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December 15, 2015+Chris Martin
+Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)+Campus Climate

What Can Help African-American Students Feel Included?

Race was at the center of campus protests that spread through American universities this fall. Many of the protestors were African-American, and they demanded that colleges stop treating them like outsiders. Although I’m not African-American, I’m a non-White immigrant (from India), so I can understand these feelings of not quite belonging to the campus community. However, I’m also a social psychologist. When I look at what these protestors are demanding, I see a set of policies that seem unlikely to work as expected. Worse, some of them could backfire and make minority student feel even more aggrieved. I fear that schools such as Yale, Emory, and Brown, which are committing to meet many of these demands, are going to make things worse, not better.

The effectiveness of diversity training, for example, has rarely been studied carefully, and the proliferation of diversity training attests to the success of the diversity industry in marketing itself, not their ability to produce results. Tim Wilson has documented the lack of control groups in nearly every assessment of diversity training. And, as John McWhorter has noted, undergraduates of all races usually dismiss mandatory diversity workshops as “hollow exercises.”

Creating more spaces for self-segregation can also backfire. One of the largest studies, by Jim Sidanius and colleagues, found unambiguously negative effects when students joined racially homogeneous groups. These groups included fraternities, where mostly white people cluster together, and ethnic organizations, where people of a non-White ethnicity cluster together. Sidanius found that the effects include “an increased sense of ethnic victimization and a decreased sense of common identity and social inclusiveness.”

What colleges can do is capitalize on research from the past decade on how to improve the climate for minority students, and how to boost their academic performance and psychological health.

First, colleges can attempt to tackle stereotype threat, which is what happens when people choke because they feel threatened by a negative stereotype. For instance, African-Americans may feel threatened by tests that purport to measure intelligence, and this could provoke enough anxiety to actually make them do poorly on tests. There are somevalid concerns about whether stereotype threat actually affects performance. However, there’s a reasonable amount of laboratory evidence supporting its existence, and some newer evidence showing that interventions can reduce its dampening effect on performance. There’s a list of those interventions here [pdf].

Some of them require a lot of investment, and some require a college to have control over things that it can’t control, like the diversity of the applicant pool for jobs. However, many are simple. Consider these three:

1. Create fair tests, present them as fair and as serving a learning purpose;

2. Promote a growth mindset about intelligence, and

3. Use value-affirmations to reduce stress and threat.

In fact, promoting a growth mindset can help all students by countering some of the harmful effects of the self-esteem movement, a dubious movement that has affected a generation of younger people.

Second, colleges can support a sense of belonging in school. It’s normally to feel like an outsider when you begin your college education. Unfortunately, students from minority groups may assume that incoming White students feel included and that feelings of exclusions are unique to minorities. Even worse, they may not realize that those feelings are transient. People eventually do find a niche in their college community where they belong, but students only realize this fact in hindsight. They need to know it when they enter college.

Greg Walton and other social psychologists at Stanford have begun to a test a belongingness intervention, one that informs students that feeling like an outsider is normal for every freshman, and that these feelings are temporary. This intervention doesn’t simply help racial minorities; it also appears to help first-generation college students. Although it hasn’t been tested with international students, it’s likely to help them too. In fact, as an international student, I can attest to the fact that I would have liked to have known this. Walton’s work has been featured in the popular media, and his scientific papers on the topic are on his webpage.

Third, colleges can induce a common ingroup identity among students, creating a situation where each student views other students as members of a unified college community. Minority students often identify solely as minority students, and this tendency can be exacerbated by diversity programs. However, they can adopt a dual identity, so that they feel like their racial identity is complemented by their identity as an ordinary student. White students can also be induced to view the college community as a single community, rather than view minority students as an outgroup.

Priming a common identity does not mean that minority students lose their identity as members of a racial minority group, but rather than that they maintain a dual identity. Priming such a dual identity doesn’t align with a race-conscious strategy, because such a strategy only primes a single identity—one based on race—and creates no sense of belonging to a larger group. In my experience, many colleges make the mistake of greatly emphasizing racial identity among minority students, a tactic that discourages them from viewing themselves as regular members of the community. (This is consistent with Sidanius et al.). Priming a dual identity does not align with a race-blind strategy either. If administrators implement a dual-identity strategy, they risk opposition from advocates of race-conscious and race-blind strategies, and they need to be prepared to address their concerns.

Dual identities may seem paradoxical, but many people hold them in daily life. People who migrate from one town to another or one country to another can feel a strong bond with people from their former home and their new home. People who have a strong connection to both their home city and home state also have a dual identity. Priming a dual identity in college students could be challenging because there’s no published work on how to make interventions scalable. However, scientific papers on the subject can be found at the Yale Intergroup Relations Lab site.

Stereotype threat reduction, belongingness interventions, and common ingroup identification are all based on peer-reviewed research, so they’re more trusthworthy than the intuitions of a diversity consultant. Campus activists should ask for changes such as these, for which there is some empirical evidence. They should be wary of demanding diversity training programs that might make things worse for everyone.


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