Strategies of Belonging: Counterstories of Black Students at a Predominately White University

Authors

Neil Currant


Abstract

Much recent international attention has been placed on the educational attainment gap of minority ethnic students in higher education, yet universities have struggled to reduce the gap and understand the complexities of the issue. Student engagement and sense of belonging have been identified as crucial element of success in higher education (Kuh et al., 2005; Thomas, 2012).
This paper draws on in depth interviews with Black students to identify the challenges faced in belonging to a largely white academic community. The paper uses the critical race theory concept of counterstories to express ‘composite’ narratives (Solorzano and Yosso, 2002) of Black students situated within the prevailing whiteness of many higher education institutions. Three different strategies for belonging in higher education were identified in the interviews and are presented in the narrative: post racial, academic and advocacy. The paper highlights the varying and complex nature of belonging for Black students and argues that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to engagement and belonging is insufficient to address the attainment gap.

Introduction

In many Western Higher Education (HE) systems, Minority Ethnic (ME) students are less likely to complete their degree and have lower attainment than white students. For example in the United Kingdom (UK) minority ethnic students are less likely than white students to get a first or upper second class degree.  These results have persisted and have been fairly consistent for over a decade (ECU, 2012).

Sense of belonging has been identified as an important factor in persistence and success in the UK by research as part of the ‘What Works? Student Retention and Success Programme’ (Thomas, 2012). Sense of belonging as it pertains to student success is generally an under researched area of the literature (Hausmann, et al., 2007). It emerged in the US due to concerns about existing models of student success and their ability to explain persistence and success for ME students (Tovar, 2013). Hurtado and Carter (1997) argued that understanding minority students’ sense of belonging was key to understanding their experiences at university and there is evidence to suggest that Black students do have a lower sense of belonging that their white peers (Johnson et al., 2007).

The literature on sense of belonging in HE seems to draw on two key ideas. The first idea, which could be described as the ‘fit’ aspect, focuses on the students’ perceived cohesion within a group (Bollen and Hoyle, 1990). In the case of a university, this may be cohesion with peers on a course, cohesion with departmental teaching staff and perceived cohesion with the university community.

The second idea, which could be called the ‘contact’ aspect of belonging, is the relational interactions with others characterised by stability, emotional concern and ongoing positive contact (Baumeister and Leary, 1995). Belonging is the human element of feeling valued and accepted (Thomas, 2012).

Whilst the importance of belonging has up until now been overlooked, student engagement has not and has been one of the important ways in which the student experience has been characterised. Kuh et al. (2005) identify five practices that create student engagement:

  • supportive campus environment
  • student / faculty interaction
  • active and collaborative learning
  • enriching educational experiences
  • academic challenge

This paper adds to the limited literature on belonging for ME students. Three different strategies are highlighted for how ME students create a sense of belonging: ‘post racial’, ‘academic’ and ‘advocacy’. These strategies are then explored in relation to the five practices of student engagement (Kuh et al., 2005).

The paper argues that the current approaches to student engagement can be problematic and that a thorough understanding of belonging for Black students is required to begin to address the attainment gap.

Methodology

This research takes a critical race theory (CRT) approach to the experiences of Black students. CRT acknowledges that racism exist although it may be unwitting and based on thoughtless acts. It highlights the more subtle elements of racism and the limitations of tackling just overt racism in bringing about an end to inequality.

The study takes a deliberately political stance to knowledge. It assumes that structural inequality exists. It assumes that knowledge is value laden (Griffiths, 1998) and that each individual’s experience is unique, valid and truthful as far as they are aware. It does not aim to provide a representative illustration of a particular group’s experiences, rather it aims to expose issues through the exploration of individual stories and counterstories. Counter stories are narratives that expose and critique the dominant narrative and supposed race neutral discourses (Solorzano and Yosso, 2002). As such, the methodology is based on narrative inquiry (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000).

In depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with twelve Black students. The interviewers, one Black and one Asian postgraduate research student, were trained specifically for this research. The aim of using ME students to conduct the interviews was to reduce the power distance between the participants and the interviewer and to encourage deeper exploration of the sensitive issues.

Participants were recruited via purposive sampling but in reality the sensitive nature of the topic meant that many students approached did not want to be interviewed.

