At an Elite College, Race Influences Views of Diversity
Like many elite colleges and universities, Amherst College is going to great lengths and expense to identify and attract to its campus talented students who are not affluent and white.
Its efforts are directed at offering opportunities for social and economic mobility to those students, at providing some measure of social equity. Bringing a diverse group of students to the campus also creates opportunities for all students to have their previous notions of race and class challenged, and their understandings deepened, through interactions with one another. Opportunities abound.
What actually happens? In following 58 students, black and white, affluent and lower-income, through their first year at Amherst, I was able to get a sense of what they experienced, with a focus on these two questions: What were the specific challenges that arose for those students in being part of a diverse community, and what did they actually learn from the diversity around them?
Several major conclusions can be drawn from this study. Lower-income and black students faced many more challenges than affluent whites in becoming part of a predominantly affluent white academic community, but their reports on how the year had gone indicated that most had quite positive feelings about their experience on the campus and had been able to deal effectively with the difficulties that confronted them. If we look at students' self-reports at the end of their first year in regard to their academic, social, and psychological well-being and adjustment, students from all four groups were remarkably similar in their favorable descriptions of their experience.
As for the learning that occurred from diversity, the outcomes varied. On the whole, important learning did take place, but some students gained much more than others from living in a diverse community. Some students got to know those of different races and classes well; others did not. Thirty percent of the students reported changes in the way they saw people of both different races and classes, and an additional 32 percent reported having learned something about people of either other races or other classes. Of the remaining 38 percent, just over half felt that they had gained something from the classroom comments of peers who differed from them in race and class.
Those findings are positive. That said, given the potential that existed for learning from one another, it seems fair to add that much potential went unrealized.
Black and lower-income white students were asked to adjust to the culture of a wealthy elite college, but institutions, too, need to consider ways in which they may need to adjust in order to facilitate the incorporation of a more diverse student body and to benefit from the mix of students on the campus. Amherst, like many other colleges and universities, has taken steps to do so, and it continues to make changes. What other steps might a college like Amherst take if it wants to provide additional support to the students it now accepts to enable them to thrive, and if it wants to promote greater learning from diversity?
As on every college campus, some degree of racism exists toward blacks, but because it is often subtle, whites — both students and faculty members — tend not to fully recognize its manifestations and significance for black students. The importance given to educating students about the realities of racism is a matter of institutional values and goals that needs to be discussed by everyone on the campus.
Some students come to college lacking experience with cross-race and cross-class interactions, and with no knowledge about or experience with working through difficulties that might arise in such relationships. How do we better enable students to bridge their differences? Race and class issues were very much on students' minds, yet few safe avenues existed for discussion of those matters over the course of the year. Without such help, it can be easier for students to back away from complex cross-race and cross-class interactions, to gravitate toward others like themselves rather than engage with those who are different.
When asked what Amherst could do to make the campus a better place for them, a few black students and one white student spoke of the need to do more to bridge the gap between blacks and whites, and of the need for more dialogue about racial issues. Such dialogues have taken place, as when the college community mobilized to respond to a racist incident. But those conversations are not part of the fabric of life on the campus. They do not address day-to-day racial tensions.
Many more structured dialogues about race and class issues might well be useful, so that students can reflect on and learn more from their experiences. Such conversations require trained facilitators who know how to create an environment in which students feel safe in both expressing what they honestly believe and having those beliefs examined, and who know how to help students manage the strong emotions and differences of opinion that are likely to arise as beliefs are expressed and examined.
My study points to many topics deserving of dialogue between blacks and whites, and among black students. Blacks and whites could benefit from talking together about their perceptions and assumptions about each other; the difficulties that arise in black-white relationships and how to get past them; racial joking, the functions it serves, and its impact on black students; and the benefits and disadvantages of trying to remain "colorblind." It would be helpful for black students to talk together about their differing perceptions of what it means to be black or "black enough," expectations to socialize with other blacks, interracial dating, and how to bridge differences in skin color.
Class issues call for discussion as well. Cross-class conversations are needed about students' class-based perceptions of one another, about the negative stereotypes that abound about the very wealthy and the poor. Dialogue could help students sort out feelings about their differences in economic, cultural, and social capital; lower-income students' sense of exclusion from trips, eating out, and buying tickets for off-campus activities; and affluent students' feelings about having so much more than some classmates do.
Lower-income students could benefit from conversations among themselves about the challenges they face, such as growing apart from family and friends at home, and the guilt they may feel about their new status and privileges relative to those they have left behind.
How can a college create an environment that fosters such structured dialogue among students and one in which students and faculty members can safely explore diversity issues together? A strong message needs to come from college leaders that the institution welcomes difference and is willing to meet the challenges that come with diversity.
