Racism in Higher Education
Madeline Levy Cruz
HE525 Student Issues in Higher Learning
Dr. Tanya Saddler
The film Higher Learning (1995) depicts many of the issues that the modern day student faces in higher education. From lack of customer service from administrative entities to sexual identity confusion, a college student must meet many challenges and obstacles in and out of the classroom to successfully navigate through these formative years. In this analysis we will look at one specific issue in higher education, the issue of racism. Further, we will look at a racial identity development models to determine what the needs of students are and in what ways the institution, through its faculty and administration, can meet those needs.
“Without struggle, there is no progress” quotes Professor Phipps in the film Higher Learning (Singleton, 1995). This famous Fredrick Douglass quote is the epitome of racial identity development theory. Malik, the African American student in the film, is faced with several issues as he enters higher education. In the opening scenes we see him walking through a sea of predominantly white students, as he enters the elevator to get to his dormitory, a white female student in the elevator holds her purse closer to her body, a tell-tale sign of micro-aggression. Further, he is singled out for non-payment of his tuition during class, and must maintain his sports scholarship and his grades to get the ‘higher education’ that will allow him to be successful. Each of these incidences are issues that many racial and ethnic minorities must deal with in higher education, add to these the vectors described by Chickering, such as competence, managing emotions and autonomy, (Evans, 1998) and our student is faced with what can appear to be an insurmountable task, one that may lead him to believe that higher education is not worth the work.
Chickering’s revised theory suggests that students must move through seven vectors in order to develop psychosocially. These vectors are: Developing Competence, Managing Emotions, Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence, Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships, Establishing Identity, Developing Purpose and Developing Integrity (Evans, 1998). Like all students, ethnic/racial minority students must successfully navigate these vectors to meet the challenges of transitioning to college, but of special interest for this segment of the population is their ability to Establish Identity. The questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where do I fit in?’ take on special meaning, as minority students learn to deal with the preconceived notions of others, notions that in many ways can erode their self-concept, especially without a support system in place to counter them. (Kadison, 2004)
Racial identity theory developed from the presupposition that in the United States, racial groups experience either domination or oppression (Evans, 1998). Thus, a racial minority entering higher education is entering a microcosm of the society at large, with expectation as to how he/she is perceived and presumptions about who they are. For this reason, it is important for a minority student to establish their identity and use that identity as a shield against the barriers that can be placed before them as they traverse the world of higher education.
Phinney’s Model of Ethnic Identity Development suggests three stages of ethnic identity development: Stage 1: Diffusion-Foreclosure. At this stage individuals have not explored their feeling and attitudes regarding their race or ethnicity. This stage manifests itself in a disinterest in ethnicity. Stage 2: Moratorium. Awareness is crucial during this second stage. The individual may be highly emotional, feelings of guilt for lack of interest and anger toward the dominant race are characteristic of this stage. Stage 3: Identity Achievement. At this stage a secure sense of who they are is established. If an individual fails to move through all three stages, he can developed a Diffused or Foreclosed identity, meaning that he either does not identify with his ethnicity/race for the later, or that he adopts the negative attitudes of the dominant race for the former (Evans, 1998).
The literature suggests that an institution with minimal racial bias may promote the learning of minority students (Pascarella, 2005). Looking at Chickering’s revised theory and Phinney’s model, an institution can work toward providing the type of environment for minority students that promotes identity development and academic success. A first step to accomplishing this is to realize that it is an issue. Institutions need to realize that in order for minority students to succeed in higher learning, they need to feel as if they fit in. Walking through a campus that is visibly predominantly White, can be intimidating, having a more racially diverse student body is one solution; another is to have a more racially diverse administration and faculty. Having strong models in both the upperclassmen and the faculty and administration, would assist minority students in moving through Chickering’s vectors, specifically, Developing Competence and Developing Interpersonal Relationships. Minority students, seeing other minorities studying and working within higher education would be afforded the opportunity to have the confidence that the work is doable and the security of developing relationships with people like themselves.
Another way institutions can promote the educational and psychosocial development of minority students is to have promoting diversity be part of their core values and mission. The institution can develop a diversity office that would include members from staff, faculty and the student body in developing diversity programming, promoting cultural and racial sensitivity and respect. Additionally, this office would work with administration to make sure that micro-aggressions, such as security asking minority students for their identification badges around campus as in the example in Evans et.al, would be considered part of a zero tolerance culture within the institution. Minority students would see that this effort is important not just in writing but as a tangible and visible part of the culture of the institution. A student moving through the stages of Phinney’s Model might find it easier to achieve identity, in a culture that acknowledges racism and works toward unity as part of their core values.
Further, curricular opportunities should be made available for students to explore their racial heritage. Courses on alternative history, or the social impact of racial/ethnic minorities would have a great impact on aiding a student to move from the Moratorium stage to the Identity Achievement Stage. Being able to explore their ethnic or racial background from an academic perspective, could allow students get through this stage faster and without the high emotional intensity that characterizes it.
The literature suggests that college attendance highly impacts the racial-ethnic attitudes of students (Pascarella, 2005). Although academically developing students throughout their college experience is the central goal of institutions of higher learning, it cannot be denied that colleges have a psychosocial impact on student development. For racial minority students, this impact can be the determining factor as to whether they continue their education. It is important that these students fit in with the culture of the institution. To accomplish this, institutions must take a close look at their mission and core values and make diversity a high priority. An understanding of Ethnic Identity Development models will assist institutions in being a part of the process through thoughtful and intentional policies and programming that will encourage students to move through the stages of development.
Some researchers believe that the transition to college is a time that provides a significant psychosocial relearning period (Pascarella, 2005). For minority students this is doubly so in that they must not only transition from adolescence to adulthood, but also deal with coming face to face with oppression and discrimination and developing their own racial identity in the process. Institutions must be cognizant of the impact that they have on their minority students and work to aid them in developing.
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