Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2004

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Staying Black

Staying Black
Dena Wallerson

A college education may seem like an obvious way for black students to improve their own lives and to help others in their community. But some face a peculiar dilemma: Friends and family accuse them of "not being black any more" because they view education as the domain of whites. Special Assistant to the Dean of the College and Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology Dena R. Wallerson did ground-breaking research on the phenomenon as a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut. She concludes that it has far-reaching implications not only for students and for the professors trying to reach them, but for the black community in general. Following is a synopsis of her dissertation, "Studying While Black: Managing the Pressures of Demonstrating One´s Racial Connectedness."


During informal conversations with black college graduates over the last 10 years, and through an earlier study I conducted at a predominantly white state university in New England, I confirmed that some black students were chastised by family and friends from their home communities for not demonstrating their allegiance to other blacks (especially those in the student´s home town) while attending college. I wanted to know more about the prevalence of this pressure and the implications for students. The following exchange is typical:

THE AUTHOR: Have family or friends from your home community ever showed concern that you were losing your connection to the black community? How did they convey this to you?

AFRICAN-AMERICAN SENIOR MALE: It´s always an issue when African-Americans go to college, period. Because you´re gaining a higher education. And people who don´t go to school or choose not to go to school, they somehow figure that you´re not … trying to be black anymore. You´ve been hanging out with the white people too much going to school. You think you´re too good, because you´re not in the ´hood anymore, and not chillin´ with us, going to school.

The pressure to demonstrate racial connectedness to other blacks is rooted in the history of Africans´ forced migration to America. Enslaved Africans engaged in systems of communication that were kept secret or masked through mixtures of African dialects and created words. An extended kinship network of relations evolved among slaves and is still used in some black communities today. This network fosters group cohesion and facilitates the pooling of human, financial and political resources.

Instead of being inspired to reestablish his relationship with his home community, the student mentioned above was repelled. That was not the intended outcome of the chastisement. So the logic of it is troubling in a number of ways:


  • The black student is accused of trying "not to be black anymore," which is ironic given his immutable status as an African-American.
  • The chastiser views education as the primary domain of whites and views studious blacks as having "sold out" to whites.
  • If successful, the chastisement would limit black students´ education, which curtails their ability to help themselves and others in the black community.

This pressure to demonstrate one´s racial connectedness potentially harms the prospects for improving a student´s life. In my research I sought to discover (1) whether black students continued to make efforts to maintain their racial connectedness; (2) how these students negotiated competing pressures for their attention in their home and school environments; (3) whether these students were accused of lapses in racial connectedness to blacks in their home communities; and (4) whether students altered their levels of immersion in their home and school environments as a result.

Racial connectedness

Blacks "in good standing" in their local black networks are expected to interact regularly with significant members and organizations in their communities. They regularly dine with family and extended kin, patronize black-owned businesses and religious institutions, and volunteer in civic and social organizations. They are also expected to espouse a "manifest" loyalty to their race.

Participation in that extended kinship network and maintenance of racial connectedness relies on the individual´s recognition of his or her membership in the group. Black racial identity is rooted in the history of blacks´ relationship with whites in America, including blacks´ quest for equal access to valued resources such as education, employment opportunities, capital and the right to vote. Poor access to education in America has served for some as a reactive bond within the black community.

Some students reject the dominant education curriculum because they say it is unrelated to their own experiences. They view school as a "subtractive process" that robs them of their racial identity. Some students feel pressured to demonstrate their loyalty to their race by not immersing themselves in their studies.

West Indian students are able to immerse themselves in their studies in part because their families immigrated to the United States to maximize their educational and career possibilities. Research suggests that whites view them as more industrious and reliable than African-Americans, and they receive more respect and recognition for their hard work.

Conducting the study

I interviewed 48 black undergraduate students who lived on or near the university campus. All but five in the sample were in-state residents. The sample is equally broken down by ethnicity (African-American/West Indian), class year (sophomores/seniors) and gender. I conducted these interviews in the fall of 1999 and asked students questions about their pre-college lives and home communities, their transition to college experiences and their sense of connectedness to their families and friends from home.