A variety of academic issues must be considered. Are race and class adequately addressed in the curriculum, and are students selecting courses that address those issues? Are members of the faculty adept at handling potentially charged discussions of race and class? Are students with weaker preparation able to attain academic success in the rigorous curriculum?
Courses that deal with race and class are of great interest to many blacks and lower-income students because those courses often help them to understand their own experiences and those of other members of their race or class. Not surprisingly, more blacks than whites in my study took courses pertaining to blacks and racial issues, and more lower-income students than affluent ones enrolled in courses that addressed class issues.
But many whites lack an analytic framework for understanding race, just as many affluent students lack such a framework for social class. Their knowledge and understanding of social inequalities is limited, and they tacitly accept dominant norms and privileges. Most affluent whites at Amherst have not made the courses on race and class a priority and may well graduate without a critical perspective on the social order.
Given the history of race in this country and the presence of racism today, and given the growing inequalities in wealth, should students be encouraged to direct some of their attention to these matters? That is a question of values — whether this subject matter should be privileged over others — and needs discussion.
Another set of concerns relates to whether faculty members are skilled at dealing with issues of race and class in classroom discussions. Many students reported learning from diverse peers in the classroom, but discussions can become heated. Insensitive, racist, or classist comments may come up. Terms may be used or assumptions and perspectives put forth that are offensive to some students. Faculty members are trained to teach a particular subject matter, but most are not trained to handle those types of discussions. The institution must consider what types of programs it might undertake to better enable faculty members to manage discussions of race and class.
My study answers some questions but raises many others. Given the small sample size, few sex-specific patterns were apparent, and thus the study cannot shed light on the way in which gender interacts with race and class in the issues discussed. Likewise, the sample was too small to differentiate among the experiences of black students who were biracial, African-American, or Caribbean-American; between the experiences of blacks from public high schools and from private schools; between lower-income students who were poor and those who were middle class; or between lower-income students with college-educated parents and those who were the first generation to go to college. And it remains to be determined whether issues faced by black students are unique to that group or extend to Latinos and Asians.
I have looked at group differences, but an important finding of my study is the considerable variability within each group when it came to the nature of their experiences at Amherst. For example, some black students were highly sensitive to racism on the campus and perceived numerous incidences of it; other black students perceived much less. Some lower-income students noticed class markers (e.g., designer labels on students' clothes and accessories) and perceived many affluent students to be flaunting their wealth, while other lower-income students were less highly attuned to those class signals or were not put off by them. Some students who were poor were able to form connections to those who were rich; others found the differences too great to bridge. In thinking about what students' needs are and how to meet those needs, the variability in student experience must be kept in mind.
As an elite, highly selective, well-endowed residential college, Amherst is not typical of most institutions of higher education. Nor are its students typical of most college students. But in many ways, the matters of race and class that students were dealing with on the campus are not unique to that institution. They are issues being dealt with or avoided throughout the larger society. What can be learned at Amherst has important implications beyond its campus.
Elizabeth Aries is a professor of psychology at Amherst College. This essay is adapted from Race and Class Matters at an Elite College, to be published by Temple University Press next month.
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Race and Class Matters at an Elite College
Inside Higher Ed
Among the sub-debates in the debates over affirmative action are questions over the relative significance of race and class. A new book attempts to explore race and class simultaneously in a college setting. In Race and Class Matters at an Elite College, Elizabeth Aries explores the insights she gained by studying four groups of students at Amherst College: affluent white students, affluent black students, white students without a lot of money and black students without a lot of money. Aries, a professor of psychology at Amherst, used observation, interviews and questionnaires to analyze the four groups. Temple University Press is about to release the book. Aries recently responded to questions about the book.
Q: You teach and have written about growing up in the United States, drawing on your background in psychology. Did that shape your approach to this work in ways that might be different from the approach of affirmative action or higher ed policy?
A: My background in psychology drew me to study students' out-of-the-classroom experiences, to look at how race and class shaped students' thoughts, feelings and interpersonal interactions. My research focused on psychological questions such as the extent to which students formed cross-race and cross-class relationships and the tensions that arose in those relationships, on the race- and class-based stereotypes they held and whether living in a diverse community helped them to see the world through a new lens.
Q: Of your findings, how broadly do you think they apply in higher education? Do you think the tensions would be similar at residential, non-elite liberal arts colleges? At a place like the University of Massachusetts at Amherst?
