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.

3 thoughts on “Thriving or Surviving: A Discussion on Black Student Success in PWIs”

  1. Shaynie, I love the way in which this question and concept portrays being a part of the collective while also being an individual. On one hand, those experiences of trauma do impact the collective and require the collective to draw attention to in order for change to even be considered, when it’s part of the collective it is surviving but when you are viewing a person as an individual for everything, and those successes it is thriving and requires acknowledging that people are individuals as well.

    It reminds me a lot of the looking glass self, but instead of constantly looking at yourself through the way in which others see you in that big mirror, more like a pocket mirror that is with you when you take a selfie on your front camera but when you’re not looking at that camera you still know who you are and recognize yourself for other ways and things than what’s being reflected from societal norms and structures.

  2. In what ways can a college ensure all students of color are not merely surviving? How can the discourse shift so that all students of color are given the opportunity to thrie on these campuses?

  3. This is an interesting introduction to a very long and difficult discussion. There is some baked-in bias in the question; but that is natural, because we all have different perspectives and perceptions colored by our individual life experience. …from toddlerhood to adulthood.
    I would offer, the minimization of the experience of any group or individual in the discussion is counterproductive, and only provides an opportunity to gloss over the absolute reality of the impact that that experience has had on the group or individual. This avoidance of the difficult stifles the acquisition of knowledge, and the understanding of the perspectives of the other.
    I would guess, due to the lower raw number of accomplishments among minority students, simply due to their lower number among the student body, their accomplishments may seem to get buried just by the disparity in population. This could lead to the appearance that some force is in effect, attempting to stifle their recognition.
    Perhaps added diligence on the part of the institution with respect to the highly visible recognition of all student accomplishments, would have a positive effect on any such misinterpretations.
    Having been only a survivor myself, I have no experience upon which to base advice for thriving, except that I suspect a bit of drive combined with work ethic, and a dash of innate intelligence might improve one’s chances.

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