Racial identity development of African American students in relation to black studies courses.

Author:Marie, Jakia


In spite of the growth of Black studies programs in colleges and universities across the United States, few African Americans enroll in courses or graduate from them ("African Americans Show Solid Gains at All Academic Degree Levels," 2009), particularly at Northern Superior State University. Black studies programs are reported to have many benefits for African American students. Adams (2005) contends that Black studies programs have a history of assisting students with identity development. Furthermore, Black studies programs assist students in developing self-esteem that, in turn, influences their level of self-efficacy (Adams, 2005). As a result of these benefits, Black students are more likely to graduate from college. Adams (2005) adds another dimension suggesting that these programs help students survive in a racialized society like that of the United States by providing them with knowledge to know themselves and know other cultures and civilizations.

Statement of Purpose

The purpose of this study is twofold: (1) to provide understanding of the reason why African American students choose to enroll or do not enroll in Black studies courses; and, (2) explore the relationship between racial identity development and Black studies programs. The perceptions of students who enroll and do not enroll in Black studies courses will be compared. The research questions that guided this study were: (1) what reasons do African American students put forth to justify their choice or non-choice of Black studies courses? (2) In what ways do African American students who enroll in Black studies courses compare to those African American students who have not in relation to racial identity development?

Outcomes of Black Studies

The influences ethnic studies curricula have played in student achievement has been documented by a number of researchers, specifically in relation to the students who identify with the subject matter. Carter (2008) conducted a yearlong qualitative investigation with nine high-achieving African American high school students at a predominately White high school. This study suggests that strong racial identities assisted participants in developing an achievement ideology that not only supported them in their academic achievements, but assisted them in navigating racially challenging environments. Rickford (2001) found that African American students became more engaged with the literature assigned to them that was written by African Americans and that student motivation increased when they were more familiar with the theme of the narratives.

In this qualitative study with 25 low-achieving African American middle school students, participants described enjoying the literature, partially, because they could better relate to the characters and themes of the narratives, and they could understand the vernacular tone. When these students were assessed for comprehension, they tended to perform worse with the lower level comprehension questions and better with the higher comprehension questions. The students, overall, performed better with the more complex questions. Lewis, Sullivan, and Bybee (2006) found that eighth grade students found more worth in their own heritage as a result of their African American emancipatory curriculum course compared to only discussing African and African American heritage during Black History Month and other singular recognized events (e.g., brief discussion about the Atlantic Slave Trade). Emancipatory education refers to a process of training that seeks to liberate underrepresented groups from racist social institutions and ideologies in modern-day society (Lewis, 2004).

Myrick (2002) completed a study with 21 participants that identified as African American, Nigerian, Cameroonian, Ethiopian, and Haitian with ages ranging from 17 to 44 years old. The participants were students in a 10-week college developmental reading course in a public, Southern, urban, 2-year college in the United States. At the beginning of the course, each participant was interviewed and administered the African Self-Consciousness (ASC) Scale as a means to understand their perspectives toward their African identity. During the course, students were given various books to read that were centered around the African Diaspora. At the end of this course, the perspectives of many of the students toward their African identity changed.

Educators in the discipline of ethnic studies discipline are aware of the lack of diversity in school curricula, the negative experiences students of color are forced to deal with in society and school, and the lack of support and effort provided my schools to assist students in developing a healthy racial identity (Sleeter, 2011). Despite the lack of contribution and support from schools, ethnic studies programs attempt to equip students with the tools needed to navigate spaces that may be racially hostile (Sleeter, 2011) while supporting positive racial identity development.

Being Black at a Predominantly White Institution

African Americans who attend predominantly White institutions (PWIs) are more likely to perceive the campus climate more negatively compared to their White counterparts (Harper & Hurtado, 2007). Ariza and Berkey (2009) conducted a qualitative, longitudinal study to examine the racial identity development of African American students at a predominantly White, liberal arts institution (PWI).

Participants of the study primarily discussed the struggles they faced with stereotype threat-a situational threat of feeling at risk of conforming to negative stereotypes about one's social group (Steele, 1997)- and their desires to maintain their authentic selves. Individuals also discussed the struggles they encountered because of their intersecting race and gender identities. In a study of mentoring African American students at a Christian PWI, Dahlvig (2010) found that many of the participants described feelings of isolation at their institution. Each participant described a perceived difference in the interactions with their White counterparts or being pointed out in class during classroom discussions about race or after comments about race were made in class. Solo, Ceja, and Yosso (2000) studied the experiences of African American college students in relation to campus climate and racial microaggressions, or "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group" (Sue et al, 2007, p. 273). Using focus groups at three universities, they used the qualitative data to conclude that the participants did in fact have experiences with racial microaggressions, and that, in return, had a negative influence on campus climate.

Retention of African American Students

African American students are less likely to complete college compared to their White counterparts (Anglin & Wade, 2007). A student's identity and sense of belonging in a program can affect whether or not they choose to stay or leave (Danielak, Gupta, & Elby, 2014). If students feel a stronger sense of belonging, they are more likely to stay on campus and in their program. Conflicting culturally based expectations that occur in academic environments, negative stereotypes, a lack of African American role models in the curriculum, and a lack of emphasis on the positive contributions that African Americans have made are among some of factors that need to be changed to support African American academic excellence (Robinson & Biran, 2006). In a study on racial identity and development, Pope (2000) found that students with a more secure sense of Black identity were more likely to develop mature relationships with and establish a sense of purpose in college compared to their counterparts with lower levels of Black identity.

Roberts and Styron Jr. (2010) found, in their study of students' perceptions of services, experiences, and interactions in a particular academic program located in the southern region of the United States, that students were more likely to return to their home institution in their second year of college if they did not change their majors, had higher perceptions of social connectedness, and higher satisfaction with faculty approachability.

Research Design

A phenomenological qualitative approach was used for the purpose of understanding the ways the participants interpret their experiences (Merriam, 2009) related to Black studies and student organization involvement. Phenomenological studies in education strive to "explore and describe the world from the students' perspective" (Collier-Reed & Ingerman, as cited in Tight Huisman, 2013, p. 243).

The criteria for this study were African American undergraduate students at Northern Superior State University (NSSU). The following criteria were employed for inclusion in the current study:

* an individual of the African Diaspora who identifies as Black/African American

* a student at Northern Superior State University

* an undergraduate student of senior academic standing as determined by credit hours attained

* Black studies minor, and/or a member of a student organization that works to build community among African Americans in some capacity

An email was sent to every student that identified as African American and was at senior standing at NSSU to recruit participants for the study if they met the criteria....

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