What business does a white girl have studying at a historically black campus?
That question confronted Cheyenne Haven during her semester at Howard University, one of the nation’s most prestigious historically black colleges and universities (or HBCUs).
“When I would tell people that I was going to Howard University, they would say things like, ‘Oh, that’s so brave,’” Haven recalls. “Or a common one was, ‘Oh, you’ll get to experience reverse racism.’”
Haven had the option of studying abroad during her time at Colby College, a school in Maine that’s just over 3 percent black. It was during her junior year. Many of her classmates decided to study overseas, but Haven says she was concerned about traveling out of the country. So she went to Howard, in northeast Washington, D.C.
“I’d walk past a group of students and I’d hear some sort of provocative, side-eye comment like, ‘Look at that white girl. What’s she doing here?’ Nothing was really direct,” Haven says, “And so I just kind of ignored it. I also didn’t really have a good answer at the time about what I was doing there.”
Today Haven looks back on the experience as a moment of self-indulgence: a bit of academic tourism in an environment that was not designed for her. HBCUs were established after the Civil War, providing basic education, career skills and eventually postgraduate degrees. Howard was founded in 1867 to educate leaders for Washington’s growing population of free blacks. If she had it to do over again, she says she wouldn’t go.
“I kind of think of it as a well-meaning, but ignorant exercise in my own (white) privilege: going and using my privilege to invade one of the few black spaces allowed in America, to do this psycho-social personal experiment.
“It’s like the epitome of privilege,” Haven says.