Research study on African-American students sparks interest

Participants speak out about their experiences

By Terrence Cain
On September 6, 2013

  • Junior Chelsea Gibson celebrates after scoring a point for the ‘Belles in their 3 - 1 home win against Incarnate Word, Tuesday. Gibson recorded 14 kills in the match to bring her season total to 192. Pam Belcher

An ASU professor's study of African-American students in predominantly white universities has piqued the interest of many nationwide.

Dr. Daniel J. Simmons' nearly 20-page study attempts to delve deep into the psyche of African-American students who are first-generation college students attending predominantly white universities.

"The study was both a personal and research interest of mine," Simmons said. "Just seeing the way, as an educator, that students are developing-both intellectually and as cultural groups at universities-is fascinating to me."

"Understanding the African-American Student Experience in Higher Education Through a Relational Dialectics Perspective" spans numerous universities, with a total of 67 African-American students, 33 males and 34 females. For legal reasons the names of the universities and the participants in the study were not mentioned.

The study, originally published July 17 in "Communication Education," discusses topics from social interaction to stereotypes and how the students felt they were being treated at their predominantly white universities.

Simmons said he used the "Dialectical Theory," created by Leslie Baxter and W.K. Rawlins in 1988, as the basis of the study because it deals with interpersonal relationships.

"Leslie Baxter ... basically said there is a very particular dialectics that exists within people when they communicate," Simmons said. "When we communicate there typically isn't a singular message, but rather a push and pull that is involved-there is a tension there."

The tension that exists in language is the centerpiece of Simmons' study. According to the study, most of the student participants reported feeling that they could not speak out to their fellow non-black classmates, even though some of them wanted to.

"I grew up in an all-black neighborhood and school," one participant said. "I had never seen so many white people in a classroom before. Suddenly, I was the minority, and I did not feel comfortable speaking out in class. I had this idea that blacks and whites had two different languages."

Many of the black students who participated also said they felt they need to become white to fit in at their university.

"There is a war going on inside of me between my blackness and your whiteness,"  another participant said. "When I see myself in the mirror, I see a competent, talented black woman. Then I go to class, look around, and realize that I need more. My blackness seems too black, like I need to be more than who I am. I need what you [as a white person] have. I need an understanding of how things work politically. My blackness, my personhood, isn't enough. I need to Whiten myself to succeed."

Some of the other participants, however, resisted the theory of needing to be white to be accepted.

"A big issue on campus is homecoming," a participant said. "Every year this school has homecoming. It's supposed to be for the entire student body, but we think it should be called the white homecoming. Every year we argue about whether we should build a float for the parade or not. But it's crazy. Look at the event and tell me it's not exclusionary. So we created a black homecoming. We decided we'd have our own celebration."

One participant felt that no white person cared about her or her culture, but still wanted to help improve the racial tensions.

"I fall into the group of African-Americans who thinks enough is enough," she said. "No, I don't want to educate white people about my experiences. They don't really care. If they did, every time they were told about the injustices of Rosa Parks, they would have done something. Every time they saw the life of our brothers and sisters in the projects, they would have done something. Every time they saw the effects of drugs on our people, they would have stopped selling them to us. White people haven't demonstrated willingness to change. Education isn't the answer."

After the participant's remarks, the interviewer asked her why she was part of the study if she didn't feel that whites would never change.

"I guess because I'm not as radical as I hoped," she said. "I want things to be different."

The study has brought up a debate on the issue of racial tensions and language barriers that ASU President Dr. Brian May wants to tear down through a possible cultural course for all students to attend.

"I think a culture course would be a great idea, but the faculty is what drives the curriculum," May said. "If that were to ever be brought forward that would be a great thing."

Simmons concluded in the study that universities need to reach out more to students and families.

Simmons created the five-year study with help from collaborators Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart of Amarillo College, Dr. Shawn T. Wahl of Missouri State University, and Dr. M. Chad McBride of Creighton University in Nebraska.

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