The Impact of "Colorblind" Ideologies on Students of Color: Intergroup Relations at a Predominantly White University

Article excerpt

This article examines some post-admissions issues related to collegiate affirmative action. Specifically, it focuses on the experiences and interactions of students of color with their White peers on predominantly White college campuses. Focus group interviews with African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American students were conducted to explore and analyze student intergroup relations. The data reveal White student behaviors that often have a negative impact on students of color, especially patterns of White "colorblindness" and color consciousness, along with racial or ethnic stereotyping. They suggest that problematic intergroup peer relations on college campuses can be best understood by placing them within the larger organizational and social contexts that frame and support them.

INTRODUCTION

In recent years, race relations on U.S. college campuses have received renewed theoretical, programmatic, and public attention. Sustained inequality and racial harassment in higher education settings resurfaced in the late 1980s and early 1990s bringing with them fresh student protests in response. In the early to mid-1990s, greater attention was devoted to planning for and debating the merits of diversity and multiculturalism. The latter period also saw the emergence of a generation of anti-affirmative action movements and legal suits. On a theoretical level, these trends have led to a reconsideration of the meaning and measure of prejudice in the United States, analyses of the relationship between institutional power and racism, renewed investigations of identity politics, examinations of the nature of Whiteness, and reviews of traditional assumptions about the influence of social support and/or isolation and alienation in the academic performance and social behavior of students of color.

Much of the recent literature on higher education agrees that racial problems exist on the nation's college campuses. Some articulate these problems as indicative of a racial crisis (Altbach & Lomotey, 1991; Chesler & Crowfoot, 1991), while others imply that the problems, though present and important, are not quite at a critical level (Allen, 1985; Allen, Epps, & Haniff, 1991; Allen & Niss, 1990; Hurtado, 1992; Nettles, Thoeny, & Gosman, 1986). At the very least, researchers have pointed to a significant gap between White students assessments of their schools' racial climate and those of students of color. Many point out that, at least for Black students, the question is not whether racial tension exists on their campuses but to what degree and with what impact. As McClelland and Auster (1990) note,

Racial tensions have been documented at integrated institutions at least since the 1960s. Stereotyping by their white faculty and peers as "special admits," a perceived lack of support by faculty and staff, and a largely segregated social life have made Blacks at white schools feel quite aware of their marginal status and have contributed to feelings of sociocultural alienation. From their perspective, the racial climate at our nation's colleges and universities has never been good. (pp. 612-613)

Though the literature highlights the main patterns of race relations on U.S. campuses, several important gaps remain. High levels of alienation on the part of students of color have been identified, but no research has yet analyzed how that alienation is generated. Specifically, much of this work is based on survey data that neither include students' voices nor consider their daily experiences. Moreover, the literature primarily focuses only on the campus experiences of Black students (and occasionally Chicanos) and does not include other racial/ethnic groups in their analyses. Too little research has examined either the relationship of the institutional context to patterns of relations on campus or the links between what takes place in colleges and universities and what goes on in the larger social context. …