The Absence of Diversity at Historically Black Colleges

“Do you think you could work with…White people?”

I halt in complete shock. I am stunned by the words that fall off her lips as her hands sway in gesture over the excitement of the phone interview she has just concluded. I assume my look reveals my disgust as she quickly clarifies the statement…er…question.

“That’s not exactly what she said, I’m paraphrasing.”

I understand what the interviewer is asking my friend. She is concerned whether or not this young Black female, graduate of a Historically Black University and employee of a Historically Black College can handle the other side…because of course there are only two sides to the color coin. I digress. Her inquest is not completely far-fetched. Many assume that diversity is an obscure concept among institutions such as the ones listed on my friend’s curriculum vitae.

Diversity: difference, variety, unlikeness, diverse, multiformity, not identical, variance, distinction, heterogeneity, assortment.

You know what’s missing in the thesaurus entry?

Color.

Shockingly, most people consider diversity to be an assortment of color and even more commonly, the duality of two. Even more shocking is the revelation that diversity is not simply a Black and White person sitting side by side in a classroom; maybe on its most elementary level that definition reigns true. Yet we evolve, or at least so I thought.

I’m appalled that my friend was asked if she could work with White people. I imagine her walking around on her first day at this PWI (predominately white institution) whispering “I see White people” in her Haley Joel Osment voice.

Diversity is as prevalent among HBCU’s as it is PWI’s. As prevalent but not as palpable. I’m sure this is of moot point to my well-educated subscribers but for my amusement I’ll continue…the difference in diversity among the two institutions is that you can visibly see it on the campus of PWI’s because we innately define diversity as color.

However, diversity is much more evolved on a typical college campus. There is an assortment of socioeconomic classes; at any given moment I may have a homeless student sitting in my office next to a student whose parents have seven degrees between them. There is a variance in demographic location; if you think there isn’t much diversity among a student from Washington, D.C. and one from Washington, N.C. I urge you to spend an afternoon with me. There is heterogeneity in sexuality; diversity is strategically planning where to place on campus residents who are transgender. There is generational variety; Saturday I witnessed a mother and daughter celebrating their receipt of identical Bachelor’s degrees.

Of course all of these scenarios challenge the realm of diversity at any university; however, the difficulty at the historically black university is that few people admit that diversity exists, not even those employed by the institutions themselves. Diversity is this abstract concept that only plagues institutions of majority enrollment and therefore students at historically black colleges are placed in a box of identical chocolates (no pun intended).

Sigh.

Tell her you have had the ultimate training in diversity as you have labored in a vineyard where all of the skin of the fruit looks the same on the outside but the inner flesh is varies in taste and texture. Tell her that while your experiences may seem one-sided, they are filled with successful student development, leadership and advisement which are characteristics that bear no color.

During my evening walk, I simmered on the conversation between the applicant and the manager and I wondered if the roles were reversed would my friend have asked the same question. I wondered what my response would have been and although sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, a smile forms at my response…

“Oh my goodness, you have White people?!”

There never were in the world two opinions alike, no more than two hairs or two grains; the most universal quality is diversity. -Michel de Montaigne

20,000 Miles Above & Men Below

For the brother headed to Indianapolis, Indiana for the Kappa Conclave and the one who isn’t…

I love the men of Kappa Alpha Psi; I was bred to, predestined to. My father is a member of the crimson and cream so is my friend boy, and a host of pretend uncles, play-play cousins and friends. While other daddy’s girls were being lulled to sleep with songs of looking-glass and diamond rings, my father was serenading me with Kappa Alpha Psi Sweetheart.

The institution of black Greek organizations embodies a spirit that cannot be described, only experienced and as an outsider, I cannot adequately depict what it means to bear those letters. I considered “pledging” once but if you’ve ever read my blog and you know anything about the process, you know that wouldn’t have gone over too well. I actually went to an interest meeting, in which a prime candidate said

If I were an instrument, I would be a harp so I could play melodious music for all the angels.

It wasn’t so much what she said but how she said it. She spoke in soprano and made movements with her hands as if she were actually young David playing for King Saul. She floated or at least gave the illusion of such. She curtseyed at the end of her answer and the crowd erupted in cheers of jubilation while shouting “Good Answer!” Nothing against her or her answer, she was a lovely girl and I was quite fond of her but this just wasn’t for me; a suspicion that was later confirmed when during a poem recital women with tattoos, dependents and excess weight were politely invited to turn their attention elsewhere.

I’m not big on exclusion.

Kappa Alpha Psi member, Wilt Chamberlain

The men of Kappa Alpha Psi are celebrating 100 years of unity which brought this particular kappa to RDU this morning. I saw him in security in his paraphernalia and knew exactly where he was headed, but flights are funny and where you’re going has nothing to do with how you get there. So there we sat, side by side in Row 13 on a Delta flight.

