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Black college students at predominantly white campuses feel internal cultural tension

by Silas Allen Published: July 21, 2013

When George Lee first came to the University of Oklahoma in 2009, he felt out of place.

Lee, who is black, grew up in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood in Bryan, Texas, near College Station. But when he arrived at OU, he said, he felt pressure to change how he spoke and acted to integrate himself into the dominant culture.

He felt like he couldn't be the same person he'd been in his old neighborhood, he said. He felt like he was being asked to trade part of his “blackness” for the values and characteristics of the dominant white culture on campus.

“There had to be some type of a trade-off,” Lee said.

The idea of double consciousness — when a person's identity is divided between two cultures — isn't new. Sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois explored the idea in his 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk.” But a new study suggests the conflict remains for many black college students today.

According to records from the National Center for Education Statistics, 64 percent of OU's undergraduates in the fall 2011 semester were white. Just 5 percent of undergraduates in 2011 were black.

At Oklahoma State University, 73 percent of undergraduates in 2011 were white, while only 5 percent were black.

According to a recent study published in the National Communication Association's journal, Communication Education, black students at predominantly white universities still often struggle to assimilate themselves into a culture they see as different from their own.

The study consisted of six focus groups spread out over three universities — a major Midwestern university in a small, rural community; a major Midwestern private university in a larger city; and a major Southwestern public university in a small metropolitan area. At each of the three schools, black students made up 8 percent or less of the overall student population.

According to the study, many of the students reported feeling an internal tension between remaining proud of their own culture and altering their own language or culture to adapt to the perceived “whiteness” of their universities.

That inner conflict continues when those students return home, according to the report. Of the 67 students involved in the focus groups, 52 were first-generation college students. Those students reported their families didn't have an understanding of the students' college experiences and the desire for a college degree.

One student reported feeling out of place during a summer family reunion, according to the report.

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by Silas Allen
General Assignment/Breaking News Reporter
Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri.
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