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The New 'In My Feelings' Challenge: The 'HBCU vs. PWI' Debate and Emotional Intelligence

January 5, 2019

The "HBCU vs. PWI" social media debate is an aggravation to say the least. But here we are...again. The HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) community and Black PWI (Predominantly White Institution) community are beefing...again. While I have had a few things to say over the past few years, I had been pretty good lately about being a casual observer until I read the following tweet from an HBCU student:  

 

"y'all realize its never the white students from a PWI that says something negative about a HBCU its always the (Black students)?"

 

I couldn't let that go, so I responded:

 

"Not true. Other students from PWIs DO say negative things about HBCUs. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, so the odds are pretty good that others have foul stuff to say."

 

That didn't go over well. Before I launch into what really bothers me, let me get some things straight.

 

First, I am well aware that the tweet is one person's view. Second, I definitely take notice of the folks who approach this topic in a spirit of positivity and/or thoughtfulness. Third, I know that there are Black PWI students who are the aggressors. Fourth, I am definitely here for the HBCU community giving crap back to the people who give them crap. Fifth, I know that this is social media where people are armchair philosophers and speak more loudly than they would at an on-site forum or panel discussion. 

 

At the same time, these great debaters should understand that there is a larger issue. Part of that issue is that our collective narrative in Black America suffers when we get so deep in our feelings that we chose to scorch the earth rather than exercise emotional intelligence.

 

MY STORY

 

I graduated from a PWI after growing up in a Black community with a Black church and Black elementary and high schools in a city that was over 60 percent Black at the time. My high school alma mater challenged us to spread our wings and find challenges to conquer, especially if it meant getting out of our social, cultural and intellectual comfort zones which aligned with my identity as a curious kid. To seal the deal, my eventual college alma mater awarded me a full ride, so there's that.

 

Later in my career, I served as the public relations director for an HBCU  that had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Admittedly, I made the mistake of arrogantly viewing myself as a knight in shining armor on his majestic horse ready to save the damsel from her life of misery. I spent my first couple of years learning that the university didn't need a knight, it needed an emotionally intelligent supporter.

 

Ultimately, I came to realize that my employer's woes were not a reflection of what is "wrong with HBCUs" but rather what is wrong with society, as a whole. Having met my wife, who wrote about HBCU culture for her doctoral dissertation, I also came to realize that my view of educational success was pretty narrow which I addressed in a Huffington Post piece. I finally realized that no one can fully appreciate the complexities of the HBCU story unless they are in the belly of the beast as a student or employee. External observation just doesn't cut it.

 

I support HBCUs because it is part of my lived experience and I recognize them as a symbol of the complex history of Black America. I am such a supporter that I chose an HBCU over a prominent PWI to complete my master's degree studies. This is why that young lady's tweet not only drew my ire but it hurt.

 

THE LARGER ISSUE

 

What irritates me is the recklessness and arrogance with which the HBCU vs.PWI debate can be conducted. Black PWI students and alums can be guilty of insulting the HBCU community with mindless assumptions that more well-resourced institutions mean higher quality education. There are those in the HBCU community who thoughtlessly accuse Black PWI students and alumni of sacrificing their cultural identity for "Mr. Charlie."

 

To be blunt, the lack of emotional intelligence is nothing short of alarming. This is neither a call to suppress our emotions nor is it a value judgment about Black folks' intelligence. I just need folks to consider three things: 

  1. the importance of language,

  2. how this mindless debate affects your identity and value as well as the identity and value of your institution (especially if it's an HBCU), and

  3. to chill the hell out before trying to write the ultimate shut-it-down post.

And I don't give a rat's red funky butt about any other ethnic community. This is about us.

 

A huge obstacle to exercising emotional intelligence in these moments is the desire--almost a thirst--to be right and righteous almost 100 percent of the time. Verbal brawlers resort to zero-sum arguments that are, at times, sweeping generalizations at best. When level-headed folks on either side attempt to bring logic or clarity to the discussion, they are immediately and ruthlessly shut down by those who chose conflict over resolution while demanding to be declared the winner of the debate. The HBCU student who didn't appreciate my response tweeted "I said what I said." Well, I guess I should just shut up and take this L. 

 

Higher education is a tremendously valuable and respected resource in Black America. Every African American who is serious about the intellectual capital they gain in college benefits our culture. Yes, we do it for the culture. 

 

This blog entry will not end the HBCU vs. PWI debate, but I want it to inspire folks to continue a constructive discourse about how we can take the intellectual resources from both HBCUs and PWIs to ensure we're all winning. There are a lot of folks who act as if they are guardians of Black culture and excellence. If that's the case, then they should accept the responsibility to unify our people in addition to correcting our people. 

 

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