By Mia Aaronson || Staff Writer
A “predominantly white institution” (often referred to using the acronym “PWI”) is a term used to describe institutions of higher education where 50% or more of the student population identifies as white. When talking strictly statistics, it can be hard to imagine what a PWI looks like; 50% is a huge amount of the student population. However, upon further examination, many of the most competitive and cut-throat colleges around are PWIs: Harvard, Yale, Brown, Georgetown, and even Franklin and Marshall. It is vital that these types of institutions both acknowledge their PWI status as well as critically examine why their institutions are the way that they are. The systemic exclusion of people of color, specifically Black people, from communities of higher education can be traced back to the United States’ deeply ingrained roots in structural racism. The very foundations of the concept of higher education were specifically crafted and tediously perfected with the goal of ensuring the educational advancement of white people, while ignoring the educational needs of people of color. Additionally, many competitive PWIs, at one point in their history, owned slaves; PWIs don’t only have a history of excluding Black people from their selected communities of scholars, but further, at one point in their history, claimed ownership over their bodies, stripped them of their dignity, and dehumanized their existence.
Obviously, it is impossible for PWIs to rewrite history and unrealistic to expect these schools to change the demographic breakdown of their student population overnight. So, it begs the question: “what can PWIs do?” There are a myriad of solutions that PWIs can turn to (expanding their affirmative action programs, investing in holistic and comprehensive ethnic studies programs, etc.) but one solution I want to focus on, specifically during this month, is the celebration of Black History Month. This may seem like an arbitrary and somewhat small-scale solution to a problem that is deeply ingrained in these institutions. Although the celebration of Black History Month will not create structural change on a scale such that reforming curriculums or reinforcing affirmative action might, the very purpose of Black History Month serves a different, yet very powerful function.
Black History Month dates back to 1926 and since its founding was a way to intentionally set aside time to honor and celebrate the contributions of Black and African-American people in the United States. In a country with such a sinister history of exploiting and oppressing the Black and African-American community, setting aside an entire month to deliberately recognize and honor their contributions, accomplishments, and lives is vital. A deliberate celebration of Black and African-American excellence not only reinforces the voices and stories of these communities but also serves as a mechanism by which to unite a deeply diverse country on the foundation of celebrating the joys and triumphs of a community often shunned, excluded, and abused by the constant cycle of systemic racism. .
Microcosms of the United States and its history with Black and African-American people, PWIs cannot only acknowledge the effects of educational systemic racism that contributes to their lack of diversity. They MUST take time to celebrate and uplift the voices of Black and African-American people on their campus. When the systemic exclusion of Black and African-American people is deeply intrinsic to these institutions, it is crucial that these schools reinforce their commitment to their Black and African-American students. When PWIs publicly and intentionally celebrate the accomplishments of their Black and African-American students, past and present, they actively rewrite the narrative; they are dismantling their foundation of excluding people of color and challenge that narrative through unabashed and blatant pride in their students. The bottom line is that when communities of any kind are acknowledged and celebrated, those communities feel safer and more seen on campuses.
PWIs cannot rewrite their histories, but they can begin to rewrite the narrative. The main priority of colleges is to serve and educate their students and through an intentional celebration of Black and African-American people, these institutions not only create space to educate their communities about the critical contributions and accomplishments of their underrepresented students, but also reinforce the idea that those students belong at these schools.
Mia Aaronson is a Staff Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.