The interviewees were encouraged to engage in storytelling and this was audio recorded and transcribed. The transcripts were analysed by the research lead in collaboration with the research assistants. The focus of the analysis was to look for counterstories that give insight into the students overall sense of belonging.

Once analysed, different methods of reporting the findings were explored. In this paper the findings are presented as a ‘composite’ conversation (Solorzano and Yosso, 2002) between fictionalised Black students. The events in the conversation did not actually happen as depicted, however the conversation is not a fictional narrative. It is a ‘counterstory’ created by the author on the basis of, firstly, the data gathered in the research interviews, secondly on existing literature about ME attainment in HE, and thirdly on the author’s professional experiences in race equality research (Solorzano and Yosso, 2002). Although the characters in the story are not real they are not imaginary either. Rather, they are ‘composite’ characters derived from the interviewees and the interview data. Direct quotes from the interviews have been used extensively to form the dialogue. Minor changes have been made in order to create the sense of a conversation between four friends rather than an interview between researcher and participant.

Research findings

The research findings are presented here as a conversation between four friends sharing a flat. Each character in the story is used to illustrate a certain issue or strategy for belonging which will be explored fully in the discussion section that follows. Hope, an international student, represents the issue that ME students are less likely to get a first or upper second class degree. She talks about the challenges she faces and is the central character around which the conversation takes place. Nancy, a British student, represents the strategy I have labelled ‘post racial’. She is not experiencing any issues related to her ethnicity and appears fully involved in the life of the university. Adeola, an international student, represents the strategy I have labelled as ‘academic’. She is highly motivated and determined to do well in her studies. Finally, Shani, another British student, represents the strategy labelled ‘advocacy’. She is involved in issues of social justice.

The Story

Hope, Nancy, Adeola and Shani were in the kitchen of their shared accommodation. They had been sharing for just over four months after they had met in their first year at university. They were all on different courses and often didn’t see each other much during the day. So the early evening was a chance to catch up. They often shared a meal together and this evening was no different.

When the meal was ready they sat around the wooden table in the centre of the kitchen. The conversation was generally light-hearted but Hope was on the fringe. She had been in to university earlier in the day and had gotten her first semester marks and feedback. Hope was studying International Business and she had been averaging 57 per cent (a C grade) in her first year and was hoping her second year marks were going to be higher. She really wanted be over 60 per cent (a B grade) but frustratingly her marks were no better. The feedback had not helped. It did not really answer her questions on how to improve. She felt stuck.

Nancy noticed her slightly melancholic mood, ‘What’s up Hope? You don’t look too happy?’

‘No,’ Hope replied, ‘I picked up my feedback earlier. It’s not as good as I hoped.’

‘I thought you worked really hard for some of those essays,’ added Shani.

‘So did I. When you come straight in to university and get C in the first year that is fine but I expect to get B in the 2nd year but it is not happening. I don’t know why. Something is wrong.’

Nancy looked quizzically at Hope, ‘What do you mean something is wrong? With you?’

‘No, I feel I am learning, developing,’ was Hope’s response. ‘It is something else. It feels like the lecturers have put me in a box. You know the box where they place every Black student – low expectations.’ Hope emphasised the idea by pretending to throw a stack of paper into an imaginary box with both hands. ‘Just because I got a C last year there is no expectation to improve.’

‘That’s exactly how I feel. You always have to prove yourself,’ Adeola interjected, ‘making sure that everything you do is a 110 plus, not just 100 per cent because there’s always someone who looks at you as being Black and not good enough.’

‘I don’t think that is always true,’ countered Nancy, ‘that isn’t my experience.’

‘It is OK for you Nancy,’ interrupted Hope, ‘you were born here; your accent is English. When I raise my hand in class my accent counts against me. People make assumptions about your ability because of the way you speak. They put you in the box because of this.’

‘Yes, I feel that people sometimes look at me as if I am stupid because of my accent.’ Adeola added. Shani had been keeping quiet so far. She was more politically minded than her friends and was very keen to be involved in race and gender issues.

‘I can empathise, I don’t get shit from other people, I think, because I have been brought up in Britain my whole life but there will be times when my white friends will be telling a story about some taxi driver and someone they met on a night out. They won’t say anything explicitly racist but you can tell from the way they are talking, they are looking down on them because they are not English, and I do feel that a lot.’

