RACE, GENDER, AND THE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE
Of course, the difficulties African American students experience in the educational context is not limited to the precollege experience. An analysis of the college life of Black students reveals how race and gender interplay so that Black female and Black male college experiences intersect but do not completely overlap.
Perhaps not surprisingly, researchers have identified persistent differences in the college experiences of men and women across the color line. In one of the earlier, more comprehensive comparisons of African American male and female college students, Gurin and Epps10 challenged the conventional views of a Black female advantage. In both relative and absolute terms, the female disadvantage was consistent, revealed by the following findings: women’s goals were lower on all measures of educational and occupational aspirations; males were three times more likely to plan to pursue the Ph. D. degree; women were more likely to aspire to jobs in the "female sector" of the economy, jobs that required less ability and effort and provided lower prestige; males were more likely to be influenced in their goals and aspirations by the college they attended. Their conclusion was that Black women experience distinct disadvantages relative to Black men.
Recently, the enrollment of women generally—and African American women in particular—in postsecondary institutions has risen dramatically. Black women currently outnumber Black men in college.11 This has created the false impression that Black women are not confronted with serious educational barriers. It is important to point out, therefore, that the difference between Black male and Black female college enrollments relates more to a decrease in African American male college attendance than an increase in African American female enrollment. As my data illustrate, considerable reason still exists to doubt rosy portrayals of Black women’s college experiences.
Gurin and Epps studied more than 5,000 African American students enrolled in ten traditionally Black institutions from 1964 to 1970. Fleming12 later studied a comparable sample of 3,000 African American college students, expanded to incorporate students attending predominantly white colleges. Fleming’s basic research question of "Who gets the most out of college?" yielded answers that echoed the Gurin and Epps’s findings. White males on white campuses, and Black males on Black campuses, derived far more benefits from college than did Black women. Fleming also concluded that, among African American students, females were more anxious in competition, felt less competent, and tended to be less assertive. Social passivity was especially common among Black females on Black campuses. On white campuses, where these females were more assertive, they paid the price in pain, feeling themselves to be more socially ostracized and isolated.
Patterns were reversed for the Black males studied by Fleming. On white campuses, African American males were withdrawn and unhappy, feeling themselves subject to unfair treatment. As a result, they experienced considerable academic demotivation. At the other extreme, Black males on Black campuses, like white males on white campuses, felt "in charge." These Black males showed impressive cognitive growth, eagerness to compete, and considerable social assertion. In the supportive environments provided by Black colleges, Black males felt more accepted and showed little anxiety about interpersonal relationships. On white campuses, just the opposite was true.
Analysis of a national sample of more than 700 undergraduate Black students on white campuses revealed that Black males were more likely than Black females to have both high aspirations and good grades.13 This was a surprising finding given that, on average, Black females in this sample outperformed Black males in the classroom as measured by grade-point average. When Black males and Black females with comparable achievement levels were compared, the males consistently reported higher postgraduate aspirations.
These studies support the "double bind" theory—that black women experience a "double discrimination" because of their race and gender. Specifically, these studies reveal a racial and gender hierarchy on college campuses that places white males at the top and Black females at the bottom on white campuses, and Black males at the top and Black females on the bottom at Black colleges. One explanation for this difference in Black male and Black female socialization on Black campuses is sexism. This is not to suggest, of course, that Black college campuses are more sexist than white college cam – puses—they are not. But, since Black women have the burden of being both Black and female, even in an all-Black or predominantly Black educational context, they are still vulnerable to discriminatory experiences based on gender. A recent study by Thomas confirms how gender complicates the nature of Black women’s college experiences.
Gender was reported by Thomas to be the strongest predictor of college major choice for African American students in majority white and Black colleges.14 Occupational expectation was the strongest
predictor of college major choice. Generally speaking, being male and having high occupational aspirations were significantly predictive of majoring in the biological, technical, and natural sciences. However, Black students on white campuses were significantly less likely to elect majors in the natural and biological sciences, irrespective of gender.
In Thomas’s case, gender clearly affected African American women’s choice of college major and career aspirations. Black females tended to be less interested in advanced mathematics or the sciences and much more interested in customer service occupations. Only in private schools did traditional gender roles not seem to explain Black women’s career aspirations.15
The preceding studies are extremely helpful to any discussion about Black females and Black males in higher education. But none of the studies makes a focused comparison between the social adjustment of African American males and African American females on predominantly white campuses. The next section of this essay makes such a comparison. It examines the extent to which African American student perceptions of institutional context vary by gender. Two central questions are explored: (1) Do Black men and women experience the "same" campus or institutional context in very different ways? and (2) Do the observed differences in how Black male and Black female students experience predominantly white campuses relate to differences in student background, college performance, and/or gender?