Interprofessional Collaboration and Its Impact on "Climate Change"
Stephanie L. Sanders
The Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, USA
To cite this article:
Stephanie L. Sanders. Interprofessional Collaboration and its Impact on "Climate Change". American Journal of Health Research. Special Issue: Integrating Interprofessional Collaborations in Health Services Research. Vol. 4, No. 2-1, 2016, pp. 4-17. doi: 10.11648/j.ajhr.s.2016040201.12
Abstract: In recent years, the number of Black and Latino/a students enrolling in institutions of higher education have increased significantly. However, when compared to their White counterparts, persistence rates are much lower. Past research has documented both the historical and contemporary issues that Students of Color face at Predominantly White Institutions (PWI). Now more than ever this body of literature has focused on campus climate and the role race has on the educational experience. The current study examines the impact of stereotype threat and racial microaggressions on African American students attending a large mid-western PWI. This study also examines how students cope with and respond to a climate filled with threats, assaults and microaggressions in academic and social spaces.
Keywords: Stereotype Threat, Microaggressions, Urban, Higher Education, Critical Race Theory
Research examining the recruitment and persistence of undergraduate students has largely relied on the early work and theoretical model put forth by Vincent Tinto (1975) and Sedlacek (1987). Over the past decade, research on persistence has expanded to examine the quality and the degree to which students engage and take part in educationally effective practices (Allen, 1992; Astin, 1984; Banks, 2009; Callan et al., 2006; Chen, Ingram, & Davis, 2007; Davis et al., 2004; Fordham, 1996; Fries-Britt, & Turner, 2002; Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges & Hayek, 2006; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; Venezia, Callan, Finney, Kirst, & Usdan, 2005; Williamson, 1999). One of the earliest pairings of the term engagement with learning outcomes emerged from researchers in the field of higher education - namely Astin (1984) and Pascarella and Terenzini (1991).
Astin (1984) refers to engagement as "the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience" (Astin, 1984, p. 297). An extension of this definition by Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) suggests that increased levels of student engagement leads to improved cognitive development and gains. In fact, when students’ values, norms and ideas align with those of the institution, they are more likely to adjust and persist. On the contrary, if students perceive their values, norms and ideas are incongruent with the institutional culture; they experience greater difficulty integrating into larger communities and are less likely to persist (Tinto, 1993).
A review of the literature illustrates that African Americans attending predominately White institutions (PWI) feel isolated (Ancis, Sedlacek & Mohr, 2000; Booker, 2007; Davis et al., 2004; Gossett et al., 1998; Taylor & Olswang, 1997) and classify PWI’s as hostile, unsupportive, unsympathetic and unwelcoming places (Allen, 1992; Feagin, Vera, & Imani, 1996; Fleming, 1984). Furthermore, they experience much discomfort and stress (Allen, 1992; Boykin & Jones, 2004; Feagin et al., 1996; Fleming, 1984; Gossett et al., 1998; Taylor & Olswang, 1997), lower teacher expectations relative to academic achievement, less social integration and negative campus race relations at a much greater frequency when compared to their White counterparts (Boykin & Jones, 2004; Taylor & Olswang, 1997).
In a study conducted by Eimers and Pike (1997), they found minorities presented with lower levels of entering ability, fewer sources of external encouragement, lower levels of perceived affinity of values, academic and social integration and perceived lower institutional commitment than nonminority students. In a study conducted by Landry (2003), results indicated that Women of Color experience challenges associated with the double jeopardy of both race and gender. The lack of persistence in this study was attributed to personal barriers (i.e., lack of knowledge of how to achieve goals, fear, lack of self-esteem), socioeconomic barriers (i.e., poverty, lack of family support), intracultural barriers (i.e., role expectations, family responsibilities) and extra cultural barriers (i.e., teacher attitudes). Frank (2003) examined the recruitment and persistence of African Americans in Teacher Education programs and found that students experienced racism, were designated spokespersons for the entire race in classroom discussions, questioned their cultural position in society and faced stereotypes related to their racial identity. Although many postsecondary institutions have experienced enrollment spikes from women and minorities (American Council on Education, 2011), persistence trends are marred with unique challenges germane to climate that further exacerbate the discrepancy between engagement and satisfaction. This warrants further investigation.
In recent years post-secondary institutions have begun assessing campus climate to gage perceptions in the representation and inclusion of its faculty, staff and students. Campus climate, which can be characterized as behavioral interactions that occur within working and learning environments that influence whether individuals feel valued, affirmed and treated fairly. Furthermore, research on campus climate offers insight into the attitudes, behaviors, opinions and experiences of faculty, staff and students and how they relate to others in the context of their institutional values. When the demographic make-up or composition of the student body is considered, race plays a significant role in shaping campus climates. There is a critical need to understand how the social construction of race impacts climate as well as the impact the cumulative nature the climate has on those who experience it.
2. Stereotype Threat and Racial Microaggressions
A significant amount of research has focused on Blacks at PWIs, their interactions with Whites and the climate it produces. This research offers insight into how racial and ethnic minorities understand race and racism in the context of PWI’s (Allen, 1992; Ancis, Sedlacek, & Mohr, 2000; Bernal, 2002; D’Augelli & Hershberger, 1993; DeCuir & Dixson, 2004; Dixon & Rousseau, 2005; Feagin et al., 1996; Fleming, 1984; Gillborn, 2005; Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Hurtado, 1992; Hurtado Milem, Clayton-Pederson, & Allen, 1998; Inwood & Yarbrough, 2010; Iverson, 2007; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Lynn & Parker, 2006; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; Milner, 2008b; Parker, 1998; Parker, Deyhle, & Villenas, 1999; Patton, McEwen, Rendon, & Howard-Hamilton, 2007; Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2001; Solórzano & Villalpando, 1998; Solórzano & Yosso, 2002; Suarez-Balcazar, Orellana-Damacela, Portillo, Rowan, & Andrews-Guillen, 2003; Tate, 1997; Taylor, 2000; Yosso, Parker, Solórzano, & Lynn, 2004; Yosso, 2005). Often times, embedded in the climate are invisible subtleties that cause their victims to remain oblivious to their detrimental effects.
