As a senior in high school, the question I get asked the most is: Where do you want to go to college? My answer is always the same. I want to go to Howard University or Spelman College, both of which are HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). But sometimes I ask myself: “Am I black enough to go to an HBCU?”
I’m biracial — my mom is mixed (black and Filipino) and my dad is white. Back in the 1950s, my geat-grandmother, Flowers — her brother called her that because he said she smelled sweet when she was a baby — went to Prairie View, an HBCU in Texas. She is still alive, and if I decide to go to an HBCU, I would be the first to follow in her footsteps.
When I talk to my parents about my college choices, they tell me they’ll support me wherever I decide to go. They know all about the challenges I have faced related to race in my education up until now — challenges like in seventh grade, when my parents switched me from a majority-white Catholic school to a school that was more racially diverse. I quickly realized how little diversity I had been exposed to at my old school. I was happy not to be the only black kid in the class, for once.
But adjusting to a new school didn’t come easily.
Other students of color would ask me, “Why do you act so white?” so often that I felt like I had to change my personality just to be accepted.
I identified as black. That was something I had never doubted. But when my peers were so skeptical about my blackness, I started questioning my identity.
In ninth grade, I attended a college prep program for students of color. For whatever reason, in this environment, no one challenged my racial identity. I was just another student. We were all there because we wanted to be there, unlike at school where my peers had no choice. We talked about injustices we faced as minorities and our hopes and fears for the future. It was empowering to be in a college classroom surrounded by all people of color who accepted me as one of them.
That was when I decided to apply to HBCUs. I wanted to continue my education in a place that offered the same type of community I found in the college prep program. I visited Spelman College, an all-women HBCU in Atlanta, last spring. Our tour passed through the student center, where music boomed and all these young black women were dancing, laughing, eating and sipping their Starbucks before going to class. The minute I saw the scene, all I could think was: “This is somewhere I can see myself. This is where I want to go.”
But even after seeing life on an HBCU, I couldn’t help but feel those same insecurities from middle school coming back. I worried that I would still feel the same isolation I had felt before, that I wouldn’t feel included into the culture. I hadn’t been seen as “black enough” in middle school and I didn’t want that to happen again.
I talked to some HBCU graduates about their experiences. My college prep program held a dinner where I talked to two Spelman graduates, and they told me how welcoming and accepting the schools are, and that, looking back, they wouldn’t have wanted to go to college anywhere else. Another woman I talked to about my college choices pointed out: I wouldn’t be the first mixed-race person to attend an HBCU.
These conversations left me confident that immersing myself in my culture and history by attending an HBCU will help me become even more comfortable with my identity. At the end of the day, I can’t control how I am viewed by my peers, but I can decide where and what I want to learn.