Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Being All of Me: Black Students Negotiating Multiple Identities

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Being All of Me: Black Students Negotiating Multiple Identities

Article excerpt

Introduction

At the turn of the last century, W. E. B. DuBois wrote, "The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious [personhood], to merge his double self into a better and truer self.... In this merging, he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost.... He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American" (1903/1994, pp. 2-3). The college journey mirrors this same strife for many students. Howard Bowen (1968) commented that one of the goals of college should be the development of individuals. Relatedly, Alexander Astin (1993) pointed out that students enter college with a commitment and expectation that they will develop "a meaningful philosophy of life," which includes reflection on the meaning of life, the construction of a meaningful existence, and existential ponderings about the self and identity. Inasmuch as this is a stated outcome, as reflected in DuBois's comments above, the path toward it is often fraught with the tensions and pulls of identity struggles (Chickering & Reisser, 1993). For students from underrepresented populations, those identity struggles take on a particular intensity when the "longing to attain self-conscious [personhood]" means negotiating the multiple dimensions of their identities in an environmental context that may be neither inclusive nor welcoming (McEwen, Roper, Bryant, & Langa, 1990; Sedlacek, 1987). For these students, neither the old self formed prior to entering college nor the self who is becoming during their college experience should be discarded. Yet merging the two into a "better and truer self" (DuBois 1903/1994, p. 2) to be both who they were and who they are becoming is a difficult process.

As Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have observed, "The axes of the subject's [i.e., individual's] identifications and experiences are multiple, because locations in gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality complicate one another, and not merely additively.... Nor do different vectors of identification and experiences overlap neatly and entirely" (1992, p. xiv). As Smith and Watson noted, identity integration is a level of cross-cultural, psychosocial development that reflects an understanding of the self as inherently composed of multiple facets, which come together and influence each other in transformative ways. Living and articulating identity as an integration of these multiple facets instead of as merely additive facets entails moving self-definitions as raced, gendered, and educated from externally imposed limitations to internalized, interlocking components through which self-actualization, or what DuBois termed self-conscious personhood, may be more fully realized (Myers et al., 1991). This symbiotic relationship means that each different social or cultural identity facet is identifiable and salient in all areas of the individual's life.

Developing toward identity integration may be a way to transcend the societal tendency to compartmentalize everything including the self (Palmer, 1983), to smooth out the supposed contradictions between these multiple facets of self, and to provide a sense of coherence about who one is and how one lives in social context (Luttrell, 1996). The development of multiple aspects of identity in an environment that may be hostile to certain resolutions of one or all of these sociocultural identities presents psychosocial identity challenges for Black students, particularly for those in predominantly White educational contexts (Brown-Collins & Sussewell, 1986; Feagin, Vera, & Imani, 1996; Fleming, 1984; McEwen et al., 1990).

This article reports findings from a study that investigated the awareness and integration of multiple sociocultural identities among junior and senior Black students on a predominantly White campus in 2001. Five research questions guided this study: What are the self-perceptions of multiple sociocultural identities by Black students at a predominantly White college? …

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