Yesha Callahan

Black Students At White Colleges Fear They’ll Lose Their Cultural Identity

Black Students At White Colleges Fear They'll Lose Their Cultural Identity

According to a recent study published in the National Communication Association’s journal Communication Education black students fear they’ll lose their cultural identity while attending predominately white institutions (PWI).

“[Black students] feel tension between integrating into the dominant culture while honoring their own culture and black pride,” study author Jake Simmons, assistant professor of communication studies at Angelo State University concluded.

“As a group, African-American students wanted to assimilate into their respective universities, but at the same time they expressed a need to maintain cultural independence by segregating from them,” the authors wrote. “The need to segregate was born out of a fear that the African-American culture would become less independent and more similar to the dominant culture.”

The sample size used in the study was quite small with only 67 students. The students surveyed were from Midwest and Southwest schools where black students made up only 4.5 to 8 percent of the population.

As a person that attended a PWI, I can definitely relate to the segregation aspect. At Rutgers University, segregation was nearly impossible not to miss. There was the Paul Robeson floor of one dormitory, as well as Livingston College, that was always described as the “black” campus,  and the other “black” section, Busch Campus where you were always advised to live if you wanted to be around “your people”.  But I also think these factors at Rutgers, made it appealing to more black students.

The students in the study felt as though they had to be the beacon of blackness when it came to educating their white peers about the black experience. They also reported that they felt different from them even because of their dress, language and socializing.

From the study:

Blacknesswhiteness. A specific struggle that emerged from the data was a battle within the African-American students between their Blackness and the perceived
Whiteness of their university. This dialectical pull occurred within participants as they struggled to be proud of themselves and their Blackness while learning and adapting to the Whiteness of their schools. The following example from a female student illustrated the oppositional qualities of BlacknessWhiteness.

“There is a war going on inside of me between my Blackness and your Whiteness. 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…um…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, you know, politically. My Blackness, my personhood isn’t enough. I need to Whiten myself to succeed.”


Did you attend a PWI and have the same feelings? Was black culture undermined?


  1. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    Black culture was very prevalent at my 1st PWI (Oberlin). There was special house, thousands (exaggerating) but many many many activities for black students and it was so few of us we all knew each other. At my second PWI not so much,they didnt have that many activities and the black student club wasnt as prevalent, as least not from my view, in fact, the few black students I did know/talked to didnt really seem to care I will say this though, everyone was spread out on that campus, hell i barely new anyone and that school was in large city so those could be factors. My bff as that school was actually a latino.

    point is, ive seen both side where black culture was there and wasn’t there. at no time did i ever “fear” i was going to lose my cultural identity. That thought never even crossed my mind in choosing these schools and I came from a highschool that was all black and latino, college was my first time with white students in quite a number of years. The quote where person said they need to “whiten themselves to succeed” 0_o no shade but that sounds like personal issues as opposed to a school making her feel that way

  2. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    This is very interesting. My school was/is lily white. Every person in my major is white, therefore most of the time I spent was around white people. My black identity actually became stronger, as I started reading book about the black experience/history, Malcolm X, WEB Dubois, Marcus Garvey, all of them. I even joined the African Students Club. After a lot of reading I was interested in getting to know blacks in the diaspora, and I did. My closest friend is from Uganda. I think it all depends on the person and how they handle this experience. I’ve seen black students try their best to emulate whites in every way, and do their best to deny their blackness ( ” I’m actually 30% French” people say this smh) just because they want to fit in with the majority white students.

  3. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    I have been to two private colleges both when I attended were majority white. The first college I think now has more minority students but the second one that I just left probably will be majority white from some time to come. Both school tried to push diversity but I don’t know if they were successful. I have taken African American based classes at both schools taught by white teachers and mostly had white students. I remember one time I took an A.A literature class and cultural diversity (hated this class/professor) and I was one of two or three black students. The sad part about that was the other black students didn’t show up most of the times therefore most of the time I was the only black student which is uncomfortable when at the time I didn’t speak up. I don’t mean to rambling but I guess what I am getting at is it depends on the student, some black students choose to lose their identity. Like at my second school it seem like most of the guys were dating white girls or they can keep it like at my first school most black kids hung around each other. I mostly kept to myself and didn’t let outside influence affect me.

