NORFOLK, Va. _ In the past year, students at Old Dominion University have seen fliers promoting Nazism pop up on campus and a video of a woman wearing a sweatshirt with the college’s logo encourage the mass killing of black people.
Hours after the video went viral two weeks ago, a question appeared on Twitter: Should students of color at ODU be surprised? After all, they attend a predominantly white institution.
The tweet posted by Troy Wallace, a junior at Norfolk State University, struck a nerve. It ignited a tense, hourslong online debate and tapped into a sensitive issue long faced by African-American college students: Whether to attend a historically black school or a predominantly white one.
“What I see is that this is a conversation that African-Americans need to have,” said Roddena Kirksey, a Tidewater Community College alumni and communications associate. Kirksey has degrees from both ODU and NSU.
She said her experience at Old Dominion prepared her for Norfolk State, but at a historically black college “you’re getting a cultural experience that you can’t get at a” predominately white institution.
Wallace said in an interview over Twitter she wasn’t saying incidents like the racist video should be accepted, but “it’s expected.” Campus police have said the video wasn’t filmed at a dorm on campus and they don’t believe a member of the campus community was involved.
Wallace added there’s “always issues between NSU and ODU” and that she thinks students at predominantly white schools feel superior to HBCU students.
“I just want them to realize that we’re equally educated,” she said.
A spokesman with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia said a “predominately white institution” is an informal way of referring to any college that is not a minority-serving institution.
The U.S. Department of Education gives minority-serving designation to schools that serve minority students, like HBCUs. Old Dominion is not on the list of them.
At ODU, about 45 percent of the undergraduate population is white, 28 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian and the rest are multiracial, foreign, unknown or unreported, according to the most recent numbers from the higher education council. Jamal Davis, a junior at ODU, said seeing racist videos or Nazi fliers shouldn’t be expected despite the makeup of the student body.
“I think everyone knows, that regardless of where they go to school, that stuff like this could happen, but no one expects it to happen,” he said. “It really makes me wonder who on campus is really thinking that way.”
Davis said he understands why people might think such a video is more likely to appear at a campus like ODU because the school is made up of so many racial and cultural backgrounds.
“This doesn’t happen often. We hear about stuff like this once every year or semester,” he said. “It doesn’t represent the overall population at ODU and the student body.”
Alexandra Boone, a Norfolk State junior, said she understands why some HBCU students joined the heated Twitter exchanges.
“It’s pride because we’re always being constantly targeted,” she said. “I could see why if a stone was thrown we’d want to react, but it’s still completely unnecessary.”
For senior Desmond Fogg, going to NSU was all about finding his identity. When he arrived on campus, he said, he struggled because of all the different directions he had been pulled when he was younger.
“I was being defined by other people,” he said. Being at an historically black college allowed him to explore what it means to be a successful black man, he said.
Boone said HBCUs get criticized for taking students who struggled academically in high school. But they do it because they believe those students have potential, she said.
“When I applied to the PWIs, I didn’t get that same feeling,” she said, using an acronym for a predominately white institution. “If you’re not an honor student, there’s no point in applying.”
The discussion over the racist video spilled out into other area schools. At a Black Student Union meeting Feb. 23 at Virginia Wesleyan College, senior Amber Morris said she didn’t want to go to a college where most students were of one race. Virginia Wesleyan’s student population is a little under 50 percent white and about 25 percent black.
“I know my presence at a school like this is important because I’m able to spread awareness on the culture and help people understand it’s not just you in this world, there’s other people,” she said.
Diamond Giles, a senior at NSU, said the debate between HBCU students and those at mostly white schools is “just a dividing factor that I think we all have to get over to move forward.”
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