Specifically, the work of Steele (1997), Steele and Aronson (1995, 2004) and Sue et al., (2007) suggests that assaults and threats related to Black stereotypes are found in the air, much like race and racism are an endemic part of our society. In their early work, Steele and Aronson (1995) examined how stereotypes work to impede a Black student’s ability to perform on standardized test that measure aptitude and intelligence. Results from this study indicated when Black students had to designate their race before taking the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), their assessment results were much lower when they were not compelled to give their race. Also known as stereotype threat, Steel (2003) characterizes it as "the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype" (p. 111). For instance, when taking the GRE, if Blacks believe the stereotype that they lack aptitude or intelligence when compared to their White counterparts, their test performance suffers.
According to Steele (1999, 2003), any individual, population or group can be vulnerable to stereotypes and are subject to the effects of stereotype threat; however, since stereotypes about Blacks tend to be re-enforced through media and other forms of printed and visual materials, Black students are more likely to encounter and confront these threats in academic and social spaces. Although part of society, Steele and Aronson (1995) and Sue (2007) further suggests that the daily effects of assaults, stereotype threats and racial microaggressions are so subtle they are difficult to detect and often misunderstood. Over time, these perceived assaults, threats and microaggressions begin to take an emotional, psychological and sometimes physically taxing toll on Blacks (Aronson, 2004; Steele, 1992; Steele, 1997; Steele, 1999; Steele, 2003; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Steele & Aronson, 2004); however, little has been written about how to mitigate these detrimental effects on African Americans who attend PWI’s.
A review of the extant literature on the explicit and implicit subtle forms of racism describes racial microaggressions in its everyday form as "subtle, stunning, often automatic, and non-verbal exchanges which are ‘putdowns’" (Pierce, Carew, Pierce-Gonzalez, & Willis, 1978, p.66). An extension of this definition assert that racial microaggressions can take the form of verbal, nonverbal and/ or visual assaults which are often unconsciously or automatically enacted (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001; Solórzano et al., 2001).For African Americans who attend PWI’s, elusive acts of racial microaggressions directed towards them may materialize through language, tone of voice, subtle looks/gaze, gestures and covert and overt behaviors. Similar to stereotype threat, these exchanges are so subtle and routine in our daily interactions they are difficult to detect in the climate.
3. Campus Climate and Critical Race Theory
To better understand how assaults, stereotype threats and racial microaggressions impact campus climates, the author utilized the framework of critical race theory (CRT), which emanated from critical legal studies. CRT has garnered increasing attention from various disciplines as a viable research tool. Not only has this framework borrowed from the critiques of law, sociology, feminist and ethnic studies, educational researchers have begun to explore the utility of CRT to understand how the social construction of race and subsequent operation of racism play out in educational institutions, at both the secondary and postsecondary levels (Bernal, 2002; DeCuir & Dixson, 2004; Dixon & Rousseau, 2005; Gillborn, 2005; Iverson, 2007; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Lynn & Parker, 2006; Milner, 2008b; Parker, 1998; Parker et al., 1999; Patton et al., 2007; Solórzano et al., 2001; Solórzano & Yosso, 2002; Solórzano & Villalpando, 1998; Tate, 1997; Taylor, 2000; Yosso, 2005; Yosso et al., 2004).In 2004, DeCuir & Dixon (2004) suggested that researchers were not utilizing the CRT framework to its fullest extent. In a similar vein, Parker & Lynn (2002) suggest that educational researchers continue to develop and broaden the framework to understand the educational experiences of racially diverse students and communities of color. In education, the expansion of CRT has challenged a "color-blind, race-neutral meritocracy" (Yosso, Parker, Solórzano, & Lynn, 2004, p. 2). For purposes of this study, the researcher draws on a few tenants of CRT, as it denotes a much needed shift in thinking about race relations - namely in higher education.
A central tenant of CRT requires the "recognition of the experiential knowledge of people of color" (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, 1993, p. 6) through counterstorytelling, which can be defined as "writing that aims to cast doubt on the validity of accepted premises or myths, especially those held by the majority" (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001, p. 144). Dissimilar to counterstories are the traditional social science theoretical models which often explain educational inequalities through what Solórzano and Yosso (2002) refer to as majoritarian stories - also known as monovocals, master narratives and standard stories. Through stories and counterstories told by African American students, the centrality of experiential knowledge serves to challenge mainstream assumptions and discourse (DeCuir & Dixon, 2004; Dixon & Rousseau, 2005; Milner, 2008a). As noted by Solórzano and Yosso (2002), counterstories should not be utilized as a direct reaction of majoritarian stories, but as "recognition of the experiential knowledge of people of color" (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, 1993, p. 6).
Another CRT tenant utilized throughout this study is the concept of interest convergence. According to Milner (2008b) People of Color experience the converging of interest based on larger advances made by Whites. In an initial attempt to illustrate this concept, Bell (1980) examined the decision of Brown v. Board of Education and suggested that gains for Blacks have always been in conjunction with the sociopolitical and economic climate issues that favor Whites. Specifically Bell (1980, 1995a, 1995b, 2000, 2004) argues that policy makers, at the time of Brown, were inspired by self-interest as opposed to a genuine concern for racial equality in efforts to demonstrate to European countries that Blacks were provided legal constitutional rights as well as access to the nation’s public schools. Although Bell (1980) used Brown to illustrate the converging of interests at the primary and secondary levels, the same principles are applicable at the postsecondary level, namely related to the recruitment of students of color to increase representation diversity of racial minorities on campus.
According to Iverson (2007), in the context of higher education, members in executive level cabinet positions often times pull together diversity councils to examine diversity related concerns (i.e., climate, retention, faculty success) and continue with recommendations that officially impact policy of future diversity and inclusion initiatives. What may be camouflaged in institutional diversity initiatives, according to Iverson (2007), is the rhetoric used to maintain a competitive edge in the marketplace discourse (e.g., "commitment to diversity (p. 599)," "increasingly global marketplace (p. 599)," and increasing educational opportunity. Yosso et al. (2004) further suggests that at historically White institutions, this language reflects the majoritarian story, which articulates these benefits in relation to Whites. It further implies that the admission of students of color serve to solely benefit their White counterparts so Whites can become "more racially tolerant, liven up class dialogue, and prepare White students for getting a job in the multicultural, global economy" (p. 8). These marketplace discourses produce [visible] students of color as a commodity that adds value to the university’s profile. Through marketing strategies, brochures and recruitment initiatives, successfully recruited students of color gain an exchange and economic value, which boosts the university’s reputation and standing in a competitive marketplace.
