"Exploration of identity"

NPR took on the college admissions imbroglio in an excellent 7-part series last February. (Sorry but I just discovered it!!!) One of the things I enjoyed in reviewing their work relates to a great interview of Beverly Daniel Tatum, the President of Spelman College in Atlanta. When asked if the 10 to 15% of black students who attend HBCUs are involved in “self-segregation”, Dr. Tatum replies with elegance and aplomb. She says in part,

“If we think about the college years as a time when you are really exploring who you are, what you hope to be, how you want to define yourself — AND if you are from a group that has been historically marginalized and under-valued — having the opportunity to attend a school where … you are at the center of the educational experience, where your educational development, your leadership development, is at the core of the mission of the institution, is a very empowering experience which is hard to find in the context of a society that still advantages those who are white, disadvantages those who are not. I think recognizing that important exploration of identity, and recognizing who you are, who you can be in the world, at a particular moment in your development as a young adult, is really critical. Certainly when we think about the opportunity for young people to get to know each other across racial lines it is very important to create places where that can happen. It is important in K-12 to provide schools that are racially integrated. But just as women’s colleges are still important because of the confidence that they provide for women … in the same way I think we can point to historically black colleges as creating an important opportunity during a critical period in one’s life.”

She goes on to relate both advantages and disadvantages in her personal experience (and that of her children) in predominantly white institutions, and the benefits she sees among Spelman students and her own children in an environment she describes as “affirming their identity.”

Let me state the obvious by saying that “exploration of identity” is the most important part of the coming-of-age years, regardless of race, geography, sex, or even socio-economic level. As a middle-aged white guy who went to an all-white high school (except for 3 blacks who voluntarily rode the city bus to get away from a very real segregation in Columbus, Ohio caused by “white flight”), I have always felt deprived of a first-hand sense of black identity, and how that relates to the privileged majority experiences I grew up immersed in. Looking back to my earlier years, I remember being shocked by President Kennedy’s assassination, but crying, angry and raging, when Dr. King was shot. (I was 15) My identity came from the subgroups I associated with, including rocket makers, chess players, musicians, and nerds. A black chess player or musician I could deal with easily. What has never been obvious to me was how to relate to segregated clumps of blacks. When I tried to enter lunch-room discussions with the 3 at my school, I was awkward in my attempts to show that to me race didn’t matter, and that I appreciated their struggles and accepted responsibility for the systematic ethnic tyranny my forbears had inflicted. Of course, those big-picture issues weren’t issues at all; rather, there simply was no easy connection of shared culture. It was more like a language barrier… as if I had grown up speaking French, and treated other non-native French speakers with a hint of disdain… and so they found it easier to hang with their friends. So while I continued to live in unintentional isolation from the black community, I raised my kids on Roots and dinner conversation about Denmark Vesey.

In recent years, having read John Wesley’s tract on slavery, and then Randall Robinson’s articulation of the destruction of African identity, I felt better able to understand… but unable to really communicate because the fact is that I’m still living in a segregated society.

That’s why I appreciate what Dr. Tatum verbalized. There is a black identity, an African-American identity, and it continues to be necessary and distinct because of the “constant under-valuing”, as she put it, of black personhood, black aspirations, and black pain. If blacks had remained in Africa, their identity today would not be racial but more familial or tribal, the way whites in America form Italian or Jewish or Irish identities. But since the historical fact is that whites from multiple tribes, religions and cultures conspired together to subjugate, transport, and dehumanize blacks from multiple tribes, religions and cultures, and then exterminated their languages, their religions, their cultures, and even their individual identities, we should not feel surprised that the black soul, as Robinson puts it is “immortal, [and] has lost sight of the trail of his long story.” It needs some time to reawaken.

And Beverly Tatum’s message on NPR was, that’s what the HBCUs can help do, even today, 125 years after “reconstruction”. Dr. Tatum helped me understand that while integration is important for healthy cultural diversity during the period of attitude formation (K-12), there comes a time when many black young people are better off exploring their identity… in an environment where the dominant mood does not explain away and negate their need to remember, to console, to encourage, and to gather internal strength for a life-long marathon of struggle as an under-valued minority. As Robinson quoted Ralph Ellison at the beginning of his book, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” Let the exploration of identity continue!

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dim white kids

Peter Schmidt of the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoans the privilege of wealth which allows full-pay students with alumni or political connections to get into elite colleges without elite credentials. He cites research by the Educational Testing Service which claims 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at US top-tier colleges are “white teens who failed to meet their institutions’ minimum admission standards.” While I’m sympathetic to the egalitarian idealism Peter advocates… and amazed by the evidence he cites in the 2nd half of his article … I also suspect that the economics of college tuition discounting make it likely that a percentage of full-pay students are necessary to keep the wheels turning and the grants flowing for need-based “scholarships”.