Dissertation Spotlight: Not so Black and White: How Campus Racial Context Shapes the Experiences and Expectations of Queer Black Students

While racism has been studied extensively in higher education, the effects of heterosexism are severely understudied. Analyses of students of a racial minority, Black in particular, who identify as queer are near nonexistent. Furthermore, the researcher Tehquin D. Forbes states that to date, no scholarship compares the experiences of queer Black students who attend primarily historical Black colleges and universities (HBCU) to those who attend primarily white institutions (PWI). According to Forbes, that makes his dissertation the first “qualitative dissertation to analyze how queer Black students at an HBCU understand and experience diversity differently from and similarly to queer Black students at a nearby PWI.”

According to a 2018 report by Drezner, Pizmony-Levy, and Pallas, a national sample of U.S. citizens believed students are made better people and citizens with their time spent in university. However, this notion isn’t entirely accurate to the experiences of those who face systemic oppression within their institution. While HBCUs were created to supplement the education for the oppression that resides in PWIs, inequality and marginalization distinctly exists for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+). 

Forbes acknowledges the efforts of institutions to better the experiences, safety, and allyship for those on campus; however, he points out that HBCUs lag behind PWIs in creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students. This creates a dilemma for those who are both Black and queer: they can choose to attend a PWI where stigmatization and racism tend to thrive, or they can attend an HBCU where fewer safe spaces and support systems exist for queer students. 

Black and queer students face issues through access, experiences, and post-college outcomes. While little work exists on the issues for Black queer students, Forbes evaluates the expansive studies on hurdles faced by students of color, more specifically Black students. Forbes then does the same thing for the growing research on hurdles faced by queer students. Although legal groundwork now exists to make access to education for Black students fairer, there are elements that continue to threaten their access to college. For example, Forbes outlines the example that white college admission counselors are 26 percent less likely to respond to hypothetical Black students who expressed concern with racism in the U.S. than Black students who expressed no such concern. Likewise, queer students tend to perform poorer than their straight-student counterparts largely due to the stigmas they face. Forbes then goes on to support this idea by stating that queer girls are less likely to complete college than their straight counterparts, partly because of their high school performance. 

The experiences of queer and Black students are arguably shared due to their stigmatized statuses. Compared to their straight and white counterparts, they cite more hostile campus climates. In the examination of post-college outcomes, Black students lag behind their white peers in terms of a return to education. For Black students, large wage gaps exist. However, while Black college graduates suffer a 16.8 percent pay penalty compared to their white counterparts, queer college graduates enjoy a wage premium of about 10 percent when compared to their straight counterparts. This hints at a complicated future for Black students who identify as queer. 

Forbes moreover analyzes what it means to be an ally. Allies are “members of privileged identity groups or advocate for the rights of marginalized groups” (Myers 2008). It is difficult to pinpoint what the roles of allies are because the term allyship is difficult to define and there is little consensus about what an ally is or is not. Extant literature suggests variation in how Black queer students evaluate the work of allies. 

In short, Forbes’ dissertation serves to take one of the most disadvantaged groups, queer Black people, and provide a glimpse into how they navigate inequality in higher education. While it would be expected for Black queer students to thrive in HBCUs as they distance themselves from discrimination, there are many facets of HBCUs that make being queer difficult, if not more, in comparison to PWIs. They continue to struggle with the hurdles of this intersection between two distinct, yet similar, identities. 

Dr. Tehquin Forbes received his Ph.D. in Sociology at FSU in 2021.

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