraduate years at Howard University. “My mecca was, is, and shall always be Howard University,” he wrote in Between The World and Me. It’s also the basis of shows like A Different World and The Cosby Show. Want to feel safe? Join an HBCU. (Invoking Coates’ Howard experience is not to say he embraces strict separatism. However, the larger depiction of HBCUs in a romanticized way betrays a more complex story of struggle for many black students.)
That mecca—that space to thrive, flourish and grow—is a powerful space indeed, and as an HBCU graduate I know these spaces give students room to exist and learn beyond the gaze of white racial insensitivity. In September, Donovan X. Ramsey wrote about the critical importance of HBCUs like Morehouse College in a post-Ferguson world. At Morehouse, Ramsey said he existed in a safe space where his “blackness did not render [him] suspicious or scary.”
But I also know that HBCUs have never been truly safe for all its students. I know that black queer and trans students have been struggling for visibility and safety at black colleges for a very long time. I know that black colleges have the same issues with being held accountable on matters of intimate partner violence and sexual violence as predominantly white colleges. And I know that HBCU students have been at the forefront of holding their institutions accountable for ensuring the full safety of students as much as black PWI students have at their institutions.
So while blackness may be a prerequisite for the kind of safety HBCUs offer historically, it is not tantamount to saying HBCUs are safe-spaces for black students today.
The story about what safety entails is richer and more complex. The #TakeBackHU campaign on the campus of Howard University, the work by black women to combat often-unreported sexual violence at Spelman College, and the efforts among gender nonconforming and queer students at Morehouse are all parts of this more tangled, messy story about how students, even in spaces of supposed racial harmony, are pushing radically for accountability, often with heavy opposition.
None of this is to favor one kind of institution over another. Nor is it to pathologize HBCUs as being fraught with more problems than their PWI counterparts. The fact is that HBCU and black PWI students are all pleading with their institutions for care and support, for at least a recognition that the spaces they inhabit are affirming and safe. So it does not seem too much to ask that we trash the inherited assumption that a space is safe because it may be populated with those who look like us. We have to dig deeper than that.
This would mean giving space to students to contest institutional policies they don’t believe are in the best interest of the collegiate community. It would mean fighting to provide faculty with adequate resources to support black students. It would mean holding students and administration accountable for sexual and gender-based violence. It would mean advocating against unsafe, unclean and undignified campus facilities. It would mean pushing back against administrative efforts to passively and actively support the erasure of gender non-conforming, trans and queer students. It would mean recognizing the radical work of students at black and white colleges as connected rather than disjointed.
Whether or not people will draw connections to this more complicated story of safety for black students, the work is already being done to imagine better, safer institutions at HBCUs and PWIs. And we would do well to join them or not stand in their way by insisting that safety has a rightful presence in one place and not the other.
UPDATE, 10:22pm: This post has been updated for clarification.