When Worlds Collide: Black Bodies and White Fear
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
If I had to pinpoint when my awareness of what it meant to be Black in this country began, I don’t know if I’d be capable. I used to think my Blackness was like an omnipresent shadow that clung to me in White spaces.
My childhood in rural eastern NC meant that a great deal of my youth was spent in White spaces. Almost forty years of living in the Southern United States has helped me realize the following two truths: white fear results in death for people of color and integration/assimilation serve the purpose of providing an “illusion of inclusion and equality” as stated by John Hope Franklin. This is true historically and remains true today. In recent times, there has been a debate about the relevance of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). When schools were segregated, the schools in impoverished communities, which were often predominantly black, did not have the same access to resources, textbooks and daily classroom essentials. Clearly, this put students at a learning disadvantage. Desegregation seduced many communities with the promise of equal opportunities to learn and, in turn, be successful. In other words, integration was mistaken for equity and inclusion. I believe that the root of a lot of Black people’s perceptions about HBCUs and their quality of education being viewed as disadvantageous or inequitable begins with integration and the need for white validation.
There is a pervasive assumption that academic rigor is reserved for predominantly white institutions. The necessity of the HBCU was birthed from institutions that closed their doors to people of color who sought access to higher education. In spite of the conflict of their origin story, what many did not count on is the insulated environment of HBCUs to allow students of color to thrive and actually compete upon matriculation with white counterparts. I find this fascinating when I think of the graduate faculty at my own alma mater, whom almost all received their doctoral education at PWIs, but decided to teach at a HBCU. I understand where the misconception comes from, particularly for generations who experienced first-hand desegregation and “white flight,” but I also think we have a duty to debunk these myths of educational inferiority about HBCUs. There are children being socialized to believe that it is bad to go to HBCUs because they are viewed as “less than” in comparison to white schools. In most cases, the comparison is being made between public universities, which is even more perplexing. It would make more sense to me if you were comparing education received at an “Ivy league” institution versus a public college, but I have known folks to tell their children they COULD NOT attend a HBCU and their children end up at other public predominantly white institutions. There is a more recent contemporary debate about the necessity and relevance of HBCUs coming from people and groups attesting that we are living in a post-racial America, which is both amusing and concerning. Segregation of public grade K-12 schools is being reinstituted daily across the country with neighborhood district lines being redrawn by socioeconomic status and “other” demographic characteristics.
Historically, we have often viewed and discussed inclusion as an affirmation of equality. I think people of color have been misled to believe that this perception of equality and inclusion is the same as equity. Equity of resources, access, and opportunities is what has been denied to people of color due to systemic and institutional racism. I think about what equity of resources would mean for HBCUs if funding was equitably distributed to these institutions or if our “prized” Black athletes collectively began attending them instead of PWIs as their entertainment work horses. Perhaps, those changes would shed light on underlying issues regarding integration and the function of historically black colleges and universities.
The second point that is more sensitive for me to discuss is the reality that white fear kills. White fear results in lost lives for people of color and it always has, for Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans and Native Americans alike. When I think of this current election and the slogan of Donald Trump “Make America Great Again Again,” I am reminded of this idea that America was great when every marginalized group knew their place and behaved as such. One could argue that the only true act of liberty for settlers was leaving England to colonize North America as a result of religious persecution, but it cost millions of lives of Natives for that to occur and tens of millions of African lives to build the foundation and infrastructure of the country. It bothers me that I live amongst people who subscribe that some of our country’s darkest times and most evil acts are synonymous with their nostalgic ideas of “greatness.” The recent events involving police brutality happening concurrently with the COVID19 pandemic and its disproportionate impact on people of color might serve as a way to unify groups fighting for social justice, whom might have otherwise just continued to try to resist oppressive systems independently to no avail. That kinship and cohesion that centers humanity, equity, and happiness fills me with joy and hope about the way we could co-exist together. Nonetheless, there is part of me that also realizes the perceived threat of this unity could incite and escalate murders of people of color, because history continues to prove that white fear kills.