Let me interject and say that as much as I appreciate the Kappa man, in no way was I headed to partake in a weekend of debauchery where women are sure to be outnumbered by an astronomical amount because 20,000 Nupes have taken over the city.

From the moment I inhaled his overindulgence in cheap cologne and saw his lack of chivalry in neglecting to lift my carry on into the overhead compartment, I knew he was cut from a different Kappa cloth than my father.

When dude finally stopped talking about his membership in the “red and white” and how much fun he was about to have in Indianapolis, he asked what I did. Our conversation led to this blog. He too was a blogger.

You should check out my site mulattotude dot com (insert seven second presentation here where I describe my rants on all things related to mixed race and life).

Now maybe the mulattotude confused him, but surely he heard the mulatto in there somewhere. And we weren’t on the phone so, he could see me and one would think that an educated brother such as he would conclude by the kinky, curly hair and light skin…maybe she’s mulatto. Or maybe he didn’t know what the word meant, at which point he should have either asked or just shut it up. Although that shouldn’t even be an option because I gave him the pitch, deductive reasoning could have concluded of what I spoke. Low and behold, the next thing to fall out of his mouth was…

Why brothers always gotta be running to white women anyway?

Lawdhamercyonhisoul. He began in a soliloquy about the perils of interracial dating and how sisters were abundant and blessed and how he was about to abundantly bless as many as he could this weekend. I started reaching for my iPod (airplane code for I am not available for conversation). I was content to not speak to him anymore but he paused, looked me in the eye for the first time and asked me again.

What do you think? Why do black men date white women?

So they can have mulatto babies.

And on that note, I put Adele in my ear and tuned him out for the rest of the flight.

Wanna hear my answer to the instrument question…email me at palmerbennett@mulattotude.com.

By-Products of Segregation, Integration and Pasteurization

My mother & I hang out by the pool.

My mother and I just returned from a ten-day journey together. If you’re an introvert pretending to be an extrovert like me, you can understand the sheer horror in spending ten days with anyone other than the one who shares your fingerprint profile.

The issue of race came up quite often during our conversation. She wants me to recognize that she is a product of segregation. I want her to recognize that I am a product of integration. Our personal experiences provide two very different points of view. She is frustrated. I am silent. We agree to disagree on most things related to race and the perception thereof.

Our travels took me to Texas. Abilene. ACU, where I was scheduled to attend a week of classes as part of a distance learning program. Our travels took my mother back to the school that grudgingly admitted her, one she left after a grueling and oppressive semester.

It’s kinda poetic. The unfulfilled prophecy of the militant, black, coed is fulfilled through her biracial daughter.

The story reads like a script.

But this is not the same Abilene Christian University. My favorite professor is half of an interracial marriage and we converse about diversity, multiculturalism and biraciality. My mother’s dear friend, another professor is an advocate of equity and inclusion and we converse about my role as a minority woman making moves in higher education. There are signs of progression all around and I am comfortable here, as comfortable as I am at my alma mater, a historically black university; maybe even more so.

This feeling saddens and confuses me because questions of my professional purpose rise and fall like turbulence over the southeast.

When we return home, exhausted and dehydrated from over a week of 100 degree weather, I reach for the pitcher of cold water on the second shelf and accidentally knock the gallon onto the floor. Standing in the sea of milk, I crack and the emotion of the week, what I have learned and where I go from here overwhelms me. By the time I have dried the mess, my eyes are also dry and the empty jug in the recycling bin catches my attention.

June 22, 2011.

Sitting on the stairs at Jacob's Dream

There is no sense in crying over spilled milk, especially when it was sour.

I’ve got some sour milk in my life. There are circumstances and situations that have long since expired. There are also a few expiration dates that are approaching. Like July 15, 2011, on which my 32nd year of life will expire. Some dates are not as exact but the time has passed for me to pour some things out.

I’m not crying over spilled milk. In fact, I’m looking through the refrigerator to see what else needs to be tossed. Then I’m gonna clean out the refrigerator and make room for some new, fresh, wholesome goodies. Please don’t mistaken this as a profession of “dieting”, it’s a metaphor for my life, specifically…my career.

Sometimes our milk is the circumstances of our past and the experiences in our history, and they too need to be spilled because they spoil the circumstances of our future and the experiences of our present.

By the end of our adventure, a crazy hotel manager, a flat tire and misread paperwork united us in our frustration over the spilled milk but the joy in “swimming” together for the first time, finding that special bargain and landing at home safely allowed us to keep from being soured by our ordeals.

A Not-So Different World From Mine

I’m Alex and I’m eight, I like to fish, swim and skate.

