Black Students At White Colleges Fear They'll Lose Their Cultural Identity

Growing up in New Jersey afforded me the opportunity to live and breathe diversity. Whether it was hearing different Caribbean accents, African languages, watching people walk to synagogue (or driving and walking half way) or even learning about the cultural differences with Latin countries, there wasn’t a time when diversity wasn’t looking me right in the face. But that’s not to say there aren’t parts of New Jersey that are the complete opposite and homogeneous, it just wasn’t my reality.

During my junior year in high school I was bombarded with brochures on top of brochures from various universities.  There were the HBCUs brochures, which of course, only had black students on their covers. Then there were the “other” universities that had speckles of color here and there, or none at all on their marketing materials.  I eventually decided to apply to seven universities (thank god for my guidance counselor, Mr. Heinz, and his application fee waivers) and out of the seven, three were HBCUs; Hampton, Howard and Spelman.  Honestly, Hilman was where I actually wanted to be, but you know, television.

But what about those speckles of color? Universities employ some of the best marketing geniuses out there. Who’s to say they weren’t added to create a false sense of diversity?

Take for example the story of Diallo Shabazz, a black student from the University of Wisconsin.  Imagine his shock when he was informed by the admissions counselor that he was on an admissions brochure.

From NPR:

“One of the admissions counselors walked up to me, and said, ‘Diallo, did you see yourself in the admissions booklet? Actually, you’re on the cover this year,’ ” Shabazz says.

The photo was a shot of students at a football game — but Shabazz had never been to a football game.

“So I flipped back, and that’s when I saw my head cut off and kind of pasted onto the front cover of the admissions booklet,” he says.

This Photoshopped image went viral and became a classic example of how colleges miss the mark on diversity. Wisconsin stressed that it was just one person’s bad choice, but Shabazz sees it as part of a bigger problem.

“The admissions department that we’ve been talking about, I believe, was on the fourth floor, and multicultural student center was on the second floor of that same building,” he says. “So you didn’t need to create false diversity in the picture — all you really needed to do was go downstairs.”

Even without Photoshop, colleges try to shape the picture they present to prospective students, says Tim Pippert, a sociologist at Augsburg College in Minnesota.

“Diversity is something that’s being marketed,” Pippert says. “They’re trying to sell a campus climate, they’re trying to sell a future. Campuses are trying to say, ‘If you come here, you’ll have a good time, and you’ll fit in.’ ”

Pippert and his researchers looked at more than 10,000 images from college brochures, comparing the racial breakdown of students in the pictures to the colleges’ actual demographics. They found that, overall, the whiter the school, the more diversity depicted in the brochures, especially for certain groups.

“When we looked at African-Americans in those schools that were predominantly white, the actual percentage in those campuses was only about 5 percent of the student body,” he says. “They were photographed at 14.5 percent.”

Not to pat myself on the back, but yeah, I got into every HBCU I applied to along with the “others” that include: Rutgers, Dartmouth, Penn State and Miami University. Pretty much a cornucopia of predominately white institutions. If my guidance counselor had his choice, he would have helped me pack my bags for Dartmouth. When it came time to choose a university to attend, I didn’t of course rely on the diversity issue, but also the financial burden, my major(s) and location.

Photoshopping diversity is apparently a big thing nowadays.  But once a student makes a campus visit, it’s easy to see exactly what you’re going to be dealing with. During my campus visit, Rutgers, although filled with plenty of white faces, embodied a healthy outlook when it came to diversity.  And that was one of the reasons, I decided to stay in NJ and attend Rutgers. I’d also be lying to say the free ride didn’t have anything else to do with it as well.  

Some people ask me why I didn’t pick an HBCU and ironically it had nothing to do with the lack of diversity, but more so to do with the fact that the rules (especially at Hampton) made me feel like I’d still be living under my other’s roof.  Then DC wasn’t exactly a place where I wanted to live in back then. And Atlanta was just too far.

Diversity isn’t for everyone and some people don’t want to embrace it.  There are those who want to  be with their “own” when it comes to receiving their education and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Clutchettes, was diversity important to you when it came to picking a college to attend?

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  • deebsooreal

    I grew up in a majority white area in VA so all through school I was surrounded by Caucasians, a few Asians, and a few Hispanics. So deciding to go to an HBCU was something that I wanted to do because I wanted to be surrounded by young intellectual African American’s like myself. I did apply to PWI’s but that was after I applied to my HBCU choices. I did the college tours and feel like I wouldn’t fit into the atmosphere of a PWI. At many of the PWI campuses I barely even seen a black face on the campus tours. That was a deciding factor for me. Also I had been surrounded by other races all my life I felt it was time for a breath of fresh air.

    I honestly feel like most of my black classmates in my high school felt that way because out of the 15 of us black students that attended college 12 of us went to HBCU’s (Spelman, Bethune-Cookman, Virginia State, Norfolk State, University of Maryland Eastern Shore and me at Bowie State University). So I honestly feel like the demographic students are surrounded by the most sways students decision about where they would like to go and how comfortable they would feel in that environment.

  • BeanBean

    To be honest, my major concern was finances. I needed to go to a school that gives a lot of money away in scholarships. My school isn’t very diverse, because of location. But the school does have a lot of multicultural clubs, so they’re trying.

    • G

      “To be honest, my major concern was finances . . .”

      BeanBean, I hear you loud and clear. I was attracted to the HBCU, but being born and raised in L.A. the out of state cost of attending the HBCU of my choice (Xavier or Fisk) my decision became very clear, very quickly.

      So I attended a local school, which had a reputation of diversity . . . it was “okay”. I meet a lot of different people from various backgrounds, so I guess it severed it purpose.

  • MimiLuvs

    Here’s one of my pet peeves:

    Just because we share the same skin tone and the same hair texture, it doesn’t mean that we are not as diverse as the “others”.

  • Kristi

    Diversity was on my list of priorities when I was looking for a school for undergrad. I wanted to stay in-state due to costs. But I also wanted to go to a school with some racial diversity. I grew up in a community that is very racially diverse (slightly more black, but lots of Latino, Asian, African, and Caribbean people. Some white). I knew I wouldn’t find that kind of diversity in a small college (a small college was at the top of the list) in my state, but I wanted to get as close as possible. I decided to attend a school that is predominately white, but has a strong community of black students. I visited the college first and received an weekend visit invitation from the college’s Black Student Union. As a black student on my campus, I never felt alone or isolated because of my race. Racist incidents were rare. I got to know a lot about white people and how they “work” when they feel like they have to compete with black students who are just as intelligent as they are (the school I went to is one of the top 5 small liberal arts colleges in the country). I saw that as a learning experience and I am grateful for it. We had a strong BSU that organized events, community service efforts, gospel choir, lectures, parties. I also made many friends, of all races. I realize it’s not the same for everyone, but I loved my experience at the PWC I went too.

  • Dirty chai

    I went to a college that was pretty diverse with about a 45% Black student pop. Diversity wasn’t am issue but there was definitely a bit of attitude from some White students about the bold presence of Negroes at their fine Southern institution.