  4. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    Did you attend a PWI and have the same feelings? Was black culture undermined?

    I had attended a small, private “predominantly-white” all-girl, Catholic college. The quotations were used because it was stated that there were more Caucasians attending the college. However, there were a lot of non-Caucasians residing on campus, so I’ve never felt the ‘other-ness’.

  5. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    There are some fairly integrated PWI colleges out there with fairly diverse campuses. Also there are some PWI where there is an HBCU in the same town for students to visit.

    There was a pretty good 60 minute special relating to this years ago. Talking about black college unions and differnt events that black students on these campuses partiipated in that were for them or sponsered by them.

    Was never an option for me I was a 3rd generation HBCU student in my family and my daughters are and will be 4th generation HBCU students. I like to think of my time at Tuskegee University as a little vacation. From having to be one of a few black folks, on jobs and so forth in the years that were to follow graduation.

  6. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    I attended a small private college outside NYC that I can only describe as “lilly white”. When I was there, people of color were in the extreme minority (though I understand that this has improved); and while there was a black student organization, it wasn’t very active. I definitely stood out BUT I never felt singled-out. I never experienced any form of overt racism and I was treated well by everyone – faculty and peers. My sense of blackness was neither heightened nor diminished. Maybe this was due to being so young and still seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.

    However, graduate school was different. This time I attended to a very large university in NYC that prided itself on “diversity”. However, once I started I realized that their claim to diversity was based mainly on the very large Asian population there. By second semester, I became aware of being the only black person in many of my major classes and it was disturbing. Again, I think this awareness had more to do with age, life experience and just being more “sensitive” to issues of race and representation.

  7. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    Only if they allow it I am who I am no matter what institution of higher learning or employment I have, granted there are those experiences good or bad that we can take to make us better. Other than that my identity is my own, only those not secure in their identity are those vulnerable to that usually those who are young and leaving home for the first time, or being exposed to different people. I say keep your values that got you to this point but, be open to seeing the world in your own way Good Luck Students. This whole topic for some reason reminds me of the movie Higher Learning, maybe because Fuse has been playing it for weeks lol.

  8. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    I would not say that I was ever fearful of losing my cultural identity. If anything, I feel like it just reaffirms it because I am so different. I just don’t feel like there are enough environmental supports for people of color beyond the bachelor’s degree. In undergrad, yes, there were plenty of Black student groups, but in certain master’s and doctoral programs, you may be hard-pressed to find Black professors, or even Black classmates. I deliberately have to seek out mentors outside of my university who can relate to my experience as an incoming doctoral student.

    • July 24, 2013 - Reply


      …as someone with a Masters and can relate, I am in the process of applying to doctoral programs with HBCUs as my first stated before, that decision came with experience in corporate America and getting older.

  9. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    I’m actually really happy I attended a prodominately white college, in high school my school was 60% asian and 35% black, no white people, and most of my close friends were not black however when I went off to college where you could count the black people on campus I naturally gravitated towards them and it was kind of reaffirmed my black identity for me and further opened my eyes to how race relations worked on college campuses.

  10. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    I never understood how going to a majority X institution can challenge your ‘blackness’. I’ve had the black experience my entire life, but have also been fortunate enough to be in diverse environments. I feel like I can go anywhere and be successful because I’ve been exposed to so much diversity.

  11. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    Interesting. I went to a college with no more then 25 black people (the class behind me only had one black woman, my class had 4) and this experience made my black identity stronger. It was very hard but with no one to look up to, I read so many books and the authors became my mentors. Audre Lord, Bell Hooks, etc. helped me realize who I wanted to be as a black woman. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it. I wouldn’t change that experience for the world.

  12. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    I go to a PWI, and the black population is about 3% (This is actually a huge increase from when I started my freshman year).

    I feel that going to a school where it’s incredibly hard to come by faces that look like yours and people who can relate to your experiences, it has actually strengthened my identity as a black woman. I came to school as a confused Belizean-American, who never really identified with being black. I have really opened up and done some reading and educated myself on what it means to be black, because I needed to find people who I could relate to.

    I am also part of a multi-cultural (latina based) sorority that strives to preserve culture. I think that being on a predominantly white campus forces young students of color to find what it is that they love about being black/latino/whatever and turn it into action.

