NORMAN — 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.
“I want to make it, have a job ... and they keep asking why I'm not married,” the student said. “I don't even bother explaining the idea that I am preparing myself for law school.”
Lee, an African American Studies major at OU, said he notices that difference when he returns to Texas and talks to family and neighbors in the neighborhood where he grew up. Family and friends treat him with greater privilege, he said. He's also more aware of the poverty and drug use in the neighborhood than he was while he was growing up, he said.
One of the study's authors said colleges and universities need to do a better job of engaging black college students and their communities.
Jake Simmons, a professor at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, said schools could help alleviate that tension by implementing programs that reach out not only to students, but also to their families and home communities to let them know what's happening on campus.
Simmons said universities could also develop multicultural programs that do a better job of representing the entirety of students' home cultures, rather than simply holding a stereotypical celebration for major holidays.
Spencer Davis, an OU student from Tulsa, said he's felt the conflict between his own heritage and the surrounding culture since before he came to OU. Davis, who is black, attended Jenks High School, which is predominantly white.
Davis, 19, is a second-generation college student — his father graduated from OU and his mother has a degree from the University of Tulsa.
When Davis was in high school, it was obvious that he was in the minority, he said. He felt the internal conflict between his heritage and his surroundings then, he said, but he adopted the speech patterns and culture of the people around him.
After a while, Davis realized he wasn't totally comfortable speaking with other black people, he said. When he came to OU, his social network broadened to include friends from several races. But he still feels like he belongs to multiple groups, leaving him to figure out where he fits.
“It hasn't really impeded me,” he said. “I've definitely managed to navigate it now.”