Separate But Equal: Should Black Students Have Separate Graduations?

April 2, 2013  |  


Many universities are participating in separate but equal traditions. No, I’m not talking about Jim Crow, but graduation ceremonies. A recent study has shown that over 58 percent of schools have a graduation ceremony just for LGBT students, 33 percent have ceremonies for the black student population, and 22 percent have ceremonies for Latino students.

At many large universities, graduation day can be an all-day event where family and friends are dragged around to attend multiple ceremonies for the graduate. On my graduation day at Howard, many dual major JD/MBA students attended the law ceremony, the MBA ceremony, and the overall university commencement to get a glance at the big shot guest speaker. All this running around from auditorium to auditorium makes for a very tiring day.

Since Howard is an HBCU, there was no need to have a separate ceremony for other nationalities since the greater student population is black and this private university’s intent is to advance the education of African-American students. However, at universities like the University of Illinois with over 42,000 students and only 5 percent being black and 6 percent Hispanic, there appears to be much more of a need for these special observances since this public university is meant to benefit the overall community.

I had the pleasure of attending both a traditional graduation and the separate black graduation at the University of Illinois. My friend who was graduating seemed proud when she crossed both stages. However at the traditional ceremony she seemed more rigid and bored, while at the African-American student graduation later that evening she seemed more alive, high fiving her friends in her Kente patterned graduation sash. I was far more entertained at the latter ceremony, but then again, I am a biased audience.

With special attention being paid to certain minority groups at graduation, one might ask whether this is fair to the overall student population. Having separate graduations for all the schools at the university might make sense, but do we have to go as far as having separate ceremonies for different ethnicities? And note that the first school that ops to have a whites-only graduation ceremony would be called disgraceful and bashed all over the news.

In my opinion, minority students at large universities can be so outnumbered that it’s rare to have many people that look like you in your classes. Since we are usually drawn to people who look like us, most African Americans at universities are likely to have a tight knit group of black friends. I don’t think separate graduations are meant to isolate white students, but allow the small population of minority students to make a memory they will never forget by graduating shoulder-to-shoulder with some of their closest classmates.

Do you think minority groups at universities should have separate ceremonies? Let me know your thoughts.

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  • Cece

    I actually attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and as a graduate with a BA in Political Science Class of 2012 I feel the need to vouch for my alma matter on this matter. I participated in two graduation ceremonies, (although, I could have participated in three had I participated in the commencement ceremony for the entire graduating class but I wouldn’t have walked or received any personal recognition.) One was for my department and the second was the AA commencement ceremony. Both were unique in their own right and I enjoyed both and I feel both served their purpose. I will say that the Black ceremony was more personal and more passionate. Anyway, my point here is that I think that bigger universities like mines should definitely grant minority students the option to graduate how they want. In a big university, one feels like a number. For me, personally, it felt good being surrounded by people like me and celebrating something so big as graduating given our history. One of the bonuses of going to a school as big as mines was the availability of OPTIONS. I’m grateful my university acknowledged their diverse population and catered to its interest. Wish more big schools did it.

    • Cece

      And to conclude, I totally agree with the last paragraph of this article. It’s about the memories. It’s no deeper than that.

  • Chassie

    I don’t see why I would attend a racially diverse university if graduations were divided by race. However, some schools have a large graduation and a lot of the cultural houses have a ceremony, in addition to the larger graduation, not in place of it.

  • EDW

    Not Separate, in addition to the general one, daughter graduated from University of Cincinnati, African American Graduation on Friday was a moving, inspirational, experience. A celebration dedicated to some things that would not be mentioned in the general graduation.

  • ksmall

    i went to a school of 40K kids, 5K in the graduating class. the reason why students opt to do a separate graduation at a school that big is so that they can celebrate with their friends. though most of us had friends across races, ethnicities, etc, most of our friends were black. it was a matter of being able to highlight accomplishments of fellow black graduates that would go unrecognized in a graduation of 5K, and it also meant that we could walk across the stage, something that doesn’t happen in the larger ceremony. totally understandable why the separate ceremonies exist when you have a school where out of 5K grads less than 10% are black. i opted to do both, and they were very very different, but equally enjoyable.

  • Pseudonym

    I think you guys are mis-framing this. They’re not separate race-based graduations, but rather certain student interest or support groups holding small member appreciation ceremonies. They have them for different cultural groups, different academic departments, etc. Some Office of Minority Affairs are very invested in their students and form a family like bond and this is their way to share in their graduates’ success- same as for the different academic departments where everyone gets to know each other well over the four years and they do something special to send off their graduates.

  • E

    I personally am going to my separate graduation this year. It is a different dynamic to have a graduation with others of your race. A lot in our community do not graduate! This allows all of my family to come because they offer more tickets, and it allows me for the first time to be among my peers who look like me, after being the only person of color in most of my classes, or one of three in others that have up to 75 people. The ceremony is not as long with less people and my family can all be proud of myself and there is a sense of community and that we did it and we all know some of the same struggles we went through in the same school etc. I am for it but I can understand why some would not understand them.

  • Just me

    What? No. If graduations are too big, separate them by department (my school did this), but race?! What’s the point?The same awesome memories can be made at graduation parties and BBQs or whatever.

    • kierah

      Exactly. I don’t like this idea at all. Separate them by major if the class is too big. After all, you have spent a lot of time with people in your major as well.

    • Kenedy

      Yeah, my school was large and had a lot of graduates. They did one huge ceremony for the overall school, no walking in this one. Then they did separate ones for different majors, with walking in these ones. The whole race thing sounds stupid to me