Under the PWI Microscope
Updated: Nov 22, 2020
To be a black student at a Predominately White Institution (PWI) is to be constantly on guard and viewed as a foreign subject under a microscope. For the past five years of my life, from high school to college, I have attended PWIs and have experienced the negative aspects of such institutions.
From these years, I have learned that the brochures and cover pictures on the websites of these PWIs are far from the truth. When you go to a PWI, not only is are there a lack of other African American students, but there is also a lack of black teachers and professors. After five years, I still have not gotten over the feeling of walking into a 125 person lecture and looking around to see that I am the only black woman present.
Going to a PWI feels like people are walking on eggshells when the time comes to discuss systemic racism or that two-day slavery unit. When I began the college search process my junior year of high school, I wanted to go to a place where black students had a strong sense of self and where “uncomfortable” conversations were had.
You might be wondering why I didn’t just attend a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). HBCUs are culturally rich places that have amazing opportunities for their students. However, the sad reality is that they are underfunded, and in a world that is so focused on ranks, people in white corporate America might look down on you for going to one.
The current movement that is permeating through social media, where black students share their encounters with racists at PWIs, shows that so many people have been targeted at these institutions, but ultimately discouraged from speaking out about their experiences.
The same schools that preach about diversity and inclusion on their websites, have students coming out of their institutions saying things like, “We talk too much about race. Why do we talk about slavery for six months? It is simply too much in history class.”
Students plagued with this type of rhetoric almost always end up with a slap on the wrist from administration. In contrast, black students are accused of overreacting in response to the issue and are dismissed because “everyone is allowed to have their own opinion.”
You will find these stories at virtually every PWI, no matter how liberal or “socially woke” they appear to be. There is a reason why black students are silenced, and there is a reason why PWIs have significantly larger funding than HBCUs. It is not because black people are not capable of excellence. It is because the education system still does not uphold the fact that Black Lives Matter.
As a black student at a PWI, I am treated like a charity case. Oftentimes, non-black people will question how I got into the same institution that they did. Take this one instance: I was walking on my college campus with two of my non-black friends, when a white prospective family stopped to talk to us. Eventually, one of the parents asked all of us about our test scores. After we told them what our test scores were, mine being equally on par with my non-black friends, I was the only one that received a high five and a “Wow, that’s great!” from the parents.
Some people may say that I am reading too much into this situation, but here is how I see it: the sight of a smart black kid was something foreign to the parents. Their high five and “cheery” words were really their attempts to mask their approval of my not fitting their negative and incorrect stereotype of an uneducated black woman.
As a black woman, I have had uniquely challenging experiences at PWIs, and that is something not even black men can understand or relate to. Non-black students and professors will forget those times when they were either overtly or covertly racist, but the targeted black students carry the burden of never forgetting.
These feelings may not always be at the forefront of your mind, but they forever exist in your subconscious. As a black woman, I may have learned to mask the feeling well, but I will never get used to it. I believe that there is power in that. To be aware of your discomfort and how few black people there are in certain institutions is to be aware that there needs to be a significant reevaluation of that institution.
We can all agree that PWIs are riddled with aspects of fundamental and institutionalized racism that will take a nationwide revolution to undo. So, instead of continuing the trend in which black people are constantly put under this microscope, let us reverse the roles by analyzing these institutions and begin transforming life within the PWI walls.