A UW Graduate Writes About Howard, II. Class vs. Color.

ctd from yesterday     

(NOTE: I really am enjoying this essay and will post my own thoughts tomorrow).

I want try and share some of my views on the issues of students of color in academe.

First, race masks class. When you look at the demographics, students of color generally come from less economically privileged backgrounds, even if they come from solid middle class backgrounds. This drives a lot of the dynamics with the students of color in colleges. They not only need to have the prestigious professional job after college to pay for college loans, but also for the sake of family pride. It’s easier to explain that you are an economics at PCW than a literary scholar in the field of Slavic studies!

Self-segregation among students of color is a double edged sword. I moved to Massachusetts from Puerto Rico when I was 13, and I basically was taught how to be White. That included three  years of speech therapy to help minimized my Puerto Rican accent, in spite of the fact that I was getting As in Honors English in high school.

Having said that, I was “taught” to be white because there were no other students of color in my town. My teachers definitely worked harder at mentoring me explicitly because they saw that I could perform. They spent three hours talking with my parents my Junior year, for instance, to convince them to let me go on an academic program to Washington DC for a week. My parents definitely ascribed to cultural gender roles, so letting me go was a big deal.

When I got to Brown University and finally saw other Latino students who were as academically driven as I was, it was like a breath of fresh air. The best way to describe student of color interaction at Predominantly White Schools is this way: we are like a lava lamp. You do not notice the greater population, which is the transparent liquid. What you notice is when we little colored particles come together and eventually form that big blob in the “Little Africa” area of the cafeteria. We come together, we drift apart. We have other friends — I lived in Russian House when I was at UW, and that, needless to say, was not a bastion of students of color. We come together because we need to talk with each other to verify our sanity, because negotiating between the two competing cultural codes can be quite draining at times.

When you look at the HBCUs, you encounter an interesting and different set of dynamics. These are the places that gave birth to the great majority of African American professionals and intellectuals — keep in mind, in 1968, Brown University only had a dozen Black students on campus. Period. It took a lot of agitating and activism to improve the situation for students of color across the country. HBCUs carry a cultural prestige within the African American community that is very different from, say, getting a degree from Harvard. Nobody questions your cultural loyalties when you get your medical degree from Howard. You get your degrees from Columbia and Harvard, and you get the sort of scrutiny that Obama gets.

The social dynamics are very interesting, too. The fraternities and sororities play a very different role than the ones in the U district. They actually do represent some of the highest achievers within their community. The alumni are very involved in community service in a way that is much more influential than their white counterparts.

The student body is also very different. Howard is 66% female, 33% male, and every semester I have at least one single mother in my classes. Just a fact. Don’t know what to make of it, though.

So… Self-segregation… Not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to balancing cultural demands on the individual. However, as anything, too much of a good thing only gives you a hangover the morning after.

Howard, by the way, was the first HBCU, founded in 1865 by an Act of Congress and the Freedman’s bureau. Until 1968 it was pretty much the only place where a Black man could get a medical degree. It is considered the most elite among the HBCUs, from a socio-economic point of view.

Morehouse is a different beast. As part of the cluster down in Atlanta (Morehouse/Spelman/Clark) it represents the more popular side of HBCUs, if you will. Atlanta is known as the funnest Black city among my students. It has the music scene, the sports scene, the bar scene in a way that DC does not. We’re all just policy wonks over here. 😛

My two cents worth.
Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz, UW Ph. D. 2001

(Dr. de Fabritz is a lecturer in  Russian Literature at Howard.  She Earned her Phd at the UW under Prof. Galya Diment)