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White HBCU students

Cross posted from Identities: Global Studies in Culture and PowerBlog post by Devon R. Goss, Oxford College of Emory University, USA

In this current moment where so many white individuals are contending with the implications of their racial privilege in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it is important to understand the nuances of white identities. Much of the activism and effort over this past year has focused on urging white individuals to develop an awareness of the scope of racial inequality and white privilege. Less attention has been given to how white individuals might ethically deploy this racial understanding, especially regarding how white individuals might negotiate their participation within communities in which they are deemed racial outsiders.

My Identities article, ‘Ivory in an ebony tower: how white students at HBCUs negotiate their whiteness’, examines one such group of white individuals navigating their whiteness in a space where they are deemed racial outsiders: historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

HBCUs were originally founded to create possibilities for community empowerment and racial uplift in the face of exclusion at predominately white education institutions. With currently just over one hundred HBCUs in the United States, these educational institutions continue to play a vital part in educating black individuals. Recently, HBCU enrollment and funding have declined, causing concern about the future of these institutions. At the same time, the racial composition of HBCUs is changing, with 24% of students at HBCUs now identifying as non-black (Gasman 2013).

I found that white HBCU students felt forced to navigate a white identity that was viewed as antithetical, or even threatening, to the integrity of the community that they had joined. Faced with these perceptions of their whiteness as encroaching upon black spaces, white HBCU students negotiated how they portrayed their racial identities. In particular, white HBCU students indicated a desire to differentiate themselves from other white individuals and to establish themselves as ‘good white individuals’ that were worthy of HBCU attendance.

White HCBU students utilised three strategies to differentiate themselves from other white individuals and establish belonging with their black community. Some white individuals acknowledged their whiteness by portraying themselves as recognising and grappling with issues of white privilege and white supremacy while rejecting racial colorblindness. Other white individuals mitigated their whiteness by describing their HBCU experience as one of balancing the desire to participate in black spaces and understanding that those spaces necessitated that they were not full participants. Finally, some white individuals resisted their whiteness by aiming to dissociate themselves from whiteness by emphasising their racial ideologies or non-privileged backgrounds.

In this current political moment, white individuals are being asked to rethink the significance of their racial identities. However, it is not always obvious how this knowledge should translate into behaviours and actions. The white HBCU students in my research provide insight into how whites themselves approach their white racial identities, and the multiplicity of conflicting and complementary strategies that they utilise in order to feel accepted.

Gasman, M. 2013. The changing face of historically black colleges and universities. Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Read the full article:
Goss, Devon R. Ivory in an ebony tower: how white students at HBCUs negotiate their whiteness​. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1844516​