Thriving or Surviving: A Discussion on Black Student Success in PWIs

Black students in predominantly white institutions are, often, discussed in literature as objects of struggle amongst their white counterparts. Their experiences are reduced to micro-aggressions, theories of assimilation, and conflict avoidance, just to name a few. While all of these elements play a role in the minority experience within a PWI, they should not be the only lenses through which black students’ narratives are analyzed. Many black students within predominantly white institutions are excelling on their campuses; whether it is the captain of a team, a research assistant, resident advisor, or the coordinator of a volunteer group, these students are impacting their campuses in a positive way— they are not, merely, surviving a PWI but are thriving within an racially and socially limited space.

photo of color, graffiti, curly hair, smiling, happy, mural, african american

The contention between surviving and thriving are evident, not only in definition, but it’s application to how we examine the experiences of black students in PWIs. By diminishing students’ experiences, solely, to the trauma that they face and how they deal with it perpetuates a conception that black students are only subsisting amongst their white counterparts. Through this narrative, black students who shine on their campus are invalidated, illegitimized, and made invisible. Moreover, by applying this as the universal narrative to black students in PWIs, their actions are constantly being translated as “coping mechanisms” instead of willful acts of leadership. While the consideration of the discriminatory and limiting aspects that are interwoven in black students’ experiences in a PWI are important in scholarly discourse, the level of success that these students reach should also be apart of the conversation. This alternative narrative would detail resilience, ability, and the desire to be seen as more than a black student in a predominantly white institution— it would detail how they thrive.

How would the shift in discourse about black students in predominantly white institutions affect the way collegiate institutions consider its minority population?

This is a special post in a series authored by students in Professor Wolfe’s Spring 2019 Research Lab. We are studying the experiences of students of color at PWIs.

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