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Being White at a Black College: An Interview

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This post was co-authored with Rob Shorette, a Ph.D. student at Michigan State University.

At many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) throughout the country, the student population is changing. The numbers of Latino, Asian, and White students are on the rise. Although most HBCU presidents are welcoming these students, some alumni are often not as excited to see the faces at their alma mater changing. However, other alumni and many students see the growing racial diversity on HBCU campuses as a plus, noting that it is time for non-Blacks to see the attributes and witness the strengths that HBCUs offer in terms of higher education. And, those non-Blacks that are attending HBCUs often serve as ambassadors for HBCUs, enjoying their experience and sharing it with others. I recently met Rob Shorette, who is a Ph.D. student focused on American higher education, and found out that he when to an HBCU. Rob is a White male from California. Often people are curious about a White person's decision to attend Florida A&M University, so I thought an interview about his decision and experience would be informative and enlightening.

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Marybeth: Some people are probably surprised that you went to FAMU, an historically Black university, because you are White. Why did you decide to go to FAMU and what were some of your other choices?

Rob: At the time I chose to go to FAMU, I was actually in the middle of a complicated transfer situation. I had essentially completed a year's worth of transferrable coursework from a community college in California and was transferring to be closer to my parents because my father had been diagnosed with a severe form of multiple sclerosis (MS). My parents had recently moved to Tallahassee, so home just happened to be Tallahassee, Florida. My choice for college revolved around two priorities: what I perceived to be a good situation to play football at the college level (which was my first priority as a young, naïve jock) and smaller class sizes (I apparently had SOME good sense!). I had only two options in Tallahassee: Florida State University and Florida A&M University. FAMU met all of my criteria, so I enrolled and began classes and football practice in January of 2005. Looking back, I can honestly say that I had NO idea what I was getting myself into and was not choosing to attend FAMU with any of the historically or culturally significant aspects of the institution in mind that, ultimately, would transform me into the person I am today.

Marybeth: What was your experience like academically at FAMU?

Rob: My academic experience at FAMU contributed greatly to my intellectual development in ways that I was somewhat oblivious to during my time there. Many aspects of my education that were supremely influential to my development, I seemed to have absorbed naturally and almost assumed it was what everyone was learning in college, such as the fact that books from authors like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston served as the primary texts in my English courses, the fact that I was hearing my classmates provide diverse African-American perspectives in every class on my schedule, the fact that I was participating regularly in discussions that challenged me to think differently about the issues of people of color, and the list goes on. Additionally, my professors, department chairs, and deans were all intimately involved in ensuring my success. I had close relationships with the professors and administrators of my programs and, to this day, maintain great friendships with many of them. They were the ones who encouraged me to think about graduate school and nudged me into the path that I am on today. It wasn't until my last semester or two that I became more aware of the uniqueness of my college experience, both in and out of the classroom (relative to many predominantly white institutions). I see the world differently now and it is because of the academic preparation FAMU provided me that I can excel in different environments.

Marybeth: What was your experience like socially at FAMU?

Rob: Due to my status as a student-athlete for the first half of my FAMU experience, I was fairly isolated socially. I mostly hung out with my teammates and had little time to experience anything else outside of practice and classes. My identity was largely tied to my athletic participation (both by my classmates and myself). However, I did not play football for the final year of my college career and was able to dedicate more of my time to experiencing other aspects of university life. It was during that time that I got more involved in student organizations, became more passionate about equity in education, and became much more aware of the negative ways FAMU was perceived by my white peers across the train tracks (at Florida State University) and by the local media. Regardless of my obvious athletic reasons for being at FAMU, students (and even teammates) still wanted to know why the heck I would choose to be there. I was approached plenty of times randomly by inquisitive students who wanted to know how I felt being at an HBCU as a white guy, why I decided to attend, and what I thought about certain controversial topics related to race. I loved the opportunities I had to engage with my classmates in that way, to learn more about them, and for them to learn more about me. I always gave my classmates my genuine self and was honest with them when dealing with difficult or sensitive subjects. It was often not my professors, but my classmates who respectfully challenged my thinking and helped me work through some of the confusion that accompanied such a transformative experience. Throughout my entire experience, I was always treated with respect and never felt unwanted, which says a lot because I am sure that I said some naïve things that may have warranted such responses as, "What did he just say?" or "Where did you learn that from?"