Although tenants of CRT are used in across many disciplines, its utility in Education is unique in that it considers the intersectionality (see the work of Kimberle Crenshaw (1995) and Ange-Marie Hancock (2008) and context of social constructs like race, class and gender. In the current study, an examination of assaults, stereotype threats and racial microaggressions on urban Blacks attending a large rural mid-western PWI is explicated. What follows is an examination of how students cope with and respond to these experiences in academic and social spaces.
This phenomenological case study examined the experiences of high achieving African American students from urban areas across the state who attended a rural PWI. This interpretive approach lended itself to making meaning of realities which are socially constructed. Multiple stories were told about a single social phenomenon that produced a polyvocal text - one that had many voices in conjunction with the interpretive voice of the researcher (Glesne, 2006). The research used qualitative interviews to illustrate in greater detail how African American students experience racialized spaces on their college campus. Without the methodology of qualitative interviews, the stories, analysis and interpretations would be difficult to access since qualitative inquiry is an inductive practice where theory emerges from the collected data and not a set of formulated hypotheses (Patton, 2002). Indeed, the purpose of qualitative interviews in the current study was to elicit participants’ meanings for events and behaviors, generate a typology of categories of meaning and highlight the nuances of their experiences (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007; Marshall & Rossman, 2011).
Research participants were current and former recipients of a four-year renewable scholarship program at a large rural mid-western university, classified by Carnegie as having high research activity. Ten students participated in the research study (7 females, 3 males). All self-identified as African Americans (or Black) with multi-ethnic layers of Columbian, Haitian and Jamaican. At the time of the interview, 3 of 10 (30%) participants were university alumni. Because participants were considered high achieving and academically talented, as indicated by standardized tests scores, grade point average (GPA) and high school class rank, they earned a four-year renewable scholarship, designed to recruit students from urban area high schools and to increase campus diversity.
Participants were selected through a purposeful sampling technique that outlined selection criteria to which they could participate in the study. Selected participants previously attended and graduated from urban high schools in the state where the mid-western rural university was located. They demonstrated financial need with an Expected Family Contribution of $8,000 or less as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
To assist with retention efforts, all scholarship recipients were required to actively participate in a multicultural bridge program, which provided an intensive overlay of success strategies that supported students during their first year (i.e., peer mentoring, free tutoring, academic and leadership workshops, professional development workshops). Upon the successful completion of the first-year bridge program, students could apply to be part of a peer mentor program which placed emphasis on the academic, social, leadership and professional development experiences of African American, Latino/a, Native American, bi-racial, multiracial and first generation college students from their sophomore through senior year. The bridge and peer mentorship programs both serve as supportive infrastructures that build pathways to student success.
4.2. Data Analysis
Participants took part in semi-structured / open-ended, in-depth interviews. All interviews, which included a focus group, were recorded and transcribed. The researcher utilized member checks to aid with accuracy and to enhance the credibility of the research findings. The transcripts were subsequently coded through a systematic organization of data into manageable chunks of information (Creswell, 2007). Without making a priori assumptions, thematic patterns emerged through inductive logic which were subject to further analysis (Creswell, 2007; Moustakas, 1994; Patton, 2002)
Narratives in this section offer insight into how students perceived, responded to and negotiated assaults, stereotype threats and racial microaggressions in both academic and social spaces. First, the author examined the impact of assaults, stereotype threats and racial microaggressions which impacted levels of engagement, left them feeling excluded and questioning their ability to contribute to the academic community and had difficulty maintaining the minimum GPA. Next, the author explored how students negotiated this climate in lieu of gatekeepers, poor advising practices resulting in changes in academic majors and an increased level of frustration. Finally, the author highlighted coping mechanism employed by students, which included navigating a climate of self-censorship, "proving them wrong" and (3) taking advantage of visible leadership opportunities.
5.1. Performing Under Stereotype Threats in Academic and Social Spaces
As mentioned earlier assaults, stereotype threats and racial microaggressions appear in various forms and are often difficult to detect. By failing to name the offense or understand the dynamics of these subtleties, over time, they will remain invisible and create potential harm for those who experience their daily occurrences. These exchanges were so insidious and routine in everyday banter that research participants dismissed these acts as others "unconsciously trying to help their own [White] kind." When participants discussed the racial climate on campus they characterized White faculty, staff and students as "open," "cool" and "helpful." In an attempt not to identify or name subtle assaults as racist, participants were very guarded about the appearance of being hypersensitive to issues around race. Although participants failed to name the subtle acts, they did, however, discuss the physiological and psychological toll of a racialized body matriculating through a rural PWI, which ranged from others "ignoring" their presence, which took a bit of "adjusting" and "assimilating" to the immediate environment.
Because they performed under the stereotype threat of being labeled the "controlling or aggressive angry…Black woman" female participants described their daily interactions with White students, faculty and staff as "draining" and "tiring." On the contrary, Black males from matriculated through the university at a very different pace. Under the stereotype threat of being the "aggressive or hostile or confrontational man," they "avoided certain situations." A few participants discussed their experiences of having to perform under stereotype threats related to their association with Blacks.
A lot of people there [university] have never seen Black people before and their idea of Black people is what they see on TV. You’re coming in and you have to break stereotypes that they have of Blacks. The women have five kids, is on welfare, has an outrageous hair style and long nails and she’s loud and obnoxious. The men are in jail or they are thugs and involved in gangs. When you’re in class and if it’s a small class you really get it. The first thing they [Whites] would do is look my hair, my clothes and at my shoes. And every time I would speak I would tell them this is my opinion. I am not speaking for the whole Black community.
By being affiliated with a group of racial minorities, this participant felt the need to perform under a threat in the air to represent the entire Black race in the academic space - also referred to as spokesperson pressure (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Because of his physical stature, another participant experienced the stereotype [threat] of being associated with the university’s football team.
