Study shows black students experience college through prism of racism

A quarter century has not made much difference in the way black students experience four years at a predominantly white upstate New York university environment, according to Dr. R. Deborah Davis, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at SUNY Oswego.

Her interviews with 18 African-American students at Syracuse University in the early 1990s are the topic of her recent book, “Black Students’ Perceptions,” and of her upcoming presentation at Quest, SUNY Oswego’s annual symposium of faculty and student scholarly pursuits. She will speak at 2:30 p.m. April 20 in Room 102A of Oswego’s Lanigan Hall.

She said her study produced results similar to those of a 1969 study at a predominantly white upstate university. “Things have not changed,” she said. “What the students talked about was the hurtfulness of having to deal with other people’s perceptions of you. This is about race.”

For majority students, most of whom are encountering peers of color in close proximity for the first time, “‘different’ is somehow ‘bad’ or ‘suspect,’” she said. “It’s societal. It’s institutional. It’s not malicious,” she added. Students of color may have a parallel misperception: “Black students have to go through the same realization that white people aren’t all bad,” she said.

For African-American students, a predominating atmosphere of misunderstanding can interfere with their education. “If you feel like you’re not part of the group, you have more to deal with,” Davis said.

Most traditional-age college students are still figuring out who they are and who they want to be, but black students have “an extra layer of ‘who am I’ in this surrounding,” she said. She noted that there is no monolithic black identity, with as many differences among African-Americans as between them and European-Americans.

At the end of the day, though, the students she interviewed said they would not choose their college differently. They saw a predominantly white university as “the best training ground for real life, because it is a microcosm of society,” she said. “It was not a negative portrayal (of their experience) but very realistic.”

To begin to erase racial barriers on campuses, Davis said, “Students need to work harder at getting to know each other. And that’s not easy. The remedy is just more interpersonal contact.”

While many colleges have special services and organizations for minority students, “What do we do for the majority students? How do we help these students learn more about other people?” she said.

“Do we really have real conversations about race? I have not heard it,” she continued. “The system, our system of life, is racist. That’s a historical thing. If we don’t talk about it, we can’t get past it. It’s not going to be done systemically. It’s going to be done one person at a time.”

Peter Lang Publishing published “Black Students’ Perceptions: The Complexity of Persistence to Graduation at an American University” in 2004. The paperback book is priced at $24.95.

For more information on Quest activities at SUNY Oswego, visit

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(Posted: Apr 06, 2005)