Vice dropped a video on Wednesday about a white student named Tiago who just finished his freshman year at Morehouse College, the all-male historically black college in Atlanta which boasts alumni such as Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Panama Jackson, Robert E. Johnson, etc.
In the video, we hear from Tiago; other students—presumably from both Morehouse and Spelman College (some of the footage is filmed on the campus of Spelman, which is right across a parking lot from Morehouse); and faculty and administration about having white students on campus. As you might expect, the opinions range from displeasure to acceptance.
Tiago, who, based on the pictures they showed of him before college, seems to be from Georgia and had a predominantly black early childhood education, but over time, he moved to more affluent white spaces for high school. I’m sure there were some black students in his high school, but I’m guessing not a ton, which makes his decision to apply to Morehouse and Morehouse only somewhat intriguing. Why a white dude who occupied mostly white spaces in his formative years decides to make an all-black institution his focus is obviously curious. But it doesn’t make him unique.
There are tons of Tiagos out there on the campuses of HBCUs. I’m wondering why we never get stories about white women who decide to #OccupyHBCU. I feel like those stories are more curious and perplexing.
White people being at HBCUs isn’t a new thing. Some of them have flipped HBCUs into white schools. Bluefield State College in West Virginia is the most famous, with a roughly 10 percent-black student population as of 2013. West Virginia State University has also flipped from being an HBCU into being an “HBCU.” The lesson here: If you’re thinking of opening up a black institution in West Virginia, don’t do it—reconsider. Read some literature on the subject.
But again, white men on prominent black college campuses isn’t a thing. I can think of three white students at Morehouse when I was there in the late ’90s and early ’00s. One was the salutatorian at the end of my freshman year of college. One even played on our basketball team. And famously, Joshua Packwood was the valedictorian of Morehouse College in 2008.
Also, lots of HBCUs have populations of students who identify as Hispanic, Asian, etc., as well. You even get white students (at HBCUs and predominantly white institutions) pledging black fraternities and sororities. YouTube is littered with videos of white Deltas, Kappas and Sigmas. While those things always perplex me—white people wanting to enter and actively participate in black spaces created largely because of white racism—at this point, they’re not surprising.
But you know what you don’t find littering YouTube? Videos of white women explaining why they went to HBCUs, especially the prominent ones with very small white student populations. It’s not uncommon to see a white dude in a crew of black men. One of my nephews is the product of that nonphenomenon. But a crew of black women with a white homegirl is more uncommon. A white dude wanting to attend an HBCU because his friends are going or because it’s where he feels more comfortable? Eh, but OK. But a white woman? Where are those videos?
I found one from Howard University that spoke about the increase in white students on campus and how sports in particular have been one of the reasons. Howard’s volleyball team has (or had; I don’t know if they do currently) some white girls, and when they were asked how they got there, one was like, “Free money!” (That’s not what she explicitly said, but that’s what she said.) The other talked about how nobody made a big deal about her being a white girl on campus.
Yeah, OK. Look, one thing I know about our HBCUs is that while we, as black folks, are accommodating to a fault, we are also very protective of our landmark spaces. In the Vice video, one of the professors interviewed stated that 10 white students wouldn’t change the culture of a school, but 100 might. At spaces like Howard, Hampton, Morehouse, Spelman, North Carolina A&T, etc., that have long-standing historical legacies, if an abundance of white students showed up, it would absolutely change the school. I can’t imagine Spelman College with hundreds of white women all over campus. It would seem ... amiss.
HBCUs are lauded specifically for what they do for the black community; I’m not sure how that works with a huge white student population. I realize that because of financial concerns, many of our prized institutions are trying to find new ways to get money, and that might include kickin’ in the door for white students. I expect that’s what happened at places like Tennessee State University or Kentucky State University, which are both still majority black but have considerable white student populations. White women at those schools? Obviously. But Spelman? How, Sway?
I understand why publications find and interview the Tiagos of the world. Morehouse has a historical legacy. But they’re not unique anymore. Even in today’s climate, there will always be a few white dudes at HBCUs. It’s been that way for decades. I want to hear from the white girl who chose Spelman or Hampton or Howard because she just wants to go there. And why?
Get on that story, Vice.