I have to tell them I have an academic scholarship and my focus is on the books. If you are in college and from the [urban] hood you go college solely on your athletic ability. It’s not common for males who come from areas like that to be in school and on an academic scholarship
A final participant discussed stereotypes associated with geographical space and place.
I really think it’s sad because a lot of people don’t take the time out to get to know us [scholarship recipients]. They [Whites] are just going off what they think or what stereotypes exists about urban or Black students in general. It really hurts my feelings because I only wanted to come to college to get a degree like anyone else so I could have better job security or improve my life.
These narrative suggests that urban Black students who attend rural PWI’s are more concerned about their academic and scholarly development than the perceived stereotype threat in the air indicates. Although performing under these conditions left participants grappling with racial (i.e. Black) and cultural (i.e. performance of masculinity) stereotypes, a collective view of the urban Black experience at a rural PWI illustrate how stereotypes tend to be exacerbated by geographical locations. This is significant since universities are small microcosms of society where living and learning communities are formed and capital is exchanged (i.e. social, cultural, intellectual, networking, navigational). Moreover, it is critical since most research intensive institutions are located in rural, fringe type settings (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2009).
Research associated with stereotype threat would suggests that performance under these threats would impact classroom performance (Steele, 1992; Steel, 1997; Steele, 1999; Steele, 2003; Steele & Aronson, 2004). In the current study, high achieving urban Blacks, attending a rural PWI would be most vulnerable to the harmful consequences of academic underachievement. According to Steele (1997), when environmental clues confirm a threat in the air, this has a tendency to increase frustration levels on the one experiencing the threat. Perceived threats also require more psychological resources to counter the threat, which leaves fewer resources for classroom and academic performance. For instance, an examination of participant GPA’s indicated that although participants were considered academically talented and high achieving, as noted by standardized test scores, GPA and class rank - all criteria needed to meet university admission and scholarship requirements, many struggled to maintain a minimum GPA requirement of a 2.5 once they began matriculating. According to a campus administrator some of this could be due to a "strong correlation" between race and socioeconomic class and the level of preparation and lack of college readiness skills student experienced at the secondary level.
One male participant attended a private secondary school while another was enrolled in a "gifted and talented program since first grade." Both presented with a 2.9 and 2.5 GPA respectively. The secondary school experiences of female participants varied. While one participant graduated as the high school salutatorian and presented with a college GPA of 2.6, another attended a college preparatory high school and had a college GPA of 2.9. Another female participant attended an affluent high school with a liberal arts curriculum and presented with a college GPA of 2.9. For participants in this study, academic performance at the secondary level was not a good indicator of academic achievement at the postsecondary level. If this statement holds true, then stereotypes related to academic achievement remain one of the most pressing issues for high achieving urban Blacks in postsecondary academic spaces and a closer look at its effects on academic achievement is warranted. When asked about academic experiences on campus one participate indicated she devoted lots of energy and efforts into her studies just to be viewed as a credible student.
In the College of Business they stress group work and sometimes I feel like my intelligence is questioned. I’m last to be [picked] in a group. I have to work extra hard to prove myself and my qualifications. I have to prove to them that I am capable.
Pervasive threats in academic spaces seemed to heighten the sense of self-doubt for some participants. In this instance, there is a high probability that the need to achieve academic excellence was negatively correlated with being a [Black] woman in a male dominated industry (i.e., Business), which highlights the intersectionality of gender and race (Crenshaw, 1989; Crenshaw, 1995). When interacting with their peers in and outside of academic spaces participants voiced frustration at how the intersections of race, gender and geographical location impacted how others constructed their overall social identity. On a macro-level and according to scholarship requirements, participants were considered high achieving; however, on a micro-level (i.e., academic spaces), an analysis of data revealed that stereotype threats germane to Blacks and academic achievement emanated from White students and faculty alike.
We had to do presentations and a lot of times [White] students or professors would be like, "you were able to articulate so well." …It was really irritating and I think a lot of times people will see in the media how Black women are supposed to behave and so that’s how they expect you to be…A few times…in groups, I felt I had to perform more than anyone else in the group because they were already expecting me to be lazy. They would try to give me the little tasks to complete...It wasn’t even so much the students, but I had a lot of issues with faculty and staff.
The same female student singled out White faculty and staff as culprits who held fast to stereotypes about Blacks and academic underachievement. For instance, a faculty member in The Music Department stated, "I don’t think this is cut out for you and I think you should go back to community college because I think that may be where you might do better." This participant indicated that key among the most negative stereotypes associated with Blackness was her inability to progress in the program at the rate of her White peers and how she entered the Music Program. According to the participant, her admissions was based on the Department’s need to recruit a "minority quota" to obtain additional funds.
For any student, identity markers such as race, class and ability level alone are not essentially oppressive; however, through practices of racism and classism the social hierarchies of privilege are maintained. For this participant, this means the intersections of her multiple dimensions of identity (e.g. race, class) impacted her ability to make significant gains in her academic program. These interactions between student and institutional structures illustrate Bell’s (2000) concept of interest convergence. The converging of interest occurred when the Music Department benefited financially from recruiting a Black commodity into the program. Although the participant received minimal benefits of gaining access to the departmental program, due to her racialized body, the larger benefits were accrued to the Music Department in the form of financial capital gains (i.e. program funding). Once the Music Department received the financial capital gains, there was no longer a need to have a physical representation of embodied Blackness (i.e. structural diversity), hence, her inability to move forward in the program. This is a clear example of maintaining and reproducing racial, social and cultural hierarchies (Bourdieu, 1990).
The experience of participants illustrate that predetermined, negative stereotypes about their ability to perform in academic and social spaces impacts their engagement and persistence. In a number of ways these negative interactions among faculty and students serve as structural barriers that requires a great deal of psychological energy of the student performing under the threat. Moreover, the responses of students performing under the threat are in line with Steele’s (1997) suggestion of increased levels of frustration and mental energy needed to counter the threats, leaving fewer psychological resources for academic performance.