Hope carried on the theme, ‘You know, one lecturer even accused me of cheating. Just because of the way I speak. He didn’t believe it when I wrote a good essay.’

‘Wow, that’s bad. What did you do?’ asked Shani.

‘Nothing. What can you say? You don’t want to upset your lecturer because you are thinking you don’t want to be the bad one. You don’t want to be the one saying this because you want your mark and you just want to go. What if they decide to make it worse?’

Hope had started to visibly shake. Shani came over to her and gave her a hug. After about 30 seconds she returned to her chair and smiled. Hope gave a weak smile back.

Adeola, in support of Hope added, ‘There is a lack of respect, I’ve had a lot of life experience and sometimes that isn’t taken into account. In class I would answer a question and you see how the lecturer would reply, they would never say that to another white person.’

Nancy tried to change the tone and suggested a more positive approach to Hope. ‘Have you accessed the support services? You know like the academic writing service? I’ve found the support staff on campus really helpful. They were friendly, they were available, they were willing to help you, to deal with any issues, so it was good.’

‘I didn’t really know about that’, replied Hope, ‘I thought that sort of thing was for people who were really struggling.’

As a student ambassador, Nancy was very familiar with the help available as she often got asked questions by prospective students when she gave them tours on university open days. ‘No, they help all students. They can help with how you structure your writing and all sorts. They won’t tell your lecturers unless you want them to, so no one has to know.’

Hope was still feeling a bit upset and was less willing to let her earlier train of thought end. ‘That’s good because you can’t go to lecturers for help or even if you try to go you don’t get any reasonable outcome. You are there to ask for help. It doesn’t come. You go away feeling like you just wasted your time, nothing happens.’

‘My experience is that my lecturers are really fair,’ countered Nancy. ‘If you’re struggling they will be there to help you. One lecturer knows me well and she knows that I’ll put in the work as long as I keep in touch with her, which is what I do.’

Adeola had been having similar experiences to Hope at the start of her course but agreed with Nancy about the need to make personal connections with staff. ‘You have to keep trying with lecturers. Just be a pain to them if you have to. Whenever I get my results I follow up with the lecturers and say, why did I get a B in this, how can I push my grade to an A, how can I? When I started, my grades were like I got B, B, C first semester, second semester I got two As and a B+! Prove to them you’re not just a pretty face!’

Hope, Shani and Nancy couldn’t help laughing. Adeola was so animated, pointing her finger in the direction of an imaginary lecturer and Hope.

‘Thanks, I’ll do that,’ replied Hope. ‘I think it would help as well if what they taught was more relevant to my life. That would give me something to hook on to and be more motivating. I think this semester I enjoyed Foucault because he helps to interpret your language and meaning in your own cultural space. Most of what they teach though is white and Eurocentric. When I try to bring my own experiences and bring in Africa, the lecturers just don’t seem to be interested.’

‘Yeah, I’ve had a similar experience,’ added Shani. ‘We were talking about dialects in class and why some had higher status than others. The lecturer completely ignored the racial factor in why dialects spoken by Black people often have lower status. It was like she hadn’t even considered that possibility and I was glad I brought it up. I think they shy away from race so much.’

‘Doesn’t that depend on the topic of the module though,’ said Nancy. ‘It might not matter in lots of subjects.’

‘Yeah but lecturers should be aware of racial politics. It shouldn’t be my job to educate them,’ responded Shani.

‘I think you can make most topics relevant to people from different backgrounds,’ added Adeola. ‘We had to do a poster about someone who inspires you and you can relate theories to. I did mine on Leymah Gbowee, an African Nobel prize winner. She is someone who really inspired me. I had to stand in class and do a presentation in front of a panel and justify why I had used the theories and how they link to this person and I got a very good grade. I got a very good A in that. I think it made a difference doing something I was passionate about. So it should matter. Our courses should be relevant to us.’