Marybeth: What would you say to a White student who is afraid to be in the minority at an HBCU?

Rob: It saddens me to think that a white student might be "afraid" to attend an HBCU in 2012, but I understand that it is a reality for many white students who may be considering an HBCU. I would say that it is not even a concern that should cross your mind. Should you be aware of the fact that you will be in the minority? Sure. Should you be "afraid?" Absolutely NOT. In short, it was the best decision I have ever made. If I had kids, I would send them to an HBCU. The education I received, the friends I made, and the lessons I learned - all of which I truly don't believe I would have had anywhere else and particularly not at a predominantly white institution - are all invaluable aspects of my experience that make me better at everything I do. The perspective I have now is priceless.

Marybeth: What would you say to an HBCU student or alumnus who was skeptical of your commitment to your HBCU education?

Rob: To be honest, my commitment to my HBCU education was never questioned (at least to my face) because I very visibly demonstrated my commitment. When I found out the College of Arts & Sciences didn't receive summer funding for upper-level courses that were essential to the progress and timely graduation of my fellow classmates, I led the fight and went from office to office across campus until someone provided answers (and eventually, the funding). Along with my classmates in the College of Education, I accompanied a team of accreditors around campus to make sure they understood the true quality of our teacher preparation programs. I wore my Rattler gear everywhere I went, I had a FAMU license plate on my car, and I shared my love for FAMU with anyone I could. I wore my HBCU education as a badge of honor, and still do.

Marybeth: You also do research related to HBCUs, right? Tell me more about that. Why are you interested?

Rob: Yes, I am interested in researching issues around HBCUs and my reasons for doing so stem directly from my experience at FAMU. As I progressed in my master's degree program in higher education administration and policy at The George Washington University, I started to become familiar with concepts and terms that allowed me make sense of my HBCU experience and articulate my thoughts in more effective ways. At first, it was hard for me to convey to my peers (especially my white peers) why my HBCU experience was so unique and so beneficial. Just like many others who attend HBCUs, I had to defend my decision to go to FAMU instead of a "better" school, too. However, I became equipped with tools I didn't have before and I started to notice observable differences in the way people responded to me during our interactions. Interest from my peers, who either had not attended an HBCU or were unfamiliar with them altogether, grew substantially. Living in Washington, DC gave me the opportunity to interact with an entirely more diverse network of people than I had been exposed to in Tallahassee. I started to interact with young black professionals in DC who were from all over the country. Because of the nature of my network of friends, I was introduced to a disproportionate amount of successful young black men and, upon getting to know them, I found out that a majority of them had a common connection: they were HBCU grads. Because I contribute much of the development of my positive attributes to my HBCU experience, I started to believe that it was no coincidence that the majority of the new, sharp, black men that I was interacting with were from an HBCU. It got me curious and it caused me to ask myself, "What is it about the HBCU experience that is causing this phenomenon?" Essentially, I decided that I wanted to find ways to highlight how the HBCU experience produces a caliber of student who, from my experiences going to FAMU and interacting with other HBCU grads, I believe is uniquely prepared to contribute to the success of our country. Also, once I learned of the historical disparities in funding minority-serving institutions at all levels of education and became passionate about issues of equity, my interest in HBCUs fit naturally into that discussion. And when it comes down to it, I understand the privileges that come along with me being white. This is where my ability to connect with my white peers and communicate my experiences more effectively comes back into play. When I saw that collectively my ability to tell the story of my HBCU experience more effectively, my white privilege, and my expertise in education all increased the likelihood that my white peers understood the true value of HBCUs and their importance in U.S. higher education, I saw endless possibilities for me to advocate for the institutions that are near and dear to me.

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Through the transformative experience of attending an HBCU, White students (and others) can better understand their own identity, that of Black students, and serve as committed alumni that sing the praises of their HBCU. Having a racially diverse group of HBCU alumni helps to communicate the merits of these institutions to a larger and more diverse audience. Telling the HBCU story on a wider scale can be nothing but beneficial.