This poem invaded my slumber around 6:18am and prevented further commitment to the captivity of my bed. My entire body ached through stretches and I baffled through thoughts of how I managed to sleep in the fetal position. I wonder now if my posture was somehow related to the dream.

If ever I had to characterize my life by a sit-com, without intellectual effort, it would be A Different World. I won’t dare insult your literacy ability by describing the show but in case you haven’t read my blog enough to know how it relates to my life (I can imagine my close friends laughing right now, let me fill you in).

The show is a spin-off from The Cosby Show, when the Huxtables’ daughter, Denise goes off to Hillman College. HC was a fictional HBCU. I like most black teens, sitting in front of the television on Thursday nights, couldn’t wait to make my own memories at a historically black college or university. From my own educational experience, I can attest to the fact that college is a new world, but a HBCU is a totally different one.

In season 1, Denise, played by Lisa Bonet, serves as the lead character. In following seasons, this honor is given to Whitley, played by Jasmine Guy. Both ladies are of mixed ancestry, although their fictional characters are not. In season 2, Freddie, played by Cree Summer, enrolls as the shows only mulatto character.

Stevie, played by Loretta Divine and Lettie, played by Mary Alice worked at Hillman College as dorm directors in Gilbert Hall. Having served as a residential manager myself, I am currently the Director of Residence Life at Shaw University. Like Stevie, I am also a single mother. I do not however, live in the residence halls (at least, I don’t receive personal mail there).

Then there’s Professor Randolph played by Roger Guenveur Smith, (who was the keynote address at my college graduation) and the poem that shook me out of my slumber. Actually, it was a dream; I dreamt about an episode of the sitcom that was prewritten as a biography of my life.  Blues For Nobody’s Child (season 4, episode 72) is about Alex, a foster child and his hope to be adopted at the adoption fair. Freddie’s passion for Alex touches Professor Randolph and he and his wife adopt the little boy. I too was a chosen child. Although my story doesn’t include orphanages, foster care or fairs, I was adopted.

What show or movie best describes your life? Survivor? The Princess and the Frog? Shameless? The Real Housewives of (Insert Current City Here)? In the series finale of A Different World, everyone turned out successful, happy and in love.

I don’t mind that in my bio at all.

To The Class of 2021

This is what I would want to share with the matriculating bears when the current students of Shaw University have graduated and/or moved on to other experiences and the events of what happened the week before Easter weekend in 2011 are nearly forgotten.

To The Class of 2021,

Just around the time you were enjoying the spoils of sixth grade spring break, former students were counting on two more weeks and a final exam to give them that extra umph. While you were lying your way through social networking activation sites, students before you were trying to find the truth through the chaos of half-truths and retweeted rumors. As you were wishing your parents would just leave you alone, students who carried the keys in your pockets were just wishing for a way home.

I can’t begin to describe what Shaw University was like before the storm.  Before the tornado came and ripped trees from roots, the tree that stood as guard over Henry Martin and Sarah Tupper. I don’t know how to articulate the spirit of Shaw, like many HBCU’s on ‘fried chicken Wednesday’ or ‘fried fish Friday’ when the lunch line spills out into the yard. The yard that is glass and debris ridden, outside of the café that served boxed lunches today. ‘Cold cut Wednesday’ just doesn’t have the same ring.

The rhythm of this institutional body moves to a beat that courses through the anatomy of other HBCU’s and like veins from one heart we dance to music that is felt and not heard. We sing to beats that are innate not synthetic and when it is time to sing together, our harmonies ring as one.

Yet, we are not just a historically black university; we are a world of academia. Often, that label diminishes ones capacity next to our predominately white institutional counterparts. Shaw is an association of scholarship. The essence of this first-rate, first built, first choice institution of higher education is inhaled in the air between its buildings on a crisp fall morning, its spoken in the language between student and advisor over plans after graduation, its understood in the movement of a young man who removes his hat and pulls up his pants in one motion as if rehearsed for eighteen years before.

This is not the most devastating event to happen on the campus of Shaw University; thankfully, all lives were spared but this was the most devastating to happen to the campus.

I am looking for the lessons to be learned from what took place on Saturday, April 16th, 2011, the tenth birthday of my oldest son. The tornado changed Shaw University. Students began to respect the opportunity of life more. One young man said to me on that Sunday morning “I would give anything to just have no AC again.” Staff began to show genuine compassion for one another. A staff member said a few days after the storm “I never even thought to ask if one of our own had losses.” Faculty began to understand that student affairs and academic affairs were a successful marriage not a dysfunctional family. A professor stated during a walk across the bridge after discussing a particular student “I can’t believe I never knew she was dealing with all of that and I’ve been her advisor for three years.”