There was the nodding of heads round the table. Then Adeola added ‘Its not just staff and the course that matters though. Sometimes you feel like you don’t fit in with the place and other students. I think you’re always expected to go out of your way to socialise with other people, to mingle with other people in class but other people don’t make that effort. One of my lecturers made the observation that the class was split along racial lines. So me and some of the other Black students on my course decided, okay, we’ll split up and sit with different groups of white students. After break no one wanted to sit next to us, people had shifted. Do you know what, I have tried my part and no one wants to sit next to me!’

Nancy, Hope and Shani all started to talk at the same time to come in on what Adeola had said. Shani eventually got in by saying, ‘It is the seemingly little things that make you wonder. I bring up prejudice in class when it is relevant and because it is important but I feel like everyone’s thinking that I’m making it up. Everyone’s thinking that this is bullshit. Everyone’s thinking I’m seeing racism where there isn’t racism.’

‘I know I’m the one who always seems to be disagreeing but that hasn’t been my experience at all.’ Nancy felt she needed to step in and give some balance. ‘You know, I don’t make a big deal of being Black. I don’t want it to be the first thing people see, or think about me; it doesn’t matter. So things like not joining the Black and Caribbean Society. I want to go to university to meet new people but I don’t want to just be one little segregated group in the corner. Those in the society are always with themselves, they don’t mix with anyone else, it’s like ‘We’re just the big Black group in our university’. That’s how I see it anyway. I want to get involved with lots of other things. I help with open days at the university. I’m in a sports society.’

‘I have lots of friends from different backgrounds on my course,’ said Hope. ‘I’m not just friends with Black students but it doesn’t help with my grades or with lecturers. I’m only here for two more years. I’m not going to be able to change anything.’

‘That’s right, you didn’t come here to change people’s behaviour,’ chipped in Adeola. ‘You came here to get an education. You have to do what you have to do to survive.’

‘So what should I do now?’ asked Hope.

‘You have to do what I said earlier. You have to pester your lecturers to get the help you need and ask them what you need to do to get an A,’ replied Adeola.

The next morning Hope is at university. She climbs the stairs to the second floor. As she leaves the stairwell and enters the corridor, she looks left and then right to orient herself. She turns right and purposefully strides down the corridor, past room 211, 212. She stops in front of the brown door labelled 213, Dr. Wells. Hope takes a deep breathe, raises her right hand and knocks gently…

The three strategies

The strategy exemplified by the character of Nancy is a ‘post racial’ strategy. Nancy’s aim is to fit in with the wider activities of the university; the activities that might be considered to be visible student engagement. For example, showing parents and prospective students round at open days, being involved in sports clubs. This strategy involves social fit and high quality contact with a broad range of people both socially and academically. Problems that are encountered at university are not usually perceived as having a racial dimension.

The strategy adopted by the character of Adeola is an ‘academic’ strategy. Race and ethnicity play a part in the student experience but to overcome any disadvantage this might confer the student has a very strong focus on doing well academically. Their contact with the university is focussed in the academic domain. Their social life is unrelated to university. This strategy aims to have good contact with academic staff. Fit within the wider academic cohort is problematic and usually results in fitting in with a subset of students on the course split along racial lines.

The final strategy of ‘advocacy’ is adopted by the character of Shani. Despite Shani saying that it is not her job to educate others on racial issues, none the less she feels compelled to do so. This strategy relies more on the social aspects of belonging. In many ways this strategy is counterintuitive in relation to belonging because the strategy often risks deliberately not fitting in through raising difficult issues that people do not want to confront. As a result, strong social contact with individuals who support the advocacy strategy is needed.

Discussion

The discussion is structured around the five practices that create student engagement (Kuh et al., 2005). Student engagement has the potential to address Black under achievement (Harper and Quaye, 2009) and has been shown to ‘level the playing field’ for students who have been disadvantaged in their preparation for HE, which has traditionally included many Black students (Kuh et al., 2008). Yet there are important differences, suggested in the literature and by the findings of this research, that mean careful consideration is needed in how student engagement policies are implemented to be effective for all and not to disadvantage Black students.