A: The entering academic credentials of students at an elite and non-elite residential liberal arts college may differ, but I would argue that the race and class issues and tensions that students face on any college campus are quite similar. Black students at the elite college I studied had a degree of mistrust and wariness about the kinds of anti-black sentiments whites might harbor, about encountering stereotyping and prejudice, and had to figure out how to best respond to the occasional insensitive or offensive racial comments they heard inside and outside the classroom. Further, blacks had to negotiate differences with other blacks on campus, e.g., in social class, in skin tone, in the centrality of race to self-definition, in their self-definition as blacks and whether they were considered to be “black enough,” in whether to hang out with and date primarily members of their own race. Lower-income students at times felt like outsiders due to a lack of economic and cultural capital, were excluded from activities because they lacked funds, or had difficulties connecting to students whose experiences, attitudes, values and outlooks were very different than their own. These issues are not specific to students at an elite college; they are general issues being dealt with or avoided at other institutions of higher education and in the larger society.
Q: What do you think your most important findings are about race?
A: My study shows racial stereotypes to be prevalent on campus (e.g., blacks are less intelligent than whites, blacks have more athletic talent than whites, blacks are poor/whites are rich) but that the development of cross-race relationships and interactions inside and outside the classroom can make an important contribution in breaking down these stereotypes and changing students' notions about race. The potential for learning from a racially diverse community, however, was not realized for many students.
Two other important findings about race pertain to whites' misperception and lack of knowledge about blacks. Many whites tend to see black students to be self-segregating. When black friends eat together at tables in the dining hall, or hang out together in groups, whites take notice. Yet no one comments on the tables of whites eating together in the dining hall or on whites hanging out together on campus. The students showing the greatest degree of self-segregation are white. White students reported on average that two-thirds of their close friends were white, but only a third of black students' close friends were black. In addition, many whites saw black students on campus as a homogeneous group, and were relatively unaware of the divides between black students: divides in social class; in the centrality of race to identity; in whether they are African American, Caribbean American, or African; in preferences for “black” forms of dress and music or “black” forms of speech; and in their experiences with racism in society. My study highlights the importance of these differences and how they are being negotiated between blacks.
Q: What are your key findings about class?
A: Arguments have been made for bringing lower-income students to campus to promote social justice and social mobility. My data reveal that an educational argument can be made as well for the benefits of class-sensitive admissions policies. Cross-class friendships and interactions in the classroom with classmates from differing class backgrounds contributed to new understandings of social class, to greater cross-class empathy, and to the reduction of class prejudice. It also enabled some affluent whites to see for the first time or in a new way their privilege and encapsulation, their lack of attention to and awareness of those less fortunate than themselves.
Another important finding about class is that while a college education broadens employment opportunities, it comes with some personal costs. For example, the changes lower-income students undergo in interests, ways of thinking, and world views as they become part of an affluent community can create dislocation from family, friends and home communities. Lower-income students must juggle two worlds, one at home and one on campus, but some find they are no longer fully at home in the worlds they came from, nor in the new world they are entering.
Finally, despite the great disparities in wealth on campus, lower-income students, for the most part, expressed relatively little resentment or jealousy of not having the benefits afforded to many of their affluent classmates. Rather, they spoke of the advantages of the character traits they had acquired through the economic struggles of their families, traits they felt many of their affluent peers lacked. They saw themselves as more appreciative than their affluent classmates of what they had because they worked hard for those things, as more independent and self-reliant, as more frugal, and better able to connect to those above and below them in social class.
Q: Many critics of affirmative action as currently practiced argue that they would support class-based affirmative action. Having looked intensely at the role of race and class, what are your thoughts?
A: Race and class are highly correlated and thus are often confounded. But they are not proxies for each other. By controlling for social class, racial differences may be reduced, but are not always eliminated. We live in a diverse but racist society and the need for race-sensitive admissions policies has not yet passed. Justice O'Connor argued in the Supreme Court's decision in Grutter v. Bollinger that universities and law schools in particular are the training ground for our nation's leaders, and that the path to leadership “must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.” Because minority students make up the minority of lower-income students, the elimination of race-sensitive admission and its replacement with class-sensitive admission will result in historically underrepresented groups being given even less access to higher education. My data argue for the importance of both race and class-sensitive admission policies, not just on the grounds of promoting equity and social mobility, but also on the grounds of the learning opportunity it affords to students who will go on to live in a multicultural society. Higher education must seek out and offer opportunities to qualified students of all races and class backgrounds.
Q: You wrote about the institution where you teach. How will the experience of going in-depth in this way with these students change the way you see students or teach?
A: My teaching, research and interactions with my students are intertwined. Hearing from lower-income and minority students about some of the challenges they confront on campus contributed to my interest in conducting this study, and my findings, in turn, have deepened my understanding of the complexities these students face. I hope to do more to encourage students to take advantage of the opportunities they have to learn from the diversity in the student body, to see this potential learning as a valuable part of their college education. I enter the classroom with a heightened awareness of the problems of looking to blacks or lower-income students to speak for their race and class, and of the importance of creating a space where all students can lay out their beliefs about race and class and have those beliefs examined and perhaps changed.
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