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Black Students At White Colleges Fear They'll Lose Their Cultural Identity

According to a recent study published in the National Communication Association’s journal Communication Education black students fear they’ll lose their cultural identity while attending predominately white institutions (PWI).

“[Black students] feel tension between integrating into the dominant culture while honoring their own culture and black pride,” study author Jake Simmons, assistant professor of communication studies at Angelo State University concluded.

“As a group, African-American students wanted to assimilate into their respective universities, but at the same time they expressed a need to maintain cultural independence by segregating from them,” the authors wrote. “The need to segregate was born out of a fear that the African-American culture would become less independent and more similar to the dominant culture.”

The sample size used in the study was quite small with only 67 students. The students surveyed were from Midwest and Southwest schools where black students made up only 4.5 to 8 percent of the population.

As a person that attended a PWI, I can definitely relate to the segregation aspect. At Rutgers University, segregation was nearly impossible not to miss. There was the Paul Robeson floor of one dormitory, as well as Livingston College, that was always described as the “black” campus,  and the other “black” section, Busch Campus where you were always advised to live if you wanted to be around “your people”.  But I also think these factors at Rutgers, made it appealing to more black students.

The students in the study felt as though they had to be the beacon of blackness when it came to educating their white peers about the black experience. They also reported that they felt different from them even because of their dress, language and socializing.

From the study:

Blacknesswhiteness. A specific struggle that emerged from the data was a battle within the African-American students between their Blackness and the perceived
Whiteness of their university. This dialectical pull occurred within participants as they struggled to be proud of themselves and their Blackness while learning and adapting to the Whiteness of their schools. The following example from a female student illustrated the oppositional qualities of BlacknessWhiteness.

“There is a war going on inside of me between my Blackness and your Whiteness. When I see myself in the mirror, I see a competent, talented Black woman. Then I go to class, look around, and realize that I need more. My Blackness seems too…um…Black, like I need to be more than who I am. I need what you [as a White person] have. I need an understanding of how things work, you know, politically. My Blackness, my personhood isn’t enough. I need to Whiten myself to succeed.”

 

Did you attend a PWI and have the same feelings? Was black culture undermined?

 

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  • “a fear that the African-American culture would become less independent and more similar to the dominant culture.” <— Hasn't this already kind of happened?

    I attended an HBCU mostly because I went to PWI my entire life. If was great to be a part of the majority for 4 sweet years. But reality struck the second I got my first job. So I think the larger question is are we afraid of losing our cultural identity as a people in general.

    • Brad

      I feel you on that after being at an HBCU for those years getting my degree. But, what was funny was afterwards my first job ended up being a sub-teacher. I taught at mostly black Elementary and High schools for a couple of years.

      After that I spent a year working for a Black owned company. People kept saying how I was gonna go through culture shock after leaving an HBCU. Well, it was over 3 years before I actually went back to being one of the few on my job. Even then I was working with one of my best friends from college.

  • I definitely feel this. I recently graduated from a PWI in Malibu. I grew up going to predominately black schools until college, were I attended my first PWI. It was a culture shock for sure. I sometimes felt like I had to defend myself because of the way I talked and the reason I preferred reading Toni Morrison to the Victorian literature classics.

    President Obama addresses this cultural identity on college campuses in his autobiography and I found it to be close to my experience. Part of this fear of loosing our cultural identity (I mean my own, and what he talked about in the novel) came from an insecurity about what “blackness” meant for me. I felt I had to be one person with my white friends and another person with my black friends–Like I was performing.

    But I’m not sure that its possible to “loose” your cultural identity. Its something you grow up with. Then again…maybe it is

  • The Comment

    Shouldn’t black pride mean I will be the brightest mind in the room?

  • Jame

    I went to Berkeley. Where the dominant group was Asian. No majority at all. I grew up in mostly white suburbia. My black identity was of my own creation. We did have a split black community. Separate bulbs for Africans as and general Black Student Union. And then specific groups for black STEM students.

    My path was the same as it had always been, make friends with people I connect with. Black white or otherwise. What I did find interesting about my university experience was that diversity came with challenges. It was so fractured there was a club for everyone. Even biracial people had a club.

    If you wanted a diverse group if friends, you had to make an effort to do so.

    Embracing diversity made my own black identity stronger. And even better, it helped other people embrace our differences and commonalities, since in the end, we may have different traditions, we are still all people in the end.