5.2. The Impact of Racial Microaggressions in Academic and Social Spaces
You’re like a fly on the wall or a fly in milk. That was something that I didn’t get used to until I was probably a junior - being the only Black person in your class… I say a fly in milk because I’m Black in this White world, and like a fly in milk they are looking at you.
Research suggests that Black students have more negative interactions in academic and social spaces when compared to their White counterparts. This body of research further suggests their experiences are surrounded by instances of isolation, marginalization, alienation and feelings of not being connected or relating to the campus community (Ancis et al., 2000; Banks, 2009; Booker, 2007; Davis et al., 2004; Fleming, 1984; Gossett et al., 1998; Taylor & Olswang, 1997). According to Sue (2010), the theme of being an alien in your own land is a salient characteristic that appears within the structure of microaggressions. For instance, a study conducted by Ancis et al. (2000) discovered that Black students encounter more negative interactions when compared to other minority groups, ranging from exclusion from the larger campus community and being invisible to students experiencing difficulty gaining access to academic networks. What is remarkable about this study is the role that faculty play in creating these conditions by assessing the classroom and academic performance of Blacks more harshly and negatively when compared to White students. While the extant research highlight contributing factors to student success, absent are the voices of African American students who perform under these unfavorable conditions.
In the current study, participants suggested that being part of the university’s compositional [racial] diversity yielded very personal consequences. Narratives highlighted a number of structural and institutional barriers, assaults, stereotype threats and racial microaggressions so subtle that participants failed to differentiate them from having been slighted, a condition that all individuals face, despite race/ethnicity. A participant part to the university’s first cohort of scholarship recipients discussed her initial reception on campus.
We had to constantly prove ourselves because it was some people who knew who we were and were watching us. A lot were waiting for us to fail and to say, "I told you this was not a good idea. We had a lot on our plate.
Throughout her narrative, this participant cited the dread of being perceived as intellectually, racially, socially and academically inferior by White faculty and students. Because her perceived intelligence reflects that of dominant society, namely Black underachievement, Sue (2010) would identify this as a racial microaggression. This participant also expressed a dual awareness about her performance in academic spaces due to the lingering threats associated with coming from an urban area. During her adjustment and although she was a scholarship recipient, she struggled with her academic contributions to the university and whether the university was a good fit.
Why am I here? What’s the point? I always started second guessing if I should have gone to a Black college. I don’t know if things would have been different... I questioned my choice and there were a few times where I began to fill out transfer papers.
Students in this study identified several instances of racial microaggressions that left them questioning their personal merit for being recruited and making academic contributions to the university community. This sense of dissuasion, emanating from threats, assaults and aggressions, generated real and perceived consequences, with the most obvious leaving students negotiating conflicts with a sense of exhaustion, frustration and discouragement (Solorzano & Yosso, 2002). This ascription of intelligence is also a salient category of racial microaggressions outlined by Sue (2010).
Just making it as an African American female…is sometimes frustrating because it’s like, "why do I have to work extra hard?" Part of me just want to give up…The most draining part is managing expectation because you want something so bad. It’s a possibility that you’re not going to get it because you are a women first and an African American woman.
The same female participant indicated that the growing effects of always proving herself became "draining" and left her questioning whether she was "intelligent enough" or "wise enough" to be part of the campus community. In fact, a number of participants commented that the pressures associated with ascribed Black intelligence, coupled with assaults and threats, gave them pause to change majors. For instance, a gender comparisons suggested that females received improper academic advising (i.e., course overload, scheduling) and were eventually "pushed out" of the majors they initially declared. Participants were tracked towards college majors that align with traditional gendered roles (i.e., from Accounting to Education; from Business to Family Studies).
One female participant viewed Arts and Theater as a "gateway out" of the restrictive urban environment that "kept me out of trouble" during her formative and secondary years. After her first semester at Mid-Western University she changed majors from Performance Theater to Nursing after experiencing a racial microaggression from a campus administrator - in the salient form of meritocracy (Sue, 2010).
To expand her course offerings, she inquired about applying to train and perform at Monomy (Cape Cod, Massachusetts), a group who performs to sold-out audiences that host eight productions in 10 weeks and performs everything from Shakespeare to musicals. The assistant dean of the School of Theater indicated, "I’m not trying to discourage you but there are not a lot of people there that look like you there [Massachusetts] …they are all rich upper class Whites." The assumption from the assistant dean is the participant’s urban habitus, which translates into a class habitus (Bourdieu, 1977, 1990), should not be performed in spaces filled with high status cultural symbolism. By acting as a gatekeeper, the assistant dean reinforced the already restrictive nature of the educational pipeline for students of color. This counternarrative highlights Bourdieu’s (1990) concept of cultural reproduction and how societies and institutions reproduce social divisions based on wealthy, privilege and power. It also underscores the value between oppositional cultural aesthetics and the class habitus of urbanness. Finally, it counter’s the "pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot straps" type of individualism and myth of meritocracy that fails to acknowledge the role of oppression or discrimination based on a person’s race or class.
Unlike their female counterparts, who responded to subtle microaggressions by switching majors and questioning their own self-efficacy, their male counterparts responded to such aggressions with a sense of agency. Upon matriculation, males declared and maintained double majors or a major and a minor (i.e., International Marketing and Japanese, Sociology and Criminology, Media Arts and Sciences and African American Studies) congruent with their career aspirations. If advisors had the appearance of trying to "push" Black males out of a major, track them or make academic assumptions based on their race, they avoided all contact with their academic advisor and sought out additional advice from "outside persons" or university personnel associated with multicultural or diversity offices who had a vested interest in their success. One male participant illustrated how he developed agency to cope with tracking he experienced at the secondary level.
I’ve never had an academic advisor for the majority of the time I’ve been here [college]. I knew what I wanted to do. I knew which classes I needed to take and which ones I needed to graduate…Not having a university advisor wasn’t a hindrance because I would meet with the [multicultural] director. My assigned advisor was affiliated with my freshmen major - athletic training. Once I told him I was leaving the program he just encouraged me to switch out. After he knew I was switching programs he wasn’t trying to help me.