Nearly half the students (22 of 48) made significant efforts to remain connected to their racial/ethnic communities. Only three of the 48 made minimal efforts to interact with other blacks or espouse their loyalty to blacks. Interestingly, 41 out of 48 students made greater efforts to interact with other blacks than they did to espouse their loyalty to other blacks, which I hypothesized would be the most desirable of the two methods of demonstrating one´s racial connectedness.

Eleven students reported having been chastised by family and friends. Seven of them were women. They viewed the chastisement as an affront to what they were trying to achieve and were less willing to make additional efforts to prove their racial allegiance. The males were less willing to acknowledge that they were being chastised and were confident that they could "patch up relations" with family and friends at home by making concerted efforts to demonstrate their racial connectedness. One of the most painful stories was reported by a West Indian sophomore female:

They treat me differently now. At Christmas, that was the first time I went home once I got to college [in the fall]. No one asked me how I was doing at school. Once I get here, it´s like, "OK, enough talking about her, let´s talk about someone else." So I sensed jealousy, because I´m doing something for myself. And a lot of my cousins aren´t doing anything. So no more family events for me. That really turned me off, because we usually have Christmas breakfast together. And that´s where this happened. So I doubt that I´m going to Christmas breakfast this year because of that.

Later in the interview she identified her father as the person who accused her of "trying to act white." She was visibly disturbed as she told me of this incident. Her planned absence from the annual family meal revealed the emotional hurt she experienced and her desire to avoid additional confrontations. I expected that most chastisements would be leveled by family and friends from the student´s home. To my surprise, some students said they were also racially remonstrated by others at their own schools. Another West Indian senior female told a story of a chastisement she experienced as a result of her use of rollerblades to get to classes across campus more quickly:

(An African-American male) saw me in the Student Union getting a cup of tea and said to me, "Don´t you know that black people don´t rollerblade? What´s wrong with you?" And I said, "What´s wrong with you? Don´t you know that black people can do anything they want to?" And he stood there, speechless …. He couldn´t figure that out.

She was keenly aware of the constraints that some blacks place upon themselves, including racializing sporting activities. Her anger quickly turned into pity for her accuser, who limited his view of the range of activities available to him. Most importantly, she deconstructed the chastisement to be a tool for blacks to control the activities of other blacks.

Conclusions

Students reacted to being chastised by limiting interactions with their accusers. Students said the chastisers were not trying to improve their situation and were in no position to criticize others. The students felt they had not diminished their racial allegiance or abandoned the black community. Immersion in their studies at college precluded them from spending more time with family and friends at home, and they developed new networks of friends who shared their goals and aspirations.

What I learned from the 11 chastised students is that the pressure to demonstrate one´s racial connectedness affected the choice of who they socialized with, the types of activities they engaged in and how they presented themselves to others, on and off campus. The chastisements were counterproductive. They hindered future interactions between the chastised students and their families and friends from their home communities. The persistence of this pressure also created a level of apprehension among black students more generally and affected how some black students constructed their experiences at college.

Most of the 37 students who were not chastised said they made concerted efforts to bring their parents and friends to school to give them a sense of their college experiences. They also had very candid discussions with family and friends to help them understand college life.

Although I did not explicitly control for socioeconomic background, most of the chastised students reported that they could not afford to visit or call home frequently and that they came from poorer neighborhoods. For these students, going away to college served two purposes - first, to get away from some of the distractions in their home communities such as early pregnancy and crime, and second, to use their time at college to explore their own interests and to be free of some of the burdens they carried at home, including financially contributing to their homes and providing care for siblings.

My research on the pressure to demonstrate one´s allegiance to a particular group is part of a growing body of work on the challenges experienced by some students of color and first-generation college students. I recently joined the Dean of the College division at Connecticut College. The division offers a number of programs geared toward acclimating students to college life. Those programs focus not only on nurturing curricular and co-curricular interests, but also on maintaining relations with family and friends from their home communities.

Connecticut College Magazine

 
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