The Effects of Racism on Black Students

By Vivian Phyo

Brief Introduction

Negroland is the place where a small portion of the black population that is given a certain amount of wealth and privileges. Black people in said land thought of themselves as the Third Race that is in between other “common” Negros and classes of whites. Members of Negroland are expected to possess “education, ambition, sophistication, and verbal dexterity” [4] yet always expected to remain docile and never act flamboyant in public, especially to the white crowd. This is where the protagonist, Margo Jefferson is born into the Chicago branch of Negroland. Margo’s parents, whom are considered to be high achievers, had a desire for their two children to go to first-rate private schools. The University of Chicago Laboratory School was one of the best private schools that had started to accept Negros at that time, and Margo and her elder sister were soon admitted to the school. The University of Chicago Laboratory School was mostly a predominantly white school, and Margo was almost constantly exposed to subtle racism from her classmates and teachers. As time passed, the subtlety soon grew into more racism and segregation during her college and career years. It was to the point that in her late 20s, Margo contemplated suicide due to the racist environment in which she was exposed (Visit Black Mental Health page for more details). This blog will be discussing racism and segregation that Margo and other black students faced in academic environments and their negative impacts on students’ lives.

child
Margo Jefferson c.1950

Lab School

Throughout the course of primary and secondary school, Margo faced subtle racism from her white classmates and even more from her teachers. There were several minor racist incidents that Margo specifically recalled from her childhood, and most of them emphasized the fact that Margo was different from the majority of the school. The first incident happened when Margo was at a summer camp. Initially, there were 2 blacks, Margo and another lighter skinned black boy that were among other white kids. Later, a new Negro kid joined the camp late and he was difficult to approach because everyone in the camp felt awkward around him. Hence, the counselor asked a favor from Margo privately to help the new kid fit in better. Margo agreed to help and things were resolved. When Margo was sharing this incident to a friend years later, she realized that the counselor could have asked the other Negro boy and it would have theoretically been a better fit since they were the same gender and race. However, it was realized that the counselor had asked her for the favor as she was “darker-skinned” than the other black boy and this minor act of racism is shown through the counselor asking her specifically due to the shade of her skin.

In middle school, Margo recognized that there were certain things that she could never win against her white classmates. One example of this is “the List” that the middle-schoolers came up with. The List is basically a list of girls’ rankings in terms of different categories, such as personality, appearance, and dancing skill, as rated by white boys. Although Margo had high ratings for her good grades and dancing skill, she received a middle ranking for her personality and a poor ranking for her looks. While not explicitly stated that this was due to her skin color, it could be deemed as so. Through this, Margo’s self-esteem started to decline.

In high school, Margo received straights As and did cheerleading both of which she devoted a lot of time and effort into. However, she was doing badly in her social life – or at least that was what Margo thought about herself.  Margo felt like she did not have a single best friend.  She believed she did not belong to neither the white group nor the black group. Margo ended up feeling detached from her white friends as they were “not going to the same parties most of the time or seeing boys of the same race.” To her black friends, Margo’s style was outdated and did not match their “cool” vibe. Through this, Margo was not enjoying high school most of the time. Unfortunately, little did she know that she was going to feel even more hopeless and unhappy in college [4].

lab
The main entrance to the Lab Schools at Blaine Hall [2]

Brandeis University, 1964-1968

In college, black students face racism more often, sometimes, in the form of segregation. There have been numerous studies conducted on racial microaggressions and its effects on black students in the collegiate environment. Researchers define microaggressions as “subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously.” [6] An example of a microaggression that Margo and other black students faced is that they are unwanted and assumed to be inappropriate in or outside of academic setting, except for sports or physical activities. In her freshman year at the Brandeis University, Margo wanted to try different extracurricular clubs but was disappointed to find out that not a lot of clubs want to welcome Margo. First, she decided to try out for cheerleading as she did in high school. She got in but was bluntly insulted by a fellow cheerleader that she did not belong in cheerleading – her teammate told Margo that cheerleading is a form of art and she was ruining their image. Later, when she showed a flair for fencing in gym, the instructor encouraged her to try out for the fencing team, which she had no interest in; she had to fake an injury to get away from the tryout. Finally, as a freshman, she tried out for drama society and was given a minor role in The Maids. Despite the minor role, Margo performed excellently and audiences enjoyed her character. However, in her junior year, she auditioned for a good role for a British play and thought that she would get the role because other students competing for the same role were mostly freshmen. However, she was shocked to know that she was rejected, regardless of her exceptional acting [4]. This incident showed that faculties generally maintain low expectations of Black students and have doubts and suspicions of Black students who show exemplary accomplishments.

