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Ernest Owens Headshot

The Case for Underrepresented Students at Predominately White Institutions

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This past weekend I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor's degree in communication. I am an openly gay black male, lower-income, and the first in my immediate family to do so. This introduction is necessary given that statistics show that inner city public school products such as myself are not typically expected to make such opening remarks.

To be 22 years old and graduate from an Ivy League institution on time had its blessings and burdens. For one, it would mean that my life afterwards would never be the same; the possibilities would be endless both professionally and intellectually.

However, reaching this point would mean enduring four years of misrepresentation, microaggression, misunderstanding, and a continuation of personal reflection and hardship.

My blackness would be questioned not only by my white peers, but my black ones as well. I would see firsthand how white privilege would make the difference between a professor being willing to give me less time during his office hours in comparison to those with a lighter complexion.

My socioeconomic status would mean that I would stay on campus every spring break and gaze at Facebook photos of my friends in Europe or Cancun. It would also make others feel more entitled to attending my college given that their parents and grandparents did as well.

To be a black male that is not an athlete at such institutions means that I had to work sometimes twice as hard to stand out. If I was not a charity case that the university could use as fundraising bait, I could forget having a strong support system. And what was even more troubling were the many students of African immigrants (Nigerian, South African, Ethiopian/Eritrean, and Ghanaian) that predominately white institutions replaced for an actually small percentage of black Americans.

This meant that even within my own community I would sometimes be looked at as an "akata," which has been used in the past in some Nigerian/West African circles as an insult to African Americans. It also meant that my status as a child who lived in a single-parent household would not match the strong family structures many of these peers come from and the legacy of higher education that reports show also gives them even more reasons to feel empowered.

But this is only half the experience at a predominately white institution such as Penn, and while many students of color at peer institutions, such as Harvard, create campaigns that showcase the daily struggles they face nationwide (i.e. "I, Too, Am Harvard"); I ask one question:

Why did you attend?

No, I am not being condescending or insincere in my pondering, but I am curious to know what drives those who continue to discuss the hardships of attending a university that history books have shown carry a legacy of racial indifference and conflict. It is not that much of a shocker that racial tensions flare up frequently at predominately white institutions. In fact, one can almost expect it.

Logically it makes sense. Universities such as Penn, Harvard, Yale, Stanford and more place a large population of whites in the mix with those who come from such various backgrounds. Because of the heterogeneous space, things do not and will not always blend. Excuse my myopic rationale, but no matter what dynamic you face in life, this will always be the case.

As disheartening as the facts that I previously mentioned are, I write all of this to say that this is why it is even more important for students of color to attend predominately white institutions. It is a personal reality check, and furthermore a reminder to never lose sight of what we should all strive to fight for.

Here is an analogy that might offend a few people, but works. In the 1994 Disney film The Lion King, the main character, Simba, spent much of his time avoiding taking his throne at Pride Rock. He spent his time living what he thought was the good life; living under the motto of "Hakuna Matata" (no worries).

Despite these great vibes, deep down inside, Simba felt emptiness and guilt about avoiding his personal responsibilities. His family and friends were suffering from the harsh oppression of his uncle Scar and if he did not face what troubles ahead he would have never reigned supreme at the end.

Pride Rock is similar to those great colleges that are filled with the supremacy of bigotry, elitism and racism. In fact, I personally believe that going to anything other than that (i.e. HBCU, or no college) does nothing to help fight the injustice that will be enviable even if you try to ignore it. Case in point: our presence there is needed, we are fighting a battle that has yielded results and have made progress.

If the great W.E.B Du Bois had not received his PhD from Harvard and became the first black to do so, would we ever have imagined that it could be possible? Whites at the time thought we were not educated enough to thrive in society and at their institutions. "Separate, but equal" was the foolish notion that we all could learn the same without interracial interaction.

That is what these campaigns against predominately white institutions are unfortunately communicating without even recognizing it. We have and are making strides at these universities and will continue to do so if we do not stop pushing for our rightful presence there.

I could have easily gone to Morehouse and felt at home within its black brotherhood. However, I am also told that my desire for same-sex partnership is not that welcomed there as much as it is at one of the most gay-friendly colleges in the country, Penn.

So it is a give and take, and while many will try to act as though Historically Black Colleges and Universities are the Mecca for black intellect and success, the low endowment fundraising and scandals that happen there makes them in many ways not so different.

So, in closing, I will attempt to answer my previous question: Why did you attend?

Answer: Because I wanted to continue the legacy of brave students of color who proved that we are just as smart and deserving, if not more, than those elite and privileged that for many years dominated these institutions. And with this knowledge, I plan to partake in Sankofa and thus the legacy continues for many generations to come.

I hope you all will follow suit. We need you.