    At least that’s what happened for me 🙂

  13. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    Call me lucky, but this fear never happened for me. I guess because I grew up in a PW suburb and went to diverse schools and I was used to being the ‘only one’ or ‘one of the few’, so I feel my identity became stronger because I didn’t rely on a group or a group of peers to make an identity for me. I knew who and what I was when I stepped on campus and I actually flourished better at my PWI university. If someone was racist, whether it was an instructor or a student, I knew, and dealt with it, but I didn’t let it discourage me. I guess that’s just my personality. I liked being around other types of people and learn about different cultures and I’m glad I had that experience at the university I went to (and it was in Texas). Once I got up into my major I became the ‘only one’ again, but like most said, my Blackness became stronger because of it. Not to say that it was easy and there were times where I did feel out of pocket, but looking back it was good for me because I grew from those experiences and obstacles and got tougher behind them.

  14. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    Maybe I am not aware of how different it is at a PWI opposed to HBCUs. It is uplifting to see other people around you that look like you succeeding but my experience at a PWI is how its been my entire life. I never felt that my “blackness” was compromised because of where I went to school. People that feel that their culture is threatened should learn to teach other people about their culture instead of assimilating. My school has a strong multicultural base and many clubs use it as a way to find people that share the same backgrounds and educate others about it. Your PWI experience is what you make it. Yes you do have to work harder to get recognized academically but outside of that it is all up to you.

  15. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    Hmm, I’m a fellow Rutgers alumnus as well (both undergraduate and grad school) but I never really thought of the university as being really segregated—but then again I was on Douglass. I wonder what year Ms. Callahan graduated. When I graduated in 2004 Busch campus was known as being the campus with football players and Asians.

    • July 24, 2013 - Reply


      late 90’s..and maybe things have changed since then…but when I attended Rutgers College…the B.A.M dorms were described to us during the college visit as where most of the blk Rutgers College students lived.

  16. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    “a fear that the African-American culture would become less independent and more similar to the dominant culture.” <— Hasn't this already kind of happened?

    I attended an HBCU mostly because I went to PWI my entire life. If was great to be a part of the majority for 4 sweet years. But reality struck the second I got my first job. So I think the larger question is are we afraid of losing our cultural identity as a people in general.

    • July 24, 2013 - Reply


      I feel you on that after being at an HBCU for those years getting my degree. But, what was funny was afterwards my first job ended up being a sub-teacher. I taught at mostly black Elementary and High schools for a couple of years.

      After that I spent a year working for a Black owned company. People kept saying how I was gonna go through culture shock after leaving an HBCU. Well, it was over 3 years before I actually went back to being one of the few on my job. Even then I was working with one of my best friends from college.

  17. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    I definitely feel this. I recently graduated from a PWI in Malibu. I grew up going to predominately black schools until college, were I attended my first PWI. It was a culture shock for sure. I sometimes felt like I had to defend myself because of the way I talked and the reason I preferred reading Toni Morrison to the Victorian literature classics.

    President Obama addresses this cultural identity on college campuses in his autobiography and I found it to be close to my experience. Part of this fear of loosing our cultural identity (I mean my own, and what he talked about in the novel) came from an insecurity about what “blackness” meant for me. I felt I had to be one person with my white friends and another person with my black friends–Like I was performing.

    But I’m not sure that its possible to “loose” your cultural identity. Its something you grow up with. Then again…maybe it is

  18. July 24, 2013 - Reply

    Shouldn’t black pride mean I will be the brightest mind in the room?

  19. July 25, 2013 - Reply

    I went to Berkeley. Where the dominant group was Asian. No majority at all. I grew up in mostly white suburbia. My black identity was of my own creation. We did have a split black community. Separate bulbs for Africans as and general Black Student Union. And then specific groups for black STEM students.

    My path was the same as it had always been, make friends with people I connect with. Black white or otherwise. What I did find interesting about my university experience was that diversity came with challenges. It was so fractured there was a club for everyone. Even biracial people had a club.

    If you wanted a diverse group if friends, you had to make an effort to do so.

    Embracing diversity made my own black identity stronger. And even better, it helped other people embrace our differences and commonalities, since in the end, we may have different traditions, we are still all people in the end.

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