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Student Activism Is A Healthy Form Of Identity Resistance

Our guest author today is Simone Ispa-Landa, Assistant Professor at the School of Education and Social Policy and (by courtesy) Sociology at Northwestern University. Ispa-Landa’s research examines the processes that reproduce and magnify social exclusion, as well as the ways in which subordinate individuals and groups make sense of, and seek to combat, social stigma.

Across universities, Black college students are commanding national attention as they highlight racial injustice on campus (also here and here). Across social media platforms, many Black students and their supporters are demanding to be released from the limited roles they are asked to play at predominantly White institutions— e.g., the black friend, the student who provides admissions officers with a terrific “diversity” photo opportunity, the classmate who exists to “educate” Whites about race (see here and here).

These student activists and their allies want to avoid the fate of the Black high school students I have studied—students who can only access a narrow set of roles that benefit others, but leave them feeling grossly misunderstood or, worse, exploited. In the next few paragraphs, I share some of what I found in my in-depth, qualitative interviews with Black adolescents who were bussed to affluent suburban schools, and their White suburban-resident classmates and guidance counselors, connecting my research with this emerging college student movement.

When confronted with powerlessness and stigma, the students in this study, like many other marginalized individuals and groups, often adopted the perspectives and viewpoints of those who excluded, ignored, or demeaned them.* In one paper, I described how, frequently, participants accepted these negative comments and narratives about their group, all the while claiming that these did not apply to them personally (see here). Though this might have helped some students preserve their self-esteem and status, these harmful narratives remained unchallenged.

Across a range of studies, I found this pattern among Black teens who participated in a program to bus them from inner city to suburban high schools.  For instance, one Black young woman told me that, “Whites are more civilized. They are more calm and have more enforcement.” Others disparaged their family members and neighbors who had not been admitted to the bussing program, saying things like, “Not to be racist or anything, but I go to school with more suburbians [sic], and they’re more respectful than black people. So the people that [my sisters] hang out with, all they do is fight and stuff.”  These kinds of statements showed that some participants had accepted as accurate the harmful racial stereotypes they were exposed to at school.

In that paper, and in others, I described how the Black students participating in my studies often faced a strange combination of hyper-visibility and silent exclusion in their predominantly White and wealthy suburban public schools. As one participant reported, “You’re a minority first, and kids are fascinated – like, ‘you are a different people from a different place.’” Other participants noted that, “It’s hard to break those prejudices against you.” Still others reported that stereotypes and negative assumptions drove them to “stay in their little group,” avoiding potentially stressful situations with out-group members – see more here and here.

While feeling isolated and misunderstood, some of these students also acknowledged that they accepted narrow but highly visible and gendered racial roles — e.g., the male sports star, sex toy, thug, or class clown, or the female drama queen, fashion diva, or defensive bitch —that did not truthfully reflect their personalities and interests (see more here). Yet these stereotypes offered Black students a way to join suburban cliques, or at least achieve social status and recognition, and perhaps even manage a difficult high-school social scene.**

Being boxed into these roles in high school, however, could lead to further confusion for Black students later on, especially if they attend predominantly White colleges. For example, as Amy Wilkins (2014) has shown, “being the cool black friend” becomes increasingly limiting to male college students who hope to carve out professional identities as adults. They tire of being asked to perform Black masculine cool, when this can be seen to conflict with being hardworking and studious.

Perhaps buoyed by the Black Lives Matter movement, student activists seem to be joining in collective action. In my personal observations of conversations at Northwestern University, it seems that college student activists are defying this damaging pattern of believing that their entire group’s devaluation is warranted.

Certainly, this is a young and still unfolding social movement, and there have been occasional missteps and blunders, such as the attempt to ban media reporters from covering a public protest at the University of Missouri. Yet, let us not forget two simple facts that are worth celebrating. First, student activists are refusing to accept harmful narratives about themselves and their co-ethnics. Second, student protesters are engaging in a healthy form of identity resistance. They are demanding the freedom to be accepted and acknowledged, even when they step outside the narrow confines of the social roles often provided to Black young people.


* This process, often called “defensive othering,” was introduced in a ground-breaking article by Michael Schwalbe and his colleagues – see here.

** As research by Adam Galinsky and his colleagues suggest, many of these gendered racial roles continue to shape adult romantic and professional lives.

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