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‘Staying Black’ While Attending College

‘Staying Black’ While Attending College

By Dr. Dena R. Wallerson

Some of our Black students today face a peculiar dilemma when they arrive at college. They must negotiate the demands of proving that they have not forgotten their “roots” and must demonstrate their “Blackness” to others while getting a college education. For Black students attending schools where they are a racial minority, proving one’s Blackness is not as easy as it may seem. Being studious is viewed by some students and members of the Black community as “acting White.” For some, this accusation is frustrating, as generations of Blacks have been taught that “education is the key” to becoming self-supportive and “lifting others as we climb.”

In studies I conducted to test the persistence of this dilemma at a large state university in New England, one quarter of my sample of Black students reported experiencing this pressure in ways that caused major tensions between the students and those who chastised them. In these in-depth interviews, I discovered that the chastisement typically occurred as students spoke about their academic and career interests to family and friends. For example, a Black female student reported that at a Thanksgiving dinner, her father chastised her for wanting to be a biology major, citing that Blacks don’t “do science.” He accused her of forgetting where she had come from and expected her to pursue a career in a legal or social services field to provide more direct assistance to members of the Black community.

This accusation devastated the student, and she refused to go home for major holidays or semester breaks thereafter. Other students reported being reluctant to demonstrate their comprehension of their course readings and assignments in the presence of other Blacks in their classes, for fear of being viewed as too studious and “trying to act White.”

The irony of these accusations is that students in my sample had a very small network of Black friends and were not immersed in the larger campus culture with other Whites. As students became more immersed in their majors and engaged in internships and community-service projects which were predominantly located in Black communities, they had less time to interact with other Blacks on campus and at home but had not lost interest in being an active participant in the Black community.

How can we help our students deal with this pressure? My study participants acknowledged that students must manage their curricular and co-curricular activities effectively and allocate time to have candid conversations with their families and friends to explain that immersion in their studies does not necessitate an aversion to participation in the Black community. They suggested that students must bring their families and friends to campus during parents’ weekend and other events during the year to show them how their children construct their lives at college.

My students take every opportunity to write papers about the Black experience, take courses on Black history, join local Black religious congregations and do community service in local Black communities as a way of “staying connected” while in college.

We know that our students do their best work when they are passionate about what they are studying. In our lifetime, Black astronauts, architects, publishers, elected officials and poets among others, have achieved national and international prominence. The sooner we nurture and normalize Black students’ enthusiasm for the range of academic disciplines and careers that are available to them, the more opportunities they will have to “lift others as they climb.” 

Wallerson is interim director of the Unity House Multicultural Center at Connecticut College, assistant dean of the college for multicultural affairs and visiting assistant professor of sociology.

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