A supportive campus environment is the first of the institutional factors shown to be important for belonging for Black students (Tovar, 2013; Harper and Quaye, 2009; Johnson et al., 2007). Many of the students interviewed felt that the university environment was to some degree hostile towards Black students. They reported this for themselves and their Black friends. This is not an uncommon finding, in both the UK and US, Black students report being marginalised, socially excluded and subject to racism (NUS, 2012; Harper, 2013). Black students were least satisfied with the campus racial climate (Johnson et al., 2007) and a hostile climate contributed strongly to a lack of belonging (Tovar, 2013). However, Black students do succeed despite this hostile environment (Harper, 2013) and this was true for the students interviewed. They were passing modules and progressing through their degrees. The strategies for belonging that were identified in the interviews are the different approaches that students took to be successful and feel that they, in some sense, ‘belonged’ at university.

One possible reason for lower attainment is that adapting to the dominant, largely white university culture requires additional cognitive load for students from minority groups leaving them less time and energy to exercise the cognitive abilities needed for achievement (Greene, et al., 2008). This can be seen in the students pursuing the ‘academic’ and ‘advocacy’ strategies; a lot of cognitive effort was expended by these students dealing with racial issues. Similar findings have been shown to occur in international students when having to adapt to the different culture whilst studying abroad (Krause, 2005). Hence, Harper (2013) argues that Black students do not socially integrate with the white university culture, peers or academics but form a sort of parallel race based social integration with students describing a lack of interethnic integration (Stevenson, 2012). Contrary to this, the ‘post racial’ strategy seems to fit well with this notion of social integration (Tinto, 1975).

The second factor in student engagement is student/faculty interaction (Kuh et al., 2005). Initial sense of belonging has been related to positive interactions with academic staff (Hausmann et al., 2007), empathetic staff understanding, perceived staff support and perceived classroom comfort (Hoffman et al., 2002). Byfield (2008) noted that Black students who successfully reached university identified teachers who had racial empathy and were non-judgemental about race as being crucial in their success.

One mechanism in the UK which plays a crucial role in good quality staff/student interaction is the personal tutor or academic adviser. However, there is concern over the quality of much personal tutoring (Stevenson, 2012). A particular concern is that the majority of academic staff are white, 87.7 per cent (ECU, 2012), and may not have the skills or required empathy to build good relationships with Black students. In addition, unconscious bias in academia (Milkman et al., 2014) and racial micro-aggressions or racial bias (Harper, 2013; NUS, 2012) may mean that some staff/student contact is detrimental to Black students. From the student interviews this is represented by the issues faced by Hope and in the way that Adeola has developed her relationship with academic staff as a result.

Students adopting the ‘academic’ strategy recognise that academic staff do not always understand or support Black students but in order to succeed they must persist in building that relationship with academic staff. Hope’s issue is that she encounters barriers to developing good staff / student contact and feels disempowered to do anything about it. In the case of the ‘post racial’ strategy, this barrier between staff and Black students does not exist or is ignored. The student taking a more ‘advocacy’ strategy is empowered, particularly in the classroom, to deal with racial issues.

Research has shown that sense of belonging is enhanced by peer to peer conversations about the course and perceived peer support (Kember and Leung, 2004; Hoffman et al., 2002) as well as good staff/student contact. For the ‘advocacy’ students this was in a social context with like-minded individuals. For ‘academic’ this was often on the course but with peers from the same racial background compared to ‘post racial’ students who were more likely to discuss with mixed racial groups.

Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) literature review identified active and collaborative learning, the third factor in student engagement, as an important aspect for success in undergraduate education. However, as identified in the interviews the collaborative aspect is particularly problematic for Black students. There is evidence that white students do not want to work with Black or other groups especially when that work is graded (Harper, 2013). Black students, as a minority group, can often not avoid working with other racial groups and encounter their perspectives and yet this understanding is not always reciprocated by many of their white peers (Wei et al., 2011). This was clearly expressed by one of the interviewees represented by Adeola in the conversation. There were examples of this from all students regardless of the strategy they pursued; including an example from a student pursuing the ‘post racial’ strategy who was allowed to work individually rather than in a group. However, the response of the students to these situations differed depending on their strategies. For the ‘post racial’ example it was not a problem and showed that the tutor was helpful to the student. For the ‘academic’ students, the response was to work as much as possible with other minority students. For the ‘advocacy’ students, they tended to push for a particular approach which was not favoured by their white peers and the situations had to be mediated by staff. The irony here is that for white students, engagement with Black peers allowed them to understand alternative perspectives, gave them a sense of commonality with Black students and so potentially improving the racial climate (Gurin et al., 2004).

