By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Black males achieve at top universities because they endure and network.
These findings surfaced after Dr. Shaun Harper, founder and executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, decided to skip the typical questions. Instead of asking about barriers and stereotypes. He interviewed male undergraduates of color (143) at 30 predominantly white universities.
“So much has been written about deficits concerning students of color, and men of color in particular, and that’s important,” said Harper whose new study appears in Harvard Education Review.
“There’s very little research … that actually focuses on success,” Harper said. “If we really want to bolster success, we should commit at least a fraction of our energies on studying those who have been successful.”
Specifically, Harper found that “achieving” – students were those with high grade point averages who were also involved in leadership positions in student organizations, student government and other groups. All but two of the students reported dealing with racist stereotypes on campus.
The students frequently reported being asked by white students about their presumed dancing, rapping and athletic abilities. Sometimes, faculty members asked if they had plagiarized academic work, not on the basis of any evidence but because it was good, and other students asking how they were admitted to college in the first place. One Indiana University student of color recalled being stopped outside his residence hall by two white students who wanted to buy marijuana from him. The student, dressed in a suit at the time, was a prominent member of the university’s student government.
The students’ involvement on campus did help in other ways, however, Harper found. The students reported that the more involved they were as student leaders, the less likely professors seemed to stereotype them. “I am definitely privileged because my teachers know me and don’t make ignorant racist comments to me,” one student told Harper. “Now, the way they treat other African-American students in class is another story, a sad story.”
The students also said that their roles in student organizations – and the communication lessons they learned from older members of those groups – helped them speak up against stereotyping and other forms of racism they saw in the classroom and elsewhere on campus, including in meetings with the institution’s president or the Board of Trustees. Harper noted that many of the students referred to a three-step process they frequently used to respond to racist assumptions:
1. A white peer asks a question like, “You got weed?”
2. The achiever responds by calmly asking, “What made you assume I sell, smoke or know where to find weed?”
3. The achiever waits patiently for the white peer to answer. During this reflecting period, the stereotyping peer usually comes to understand the question is racially problematic.
The students said they still left such situations feeling frustrated, but much less so than in earlier encounters when they were angry at themselves for not speaking up. They also credited their high grades to their involvement in campus leadership roles and the related benefits. “I am frustrated by the misperceptions white students have on Michigan State’s campus,” one student said. “I am involved because I want to do something.”
But witnessing, standing up to racism, and participating in college life can be exhausting, the students said.
Blacks on top campuses often pay the price of sheer exhaustion, according to another new study. It examines some of the mental issues that go with developing endurance and grit and appears in the journal Educational Theory. Black college students may develop grit by fighting stereotypes. But, research shows it is leading to a new type of mental health crisis.
“We have witnessed students work themselves to the point of extreme illness in attempting to escape the constant threat of perceived intellectual inferiority,” Ebony McGee, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of diversity and urban schooling at Vanderbilt University, wrote. “We argue that the current enthusiasm for teaching African-American students with psychological traits like grit ignores the significant injustice of societal racism and the toll it takes, even on those students who appear to be the toughest and most successful.”
“I had men in my study talk about how their white peers would be able to go to class and focus on being engaged in student organizations,” said Harper, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.
“Meanwhile, the men in my study had to do that, plus actively work to dismantle racism and confront stereotypes. These students worked so hard.”