To be honest, I was questioning my place at Shaw University. I was starting to wonder if my talents would be better fitted elsewhere. I was asking for answers and I believe now more than ever that they were answered that day. Somewhere in the tears of scared students with no way home and frightened parents thousands of miles away, I found may way home…right where I was.

So take a deep breath and inhale the past. Learn from it. This is not the new Shaw University. This is the same Shaw there always was. This is the same Shaw there always will be. The spirit has always been here, it just needed to remind the students of 2011 who they were and who they were meant to be.

Don’t you forget it, or else…

From Sag to Swag

This post is in response to the N&O article “Shaw students mentor middle schoolers in dress, manners” published on February 10th and is dedicated to the current and future alumni of the first Southern HBCU.

Jayden looked at the News and Observer article naming the young men on the photo. With each introduction, his smile widened with seeing his friends on the cover of the newspaper. He is not a member of Gentlemen of Excellence but as the grandson to a staff member, he receives an education in the importance of college every day. Jayden fully understands the necessity of hard work, good grades and excellent behavior as a map to higher education.

Just prior to Jayden’s arrival, Christopher Chunn, a Resident Advisor in Fleming Kee Residence Hall stopped by to tell me all about the GOE and the evening’s ceremonial festivities. He radiated as he explained how the young men in the program had made a difference in his life as much as he in theirs. As he speaks, I think about the mentors in my own son’s lives and I wonder if any are as authentically concerned with their success as Christopher is with his mentees.

With so much negative publicity surrounding African American males, it is refreshing to read a story of inspiration and dedication. It is especially so, when the editorial graces the front page of a publication. Gentlemen of Distinction (GOD) affords young men from underprivileged families and communities the opportunity to participate in a rite of passage program that instructs on everything from chivalry to filling out an application. Rooted in the spiritual development of themselves and the young men they influence, the approximately thirty members of GOD encourage each other weekly and maintain a strong sense of camaraderie. Everton Harris, President of GOD, says that putting Brother before each members name shows a sense of respect and creates unity within the group. 

Programs such as these are not unknown to Shaw University. Building African American Males (BAAM), under the leadership of Carlton Goode, former Shaw University Student Activities Director provides monthly instruction and advising from Shaw University alumni in various disciplines of life. From etiquette skills to post-graduate options, the men in BAAM use their experiences as Shaw students and professionals to give back to their alma mater. Christopher Young, local lawyer and 1999 graduate is excited about returning to his higher educational roots to encourage students to take pride in themselves and full advantage of every opportunity afforded them.

The Shaw Communiversity applauds these men, students of the present and past with a standing ovation.

Now the challenge is on…where my girls at?

Laugh Out Loud-Literally

It was one of those ho-hum kind of days when everything moved in extra slow motion. I was working in one of those offices where there were designated periods of work. While a college admissions office maintains a steady flow of paper traffic, free online app week at cfnc.org and deadline dates provide hours of monotonous data entry. Let me not dismiss the inevitable I-didn’t-get-into-the-school-I -wanted and my-mama-said-I-gotta-get-out-of-her-house periods that provide additional piles of paper on my desk, the chair in front of my desk, the leave a note box on my door and the window sill.

It was during one of these eras of unorganized chaos that the day was interrupted by what sounded like a herd of thunderous wildebeests stampeding in unison outside my window. It was in fact the tumbling spiral of the locksmith who failed to respect the power of the ice on the metal stairs. Her epic descent left her sitting on the final step in disbelief, pain and embarrassment. As she rose and steadied her wobble feet she looked around like we all do, confirming that there were no witness to her plunge.

Behind the bars, the glass, the window plants, my co-worker and I muffled our outbursts and fought back tears as she limped back to her van and drove off, undoubtedly for some pain reliever and a heating pad. I hate to admit that I too have moments of schadenfreude (if you did not click for definition you are either very smart or fake reading). At that moment, one thing could be confirmed-no one was being admitted for the rest of the day.

On our return from lunch where we choked on tacos and refried beans over a four-dollar plate at our favorite little Mexican spot, we found that the van had returned to the scene of the dive. I clasped my chest as my colleague reenacted the plunge in that indiscreet tone that has often forced us to remind her that she is missing a whisper button on her vocal remote.

Upon rounding the brick wall that contained our offices, there stood the locksmith at 6 feet 2 inches and about 250 pounds with her hands on both hips and a gaze that would have sent a lion running like a gazelle.

“Is ya’ll laughing at me?”

I dedicate this post to PD and her deer-in-the-headlight-glance that makes me look twice before ever talking about someone who may be just around the corner and to the locksmith who did not punch PD in the mouth after I walked off and left her holding the bag!