How My HBCU Experience Taught Me To Be Unapologetically Black

Her Voice

As I headed into my senior year of college, I took a congressional internship in D.C.

It was the beginning of a shift in perspective about what it meant to be young, intelligent, and black.

My roommates were three beauties from Howard University. Two were finishing up in Finance and Accounting, while one was on the road to law school. They took me in, introducing me to the mecca of HBCU culture.

I sat in on deep analytical discussions regarding politics and social issues – falling in love with their confidence to speak their thoughts firmly from a black perspective. These women were not intimidated by the stark perceptions that might formulate from their confidence. Nor did they bother to worry about fitting into the small box I was squirming within. They stood tall in their glory and even seemed to flourish in it.

I watched as afros, melanin, and magic erupted into a special type of synergy I'd never knew I longed for. I saw much of the same as I hung out with other HU students who used their perspective to create the type of opportunities for themselves that we all dream of.

Mass communication majors discussed their ideas of unique niches geared toward people of color. Up and coming fashion designers hosted impeccable shows thoughtfully choreographed and marketed for Black audiences. Models planned New York Fashion Week takeovers that would dip the city in brown hues. Students from different regions and socioeconomic backgrounds formed connections with thought leaders who were on the cusp of greatness.

These students won a national network of folks who'd forever be connected to them through a shared HBCU experience. It was priceless.

I watched all of this, a little envious of their ability to walk upright in the coexistence of their ambitions and their culture. Although impressed, I still wasn't fully confident in my ability to do the same.

I went back to my own school, wanting to disappear as everyone waited on my response to cultural conversations or politically charged issues affecting minorities. There was still this thought that I'd be miscategorized based on some action that was foreign to those in my work and social circles – thus I was silent in instances when I had something of value to say.

I was still struggling through how to lean into my confidence as an intelligent black woman. In my mind, one wrong move would label me a stupid misfit and set the entire culture back five decades.

Somehow, I held on to this eerie feeling that the work I did in this world would never amount to anything if I couldn't get people who didn't look like me to feel comfortable with my blackness. And so I shrunk myself – until I enrolled at Southern University for my Masters and Law Degree.

My summer at HU had already laid the foundation for more progressive thoughts. Southern solidified these thoughts. I was surrounded by innovators who were just as well versed in social issues as they were in rap.

Every day as I sat in classrooms, I wasn't just learning from my teachers – I was learning from my peers. The gross representation of intelligent black minds in one room helped me to fully see myself for the first time.

I realized that I wasn't dope in spite of my blackness but because of it.

Instead of feeling compelled to change parts of me that made me different, I began to understand that these differences were what allowed me to add a special type of value and unique perspective. I stopped taking steps away from who I was and leaned into it instead. I looked around in astonishment of all we offer and felt grateful.

I saw inclusion that made me walk a little more upright. It encouraged me to confidently and firmly state my position without pause. I basked in my own type of privilege – nationally known teachers who still cared about going the extra mile for students, study abroad opportunities that expanded my purview of the world, conferences that presented a platform for social change, and classmates who became family.

I started embracing the texture of my hair and the assertive tone of my voice. Through my HBCU experience, I grew proud.

There are those who argue that these institutions are losing their validity. To them I say, the unique value offered by these institutions will never lose its value. HBCUs will forever be a needed incubator for black leaders - a critical support system that allows students to thrive and succeed despite stifling situations.

These universities reinforce the critical message that diversity, inclusion, and pride in our differences is the best way to promote change. The submergence of our minds into supportive environments makes it possible for slews of first generation African-American students to find footing in a world where it may seem many don't get it. These schools groom leaders with the confidence to make a difference by being different.

It is not enough for us to just sit at the table, we must also boldly speak to relevant issues that are often uncomfortable once we get there. HBCUs continue to make that possible by fostering the type of pride, perseverance, and tenacity needed to use our voices for good.

For people like me, who've spent their entire lives submerged in predominantly white experiences, we learn that it's okay to be different without shrinking.

I found a type of self-love that I was missing prior to my attendance at Southern. With it, I am a better version of me – equipped to navigate everything that makes me the right type of leader. In my mind everyone, regardless of race, needs this experience.

Perhaps it can act as a gateway that teaches tolerance and dismantles stereotypes. Maybe it can serve as a type of quasi-minority experience for the majority, which provides new perspective. Or in the alternative, serve as an up close and personal look at the magic engraved in the fabric of our DNA.

Either way, the wealth of knowledge provided by HBCUs is a hidden gem eternally worthy of acknowledgement and praise.

All photos provided by writer Kandice Guice

xoNecole is always looking for new voices and empowering stories to add to our platform. If you have an interesting story or personal essay that you'd love to share, we'd love to hear from you. Contact us at submissons@xonecole.com

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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