The fourth student engagement factor, enriching educational experiences that include integration of diversity experiences are seen as beneficial for student engagement (Kuh et al., 2005). Diversity experiences have also been shown to benefit integration measures and link to a positive sense of belonging (Tovar, 2013). However, the benefits of creating diverse, enriching educational experiences may be largely seen for white students but not Black students (Harper, 2013). Encouraging collaborative learning and enriching educational experiences may be a form of ‘interest convergence’ (see Delgado and Stefancic, 2012) whereby an attempt to support diversity actually just reinforces the benefits to the privileged group.

The final factor in student engagement is in setting academic challenge and high expectations. Cockley (2003) describes the ‘anti intellectual myth’ about Black students that they are not as smart as white students or are lazy. This can manifest in staff having lower expectations of Black students and locating the blame for the attainment gap on the students (Stevenson and Whelan, 2013; Stevenson, 2012). The interviews showed clear examples of this and expressed in the conversation by the characters of Hope and Adeola. The ‘academic’ strategy most clearly confronts and addresses this. One possible explanation for this strategy may be that Black students’ prior racial experiences lead them to take a strong focus on academic achievement and hard work in the academic sphere as a way of mitigating racism (Vincent et al., 2011; Byfield, 2008). Black students often feel the need to prove that they are exceptional to justify their presence at university (Harper, 2013). This is the narrative that runs underneath the ‘academic’ strategy. The ‘advocacy’ strategy takes a different approach to perceived lower expectations. This strategy tries to combat those perceptions by engaging in debate and less by trying to personally prove the stereotype wrong.

One of the ways subtle racism played out for the students in the interviews, especially for international students, was through their accent; having a non-English accent fed into the stereotype of lower expectations.

Another aspect the interviews highlighted was that often there is a perceived lack of diversity in the curriculum. Students needed to see where the curriculum was relevant to them. The ‘post racial’ students did not perceive this as a problem. The ‘academic’ and ‘advocacy’ students tried to include more diverse perspectives in their assignments and the ‘advocacy’ students also tried to make their classroom more aware of diverse perspectives.

One final aspect from the interviews was a clear distinction between the ‘post racial’ strategy and the other two strategies in the overall perception of racism. The ‘post racial’ strategy largely assumes that universities are places where racism does not exist or it is certainly a lot less prevalent than in the wider society. The ‘academic’ and ‘advocacy’ strategies assume that racism is as problematic in university as in wider society.

Conclusion

The literature on success at university has recently been strongly influenced by student engagement (Trowler, 2010) and increasingly belonging is becoming an important part of the debate (Thomas, 2012). At the same time, HE has a persistent problem whereby students from minority ethnic backgrounds have lower academic achievement than their white peers. As a result understanding belonging for minority ethnic students becomes one possible means to start to address the achievement gap.

This research highlights though that it is not a simple problem. Students from minority ethnic backgrounds develop different strategies for belonging. These strategies are influenced by their experiences prior to arriving at university and their experiences whilst at university.

Consequently, the one size fits all approach to belonging and student engagement will not work. The literature suggests that aspects of student engagement, such as collaborative learning and diverse educational experiences, vary by ethnicity (Harper, 2013) and what works for one group of students may not work for others. Both the interviews and the literature (Stevenson, 2012) suggest that the key interactions between staff and students may be problematic partly due to the lower proportion of minority ethnic staff than students and partly due to a lack of understanding of the specific needs of ME students.

The hope is that this and subsequent research leads to a better understanding of the perspectives of minority ethnic students and their belonging in HE so universities can consider how changes can be made to improve students’ sense of belonging and possibly reduce the attainment gap.

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Neil Currant

Neil Currant is Principal Lecturer in Educational Development at Oxford Brookes University having previously been Head of Academic Professional Development at the University of Bedfordshire. Neil has spent the last few years researching Black and Minority Ethnic attainment and belonging in Higher Education. Throughout his career in higher education, Neil has been involved in widening participation and equality, diversity and inclusion. He has worked on two funded projects supporting entry to university and building links with local communities. Oxford Brookes University Wheatley Campus Wheatley OX33 1HX n.currant@brookes.ac.uk

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