By: Khristian Vickers, Edited By: Renee Schroeder
All my life I’ve grown up very privileged and I am grateful for the life my parents have provided for me. As an African-American male, I have survived and overcome many stigmas that could’ve weighed me down. However, the school system that provided me with the opportunity to achieve a higher education is also the same system that has continued to cripple and under-prepare African-American students like myself.
While applying for colleges during my senior year of high school, I struggled between picking a Historical Black College & University (HBCU) or a Predominately White Institution (PWI). I juggled being a part of the majority at a HBCU, where I would embrace black history and enjoy the social life of being with people that look like me. On the other hand, going to a PWI gets you alleged recognition from “Corporate America” and more scholarship aid, but can make you feel like an eight ball on a pool table.
During my freshman year at Belmont I endured loss after loss. Mentally, physically and spiritually, I was battling with my pride and the expectations put on me by the people I looked up to. The feeling of letting them down and not seeing progress in school was eating me alive. I was on the brink of not feeling loved and almost took my own life because I didn’t feel understood at my university.
Every day I walked around campus seeing people that were not of my skin color looking at me like the odd ball. When I smiled, they avoided eye contact. Every day I went to class being the only African-American in the room, while simultaneously being the only African-American male in the room. Every day I sat in class frequently hearing jokes about my culture, while dealing with micro-aggressions and seeing fellow African-American friends drop out or transfer. I began to feel overwhelmed by the environment that Belmont conditioned me in from day one. Now I’m not saying my life at Belmont every day was like an episode of “Everybody Hates Chris” or “Get out,” but it was truly tough.
According to Belmont’s Factbook Data, there are only 4.7% Black Non-Hispanic undergraduate students (including male and female), which equates to 313 students in the beginning of this fall. Keep in mind that in 2009, Belmont’s undergraduate Black Non-Hispanic percentage was only 4%.
Jake Simmons, an assistant professor at Angelo State University, published a research study in 2013 titled “Understanding the African-American Student Experience in Higher Education: Through a Relational Dialectics Perspective.” The purpose of this study was to explore why universities continue to struggle with African-American retention rates, as well as detailing the experience of minorities at PWIs. In the study, Simmons created focus groups at three different predominantly white universities in three regions of the United States, focusing on the plight of the African American student population. The universities included a small rural mid-western public university with a black population of 4.7%, a major Midwestern private university located in a major metropolitan area with a black population of 8%, and a major Southwestern public university located in a small metropolitan area with a black population of 4.5%.
The researchers found several tensions that affect black students’ experience at PWIs. First, students reported tension between “Blackness-Whiteness,” wherein they struggled with expressing their Blackness in an environment that appeared to cater to White culture. I was initially raised in predominately white areas and schools, but my last three years of high school were in a mostly black environment. As a result, I find myself adapted to the two blatantly different worlds of Whiteness and Blackness; being torn between my identity and my surrounding environment—being unapologetically black but feeling like I have to tone down my Blackness to fit in with my white counterparts.
The second tension that students reported in the study was “Talking-Silence.” Growing up, my parents raised me to know that there is always a time and a place to express yourself. The question is, when is it really the right time?
Since being at Belmont, I constantly battle with the Talking-Silence tension myself. I’m battling with an inner struggle to remain silent or less noticeable in hopes of fitting in my white environment. Classmates can be oblivious to the struggle that comes along with a black identity. It can be difficult to understand how it feels to be black person in an environment that’s not conducive to your success, unless you know when to speak up.
The final tension that was described by students in the study was “Past and Future” tensions. I ultimately chose to attend a prominent PWI in my area, Belmont University, because my past told me it was the better choice. Many people in my family have graduated with master’s and bachelor’s degrees from PWIs. My family never associated me with, or even made me aware of, HBCUs and their importance.
My past and future were always at battle because what I was accustomed to wasn’t what I wanted to be in my future, and this realization was shocking. As I did more research, I realized that I wasn’t the only one that felt like this. As revealed in the study, many African-American students feel excluded from their culture and when they do seek to resonate more with who they are, they find themselves conflicting with what they’ve been taught in the past. This is where I found myself.
In addition to these individual tensions, the students in the study also reported intergroup tension, “Revelation-Concealment.” This is the tension found between students with the desire to share their black culture with their white counterparts, versus the desire to not share at all. For example, the research notes African-American students “wanted to educate university members about the African-American culture. Simultaneously, they wanted to protect their culture from others in the university.” The reality of this tension can be seen at Belmont.
Black students battle with the idea of more African-American presence on campus, such as an increase of African-American cultural events or establishing more diversity in university organizations. At the same time, African-American students feel a certain hesitation to advocate for such action steps when faced with the apparent lack of appreciation for black culture on campus.
Not only do African American students experience a disconnect in campus life, they also experience it in classroom interaction with their teachers. Dominique Gendrin and Mary Rucker, communication researchers at Xavier University and Wright State University, published a study in 2007 titled “Student Motive for Communicating and Instructor Immediacy: A Matched-Race Institutional Comparison.” The purpose of this study was to examine the different cultural norms in HBCU and PWI classrooms, and how those cultural norms affect student motives to communicate with their instructors. The research consisted of 278 students enrolled into a communication course. One hundred and forty-two were Caucasian students at a PWI, and 136 were African American students that attended an HBCU.
The researchers found significant social differences between the African American and Caucasian students. African-American students preferred their instructors to demonstrate high nonverbal immediacy behaviors, such as welcoming proximity, smiling and eye contact. However, white students preferred professors who were less nonverbally immediate and more verbally immediate, which includes verbal feedback, small talk conversations or directly addressing student by name. Immediacy is just one of the many differences in norms between the two cultures at a University. Understanding that black and white students have opposing expectations of nonverbal and verbal classroom norms can help teachers bridge the gap and make all of their students feel welcome.
Although my university has not found a clear solution to the racial differences on campus, all is not lost. I have learned many positive things since coming here. First: I’m still here today, through my challenges I have gained stability in my relationship with God, I have been humbled as an individual and have found deeper security in who I am as a black man. Every day I look back at that kid from Hunters Lane High School, an inner-city Metro Nashville graduate, and remember why I advocate for people like me. I do this because I am paving the way for those who will come after me. I’m going to prove it can be done regardless of my skin color or my past experiences.
If we truly want to change the minds of others, we have to be transparent, understanding and loving to other cultures. We as students have the power to change our campus. I believe it’s only right to educate those who truly don’t know. Otherwise, you cannot possibly change the narrative. The battle is, do I really express myself to others in my classroom knowing that I may be viewed in a negative way, or do I take a leap of faith and hopefully make an impact?
The moment when we come together as one and just listen to one another, we can make progress together. There has to be an equal level of dedication to make this school and all PWIs welcoming for everyone. Until then, as a community we must never give up until the last ball joins the group and there’s no longer a lonely eight ball.