Although research suggests that students accrue more benefits with direct academic advising (Heisserer & Parette; Chickering & Gamson, 1987), namely at-risk, low-income, underrepresented students (Terenzini, Cabrera, & Bernal, 2001), the narratives of students may explain why they are drawn more to faculty, staff and administrators from multicultural and diversity offices who appeared to have quality interactions with participants. If this is the case, perhaps Black males place a higher value on institutional structures equipped to understand cultural and racial barriers germane to multicultural students matriculating through a rural PWI. Consequently, Black males may gravitate towards institutional infrastructure and programs that lend themselves to further development of their own educational aspirations, without being officially "pushed out" of the system.
If context (i.e., urban, rural) and a climate filled with assaults, threats and microaggressions impact student performance, namely academic achievement, then an unsupportive context is not a likely place where urban Blacks would take risks associated with student development, engagement and intellectual growth, especially if White faculty and staff (1) share different cultural values, (2) provide minimal guidance and understanding about the student’s academic development and (3) are perpetrators of assaults, racial stereotypes and microaggressions.
5.3. Navigating Stereotype Threats and Racial Microaggressions
Although students did not take remarkable risks in a context and climate infused with assaults, threats and microaggressions, they did, however, respond in a number of ways, including (1) navigating a climate of self-censorship, (2) proving them wrong and (3) securing visible leadership opportunities.
Navigating a climate of self-censorship. Females in this study failed to connect the role of White faculty and students to that of an unwelcoming classroom environment. Instead, participants questioned their own level of academic achievement, merit and contributions to the university community. To understand the larger campus community’s perception to participants being recruited to the university, one female participant indicated, "They don’t know I’m a scholar. They see me as a Black girl walking down the street and they probably think I’m in sports! They may figure I am on scholarship because I am Black." A male participant suggested
There was a lot of backlash when the scholarship [program] first came out because of the rural setting that we’re in… I think the university sees us as a charity case. A lot of people think the only reason that we’re here is because we’re Black or poor. Or because they want to try to make the university more diverse. They liken it to helping out poor little Black kids from the city.
Another male scholarship recipient replied
They just look at you like, "You’re not paying for school. Now that I know you’re here on a scholarship, you’re probably here just because the university needed more Black people." It’s frustrating to hear that. A lot of White students say things like, "Well I didn’t get a scholarship and my grades were the same or better than yours so why didn’t I get a scholarship? And my family doesn’t have money and it’s not fair to only give scholarships to this kind of people.
These collective narratives suggests that although their racialized bodies were used to visibly diversify the student body, the reality, as indicated by student narratives suggest a grave difference between university intention’s and its impact on students - namely that the campus community did not accept the scholarship program well due to resources being donated towards a targeted group of students. To help students cope with the chilly reception, multicultural staff tips on how scholarship recipients should respond to disparaging remarks about the scholarship program.
Their main suggestions was not to let what people say get to us. They also told us not to stoop down to the level of those people…I don’t think many people knew I was a scholar. I’m not saying I kept it secret but it was something I didn’t highly advertise. It was something I liked to keep to myself because I knew I had a better advantage than other students. I didn’t really want to speak on it much because I didn’t want people to view me as different. I wanted people to think I’m just a regular student and just trying to get my degree like everybody else.
These narratives show an inverse relationship between representational diversity and the quality of participant experiences. Although the university advocated for increased representational diversity, the intent is buttressed by student narratives who report an unwelcoming climate. In a sense, representational diversity could potentially serve as a smoke screen for advancing the institution’s goal of diversifying the campus to make it competitive in the marketplace. Female participants voiced they were "homesick," "hated the place" and "went home every weekend" until they found offices filled with personnel who genuinely aimed to support their success through mentoring, unofficial advising and coaching. These efforts, though small, were enough for students to remain quiet about their affiliation with the scholarship program and the quality of their experiences, until a critical mass of scholarship recipients rotated through the university and assisted in interrupting the assaults, threats and microaggressions associated with achievement.
In a competitive marketplace, much attention is given to representational diversity; however, this should also signal the need to address the quality of educational experiences of urban Blacks who attend rural PWIs. These subtle microaggressions, many of whom are directed towards the participants directly by members of the campus community, appear to be based on the conjecture that scholarship recipients pose a threat to their White counterparts in the campus community. This is significant since representational diversity can translate into being invisible in a predominantly white environment. Ironically, the converging of these interest creates a loss-gain binary for the participants and the university. For instance, the same invisibility, ascribed low intelligence, tracking and faulty advising experienced by participants, translates into significant gains for the university. Bell (1980) and Milner (2008b) would further suggest that structural diversity really benefits university’s in a competitive marketplace.
Participants in this study who attend de facto segregated schools reportedly received less support from school personnel, lacked direct support as first generation college students, from family members and suffered the constraints of resources in urban secondary schools. If this is the case, then postsecondary institutions play a critical role in establishing practices that support the unique challenges that urban, first generation, low income students face. To explain how she weighted assault against her financial need, one participant stated she was aware that the university "wanted me there and I wanted to be there." Although the two interests’ converged (i.e., financial access, representational diversity), it seemingly appeared that Mid-Western university accrued significant benefits while the participants grappled with properly navigating a rural PWI. Participants also responded to the climate by proving themselves.
Proving them wrong. According to Tuitt and Carter (2008), the urge to prove yourself is a psychological response to subtle forms of racism. In the current study, participants responded to the stereotype threat of underachievement. IN the process they began disproving this stereotype by proving others wrong. Since participants care deeply about their educational attainment, they reported peculiar behavioral responses like "I have to work extra hard or prove myself," "we had to constantly prove ourselves because some people knew who we were and were watching us" and "you always have to prove yourself." Another participant discussed strategies to counter the negative effects of racial assaults, microaggressions and threats associated with Black achievement.
I mainly show examples because if they [Whites] see you when you’re about your business and you’re doing what you have to do, then they see that you’re a Black person. You’re smart. You do your work. You want to graduate. So I think it’s more about actions and proving people wrong…We [Blacks] have to prove ourselves. We have to achieve our goals…I really don’t think about it
[stereotypes] that much unless the conversation actually comes up… I feel like it happens often but it’s something that can be so subtle that you don’t really notice it right when it happens.
