James Wanda, a senior at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College and one of two black computer science majors in his class, says at times he has felt pressure to succeed not just for himself, but for his entire race.
“I realized if I fail, in some ways, it means that people might take that as either confirmation that other black students will fail, or as a sign that they might fail,” said the 21-year-old from Arlington, Virginia.
For black students — especially men — at many mainstream colleges, these pressures, racial slights and other negative interactions can push them to transfer or even drop out. A new study in the Harvard Educational Review is highlighting how some black male college students are overcoming those challenges, and the reasons for their success.
Shaun Harper, a professor and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, surveyed more than 140 students at 30 predominantly white public and private colleges.
Among his findings: While high-achieving black male students aren’t immune from racial stereotypes, they have found a way to push back against them — often through taking on confidence-building campus leadership roles that can change perceptions of them among their white peers and faculty.
“White students get to be students and learn; students of color have to deal with racial stress,” Harper said in an interview. “As they become more skillful at not internalizing low expectation, it frees them up from this distraction.”
Columbia University psychology and education professor Derald Wing Sue has researched the stress-producing slights and insensitivities tinged with bigotry, or microaggressions, cited in Harper’s study. He said the positive responses outlined in his research are a kind of social activism that gives black men a feeling that they have the ability to impact their environment.
“A person who is able to be involved in leadership, who speaks out on behalf of change, it really gives them a sense that the locus of control is within them, not others,” Sue said. “When a microaggression occurs, it assails your racial identity. It tells you that you are a lesser being, that you are impotent, that you don’t belong here.”
Many of the black male students surveyed got their start as campus leaders through involvement in predominantly black organizations before taking on such roles in more mainstream school groups. As they became involved on their campuses, they said, their days were more structured, they were more focused and their grades improved.
“They would find people in these (mainstream) organizations to be study buddies with, to share notes with,” Harper explained. “It put them in the company of others who were also succeeding academically.”
In his four years at Lafayette, a small, private liberal arts college in Easton, Pennsylvania, Wanda has served as a resident assistant and president of the computer science and anime clubs. He said he took the leadership roles, in part, to help break down stereotypes.
“It gave me a sort of way … to influence and talk to others,” Wanda said.
Recently, Wanda questioned an exchange he viewed as a racial slight: a white dorm resident’s dismissal of a rap song he was listening to. As an underclassman, Wanda said he doubts he would’ve challenged the comment.
The study challenges white students and leaders at these institutions to confront their biases, so that the responsibility for dispelling myths doesn’t fall entirely on black male students. Harper said universities have a role in disrupting environments that perpetuate racial bias, and that this is the most important takeaway from his study.
Gary Gordon, a math professor at Lafayette who mentors minority students, recalled a class discussion where race became part of the conversation and he caught himself resisting the urge to ask the lone black student in the class to speak for her race.
“She was used to that, but I felt terrible,” he said. “I don’t think I do that so much anymore.”