Although they were not mentioned in Margo’s memoir, there are many wrong assumptions about how black students are enrolled into college. Most white students believe black students are getting into colleges/universities because of affirmative action, and not because of their qualifications. Similarly, the white students also assume scholarships that blacks got are in sports and not in academics. These wrong assumptions about blacks’ intellectual capabilities are another common form of microaggression that most black students face.

Microaggressions usually impel students to drop out of classes, change their majors, or transfer schools [6]. For instance, Margo was particularly interested in majoring in drama and piano before she came to college. However, after numerous unpleasant and unfair experiences with drama society, she decided to major in English and American literature instead. Likewise, Margo’s aunt experienced harsh racism from a professor at the University of Chicago. A white male professor told her straight to her face, “As long as I am in this department, you will never get your master’s degree.” Margo’s aunt had to transfer to a different school to avoid the problem [4]. Subtle or obvious, microaggressions can eventually crush most black students’ hopes and dreams. Unsupportive campuses for minorities like the schools that Margo and her aunt attended are highly correlated to poor academic performance and/or high dropout rates among black students [6].

Gutman and McLoyd conducted a research that focuses on the effects of poor African-American parents’ involvement in their children’s education on academic performance. There are many ways parents can get involved in their children’s education but the study mainly focuses on parents’ management within the home, at school, and in the community [3]. Table 1 below summarizes the important findings of the study:

Difference
Differences between parents of high achievers and parents of low achievers in various settings [3]
Although the study is measured on low income families, similar ways of involvement from Margo’s parents were found to support Margo and her sister to achieve their respective dreams. Margo’s mother was involved in her two children’s education in all three environments. She attended parent teacher conferences, and when her two kids come back from school, she often asked about what they learnt at school. At home, Margo’s mother had stocked a library with classics and even read a variety of books to her children when she had free time. When Margo wanted to major in piano and Denise (Margo’s sister) showed strong interest in ballet, Margo’s mother worked hard to find a good ballet teacher for Denise and sent Margo to piano camps during school breaks. Margo’s mother also made sure to send both children to other summer camps and to social clubs like Jack and Jill regularly.  In general, Margo’s parents, especially her mother, paid close attention to Margo and Denise’s academic progress from elementary school to high school [4]. A main difference between the research the Margo’s parents however was that unlike the participants of the study, Margo’s parents had strong financial power to support their children. However, some invaluable things like parents’ help, love, and encouraging words toward their children can still boost up their self-esteem and academics performance.

According to the African American Education Data book, percentage of black enrollment in higher education institutions has been slowly increasing from 1976 to 1994. However, compared to white students, black students’ enrollment and graduation percentages of higher education degrees are still significantly lower. This difference is due to less financial aid given to black students. Most African-American families have lower family income than most white families and with less financial aid available for black students, money restrict black students from pursuing more expensive adult education programs. Figure below compares family income, financial aid, and tuition fees differences between white students and black students [5].

table 2
Cost of attendance, financial aid received, and expected family contribution at institutions attended by 1989/90 beginning post-secondary students. [5]
The statistics in the Data Book shows that black students were restricted from higher education due to financial burden [5]. However, another reason that can suffice the fact about low black students’ graduation percentage is due to higher level of exposure to racism and segregation as black students progress toward more advanced level of education. Unsupportive campus communities for minorities and presence of various types of microaggressions can discourage black students from pursuing their dreams in academic programs.

Conclusion

Negroland by Margo Jefferson is a unique book in that it sheds light on our protagonist Margo’s experience as an upper middle-class African-American. Despite her social standing, Margo still faced a lot of challenges and racism from white peers just like any other black student. The book reveals many examples of microaggressions in academia that raises the awareness about the effects of racism on black students. Although unsupportive campuses for minorities can decrease black’s graduation rate, strong and loving support from parents may be able to buffer this consequence. Almost all schools and college campuses across the states are working hard to become more pluralistic every day, yet unfortunately, there are still some amount of microaggressions and racism exist in academia. We must all keep working toward the goal to eliminate racism for the sake of better and brighter future for all children.

Kids playing
A diverse group of children playing together outside. [1]

Bibliography

Images:

1. Preschoolers Playing Together Outside. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.

2. “University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Apr. 2017. Web. 21 Apr. 2017.

Text:

3. Gutman, Leslie M., and Vonnie C. McLoyd. “Parents’ Management of Their Children’s Education Within the Home, at School, and in the Community: An Examination of African-American Families Living in Poverty.” The Urban Review 32.1 (2000): 1-24. Web.

4. Jefferson, Margo. Negroland. New York: Vintage Books, 2016. Print.

5. Nettles, Michael T., and Laura W. Perna. The African American education data book: Volume I. Vol. 1. Fairfax: Patterson Research Institute, 1997. Print.

6. Solorzano, Daniel, Miguel Ceja, and Tara Yosso. “Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students.” The Journal of Negro Education 69 (2000): 60-73. JSTOR. Web.

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