Several participants underscored that beyond representational diversity, the assaults, microaggressions and threats create an ethos that gives pause to their existence in academic spaces. In the context of a PWI, the response to prove one-self is remarkable in that the victim is left carrying the onus to educate others and interrupt stereotypes associated with Black intelligence. For example, one female participant suggested that demystifying stereotypes associated with Black intelligence left her "overwhelmed." A male participant indicated
I’m just constantly working hard and you get tired. It’s like oh my God- I’m overwhelmed. There’s always a little part in the corner where I just want to go home! It’s so much hard work but you just have to go through it. It’s all a part of the process, I guess.
These collective narratives suggest that the burden to counter stereotypes associated with Black underachievement are racialized due to threats in the air. Participants opted not to remain under the stereotype of being less intelligent. Rather they chose to demystify this racial stereotype through a psychological response that resists and counters stereotypes associated with Black underachievement (Tuitt & Carter, 2008). A final response that participants elected to employ when experiencing assaults, threats and microaggressions in social spaces included visible leadership positions.
Leadership opportunities. An analysis of data illustrated that assaults, threats, racial microaggressions and campus climate have varying effects on urban Blacks in and outside of the classroom. One female participant grappled with the value of having financial access versus experiencing an unwelcoming climate. Although male and female participants applied to both HBCUs and PWIs, financial access and a competitive scholarship package remained the top reason for enrolling in a rural PWI. Further, data analysis suggested that for students who applied to HBCUs, more loans, as opposed to gift aid (i.e. grants and scholarships) was offered. This trend indicated that participants were willing to accept gift aid and persevere through threats, assaults and microaggressions, rather than become part of a heterogeneous racial/ ethnic population (i.e. HBCU) and incur massive financial debt.
One participant stated, stated, "I started second guessing if I should have attended a Black college…a few times I began to fill out transfer papers." Despite continued self-doubt, as evidence through participant responses, none of the participants withdrew from the university. Rather, in an effort to navigate the climate, males responded to the environment by becoming involved in visible leadership opportunities and being vocal in class. Clearly, males turned these barriers into opportunities that disprove stereotypes by engaging in visible leadership opportunities in and outside of the classroom. Interestingly, male participants created counter spaces where both their visibility and self-censorship were simultaneously used. Unlike female participants who questioned their merit, one male participant talked candidly about creating a space where he could showcase his abilities and garner a level of visibility in both academic and social spaces.
I take advantage of opportunities in class to speak or participate in events on campus. If I have an opportunity in class to speak, I will. I use it as an opportunity to show people, "Hey look, not all of us are stupid." I also do programs on campus and when people ask you questions and instead of just giving them a normal answer I explain it in detail. Sometimes I go out of my way to let it be known that there are educated Black people on this campus and we do know how to operate in regular society. We’re not just illiterate or inconsiderate and ignorant people.
When asked how he approached situations where he detected threats in the air one participant responded:
I really do try to avoid those situations like being alone in a room with [White] people. If I don’t really know them, I make sure the distance between us is obvious. I make sure that I’m not appearing to be up to something suspicious. If I’m going up town, especially during the fests, I’ll make sure that I really watch the situation. If it’s something going on somewhere and it seems kind of bad, I avoid it.
Similarly, another male participant resorted to self-censorship in response to stereotypes related to Black male aggression and hyper sexuality. He explained when walking home during the day and at night, if he is "behind a White girl I will stay five paces back to the right or left so she can easily look over her shoulder and see that I am not trying to creep upon her…I’m not going to rob you or try to rape you."
In assessing the response to threats in the air, it was still unclear why Black males focused on physical distance with the opposite race and gender. Another male participant provided more insight by comparing his behaviors in both rural and urban environments.
That was probably the hardest adjustment I had coming to school. In an urban environment…you always have to be aware of your surroundings. No matter what’s going on, you’re always aware of your surroundings. If I’m at a party back home, even though I’m trying to have a good time, my head is always on the swivel, looking around and seeing who’s around me. When I came down here [to the university] it was almost like I was always on the defense. Like when you’re driving you’re always the defensive driver where you have to know what you’re doing but be aware of everything else when you’re on the road.
Unlike their female counterparts, Black males did not encounter stereotypes solely in relation to academic performance, but also relative to interpersonal behaviors and expectations. In the larger context, urban Black males reported exclusion from interactions with their White peers and intergroup relations. If this is the case, then it can be concluded that many of the social, academic and cultural networks available to urban Black women are not as readily available to urban Black men, especially if it depends upon appearance and ways Black males perform Black masculinity.
Dissimilar to the experiences of White males attending a rural PWI, one of the byproducts of racial stereotyping for Black males involves social distance, behavioral isolation and exclusion. In an effort not to confirm stereotypes associated with Blackness, males developed a double awareness or consciousness about the behavioral expectations of Black males. In this vein, male participants consistently created success strategies that disrupted atmospheric threats, racial assaults and power relations.
When White campuses were mandated to open their doors to cultural, racial and class outsiders they did so with little thought or action to the climate of their institution toward students who present with difference in many forms. With no real change in the Eurocentric model of education, tension between cultures escalated (Solórzano, et al., 2001; Solórzano & Villalpando, 1998; Solórzano & Yosso, 2002). Despite the [slow] gains made through organizational structures that support diversity, access and inclusion initiatives, significant progress is yet to be made concerning racial equality throughout institutions of higher education.
Researchers have recommended incorporating critical race perspectives into daily practices within education (Ladson-Billings, 1998; Ladson-Billings, 2000; Milner, 2008a, Milner, 2008b). By examining the organizational behaviors of rural PWIs and the educational and behavioral processes of urban youth, results highlighted the role that race, culture and gender played in producing coping mechanisms against the backdrop of infrastructures with power and privilege. As such, faculty, academic advisors and college administrators should be aware of the racial realism (Bell, 1995b) that exists in educational settings and acknowledge the complexities that challenge urban African American students. Reflecting on how PWI’s incorporate and infuse racial perspectives throughout institutional policies, educational practices, academic curriculum and diversity and inclusion initiatives is critical to the progress of racial equality in higher education.
A close examination of how participants responded to assaults, threats and microaggressions serve as a useful tool to understand student engagement, persistence, success and their psychological responses to unwelcoming climates. Participant counternarratives aids us in understanding how representational diversity is conceptualized and the organizational behaviors that emerge as a result of these intersections. Although successful recruitment of students from urban geographical locales across the state enhanced the university’s structural diversity, the rural context highlighted values associated with this space and actors who worked to maintain the values traditionally associated with a PWI. This further suggests it is probable to have an organizational culture that complicates and exacerbates structural barriers for students who have values, norms and ideas that are incongruent with the institutional culture.
Institutional diversity plans are littered with a number of measurable criteria, goals and objectives; however, a problem with measurable variables is what the increase in numbers measure. As indicated by research participants, an increase in quantity does not guarantee increased acceptance, inclusion or equal access. In fact, in a competitive marketplace, such as higher education, participant narratives indicate that PWIs can still be unwelcoming places for those whose culture do not align with more traditional institutional values.
Results from the current study revealed, for urban Blacks attending a rural PWI, their racialized identity served as a barrier to gaining access to institutional structures and spaces. In an effort to minimize these barriers, participants responded to the climate via coping mechanisms such as navigating a climate of self-censorship, proving others wrong and engaging in visible leadership opportunities. A collective analysis of data illustrated that participants responded to assaults, threats and microaggressions by dispelling myths related to Black underachievement. In fact, the amount of anxiety, energy and advanced preparation needed to anticipate threats in the air, caused participants to constantly be "on guard" and impacted their levels of classroom engagement. While research has been done on the detrimental effects of assaults, stereotype threat and racial microaggressions (Aronson, 2004; Steele, 1992; Steele, 1997; Steele, 1999; Steele, 2003; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Steele & Aronson, 2004) very little has been written about how to mitigate the physiological and psychological toll imposed on African Americans who attend PWIs. The current study suggests that experiences with assaults, threats and microaggressions have very different outcomes for urban Black males and females that lead to distresses among participants. Participants reported feeling "overwhelmed," "tired" and drained, which according to Sue, Nadal, Capodilupo, Lin, Torino and Rivera (2008), has the potential to create emotional turmoil that lingers for days, weeks, months and years.
Research examining major life stressors indicate that persistent/chronic stressors led to the onset of recurrent episodes of depression (Hammen, 2005). For urban Blacks who attend rural PWIs, they have the added weight of simultaneously managing and navigating an environment and infrastructure that does not fully welcome them. These findings support the idea that the psychological toll requires a supportive infrastructure where students voice their concern without the fear of retribution and in the absence of a power dynamic. According to Torres, Driscoll, & Burrow (2010), a state of constant coping, which is a protective mechanism, may lead to an underestimation or ignoring of present stressors. Hence, the importance of institutional spaces, personnel and institutional infrastructures that understand stressors associated with difference.
Research suggests that compared to their White counterparts African Americans tend to utilize psychological services less (Wang et al., 2005). A similar trend is noted among African American college students who underutilize counseling and psychological services (Williams & Justice, 2010) primarily due to associated stigmas, cultural mistrust and misperceptions related to mental health (Anglin, Philip, Link, & Phelan, 2008; Vogel, Wade, & Hackler, 2007; Vontress & Epp, 1997). Notwithstanding, these existing barriers may provide institutions with valuable information needed to develop effective intervention practices and/or infrastructures that assist students as they matriculate. This does not, however, absolve faculty, staff and students of their individual responsibility to acknowledge ways they may contribute to a climate imbued with assaults, stereotype threat and racial microaggressions. This approach lends itself to interpersonal work that broadens personal perspectives. For instance, the use of interprofessional collaboration is an exemplary way for organizations to create the type of living and working environments characterized as inclusive and collaborative.
Interprofessional collaboration, as noted by Clarke (2006) occurs when professionals learn from one another to improve collaboration and quality of care. Although utilized mainly in health care, this concept is also applicable to the educational processes associated with fostering an inclusive environment for all students. This is critical given demographic shifts and enrollment increases to higher education for African American and Hispanic student populations (American Council on Education, 2011). Interprofessional collaborations between infrastructures that support multicultural student engagement/persistence (e.g., diversity, [multicultural] student affairs) and mental health professionals will push organizational boundaries, strengthen strategic diversity plans and signals the need for broad collaborative partnerships needed to actualize institutionalize diversity and inclusion initiatives that foster a welcoming and inclusive environment.
According to Leach & Hall (2011), although the relationship between mental health professionals and those not affiliated with the field (e.g., nonprofessionals, lay person) have not been fully explored, a closer look may reveal collaborative efforts stifled by a number of barriers (i.e., guarding information, role boundary conflicts and confusion, varied philosophical approaches, dearth of resources) (Seker & Hill, 2001). As students experience assaults, threats in the air and microaggressions, the need for time sensitive support becomes critical - and if unmet, may have a tendency to impact persistence rates and levels of engagement. Hence, a strategic and collaborative approach between diversity offices and mental health professionals would offer the best means of an integrated approach that supports student persistence and provides them with the necessary skills to manage stressors associated with assaults, threats and microaggressions.
Although a number of studies have examined the Black experience in higher education (Allen, 1992; Eimers & Pike, 1997; Fleming, 1984; Feagin et al., 1996; Gossett et al., 1998; Sedlacek, 1987; Sedlacek, 1999; Taylor & Olswang, 1997), research in this area lacks the breadth necessary to compare and contrast the individual and institutional effects once the two converge. Future research in this area should address not only campus infrastructures that support student success, but the role that culturally competent counselors and mental health professionals play in supporting the matriculation of urban Blacks attending rural PWI’s. An additional area of research should focus on the benefits associated with a more integrative approach between diversity offices and mental health professionals and its impact on leadership, organizational structure and climate.
While formal educational practices and policies are taking place related to admission, retention efforts and student engagement, so too are assaults, threats and racial microaggressions that elicit coping behaviors. According to Boykin (2001), this process "conveys certain ways of viewing the world, ways of codifying reality" (p. 192). Although research maintains that students bring their own identities into the classroom (Fordham, 1996; Jones & McEwen, 2000; Steele, 1997; Tatum, 1997; Willie, 2003), student narratives indicate that institutions and classroom become very difference places and spaces for different racial and ethnic groups.