'The Unchosen Me'

January 19, 2010

What challenges do students of color face during their years on campus, and how do these challenges affect their college success -- or lack thereof? In her new book, The Unchosen Me: Race, Gender, and Identity Among Black Women in College (Johns Hopkins University Press), Rachelle Winkle-Wagner explores these questions from the students' perspective. During the course of her research, Winkle-Wagner met with 30 African-American women undergraduates and graduate students, who spoke to her about the pressures and conflicts they experienced as women of color at a predominately white midwestern university. Winkle-Wagner, who is assistant professor of higher education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, responded via email to questions about her work and its implications.

Q: Can you give a brief description of the study that led to this book, and why you chose this line of research?

A:The Unchosen Me: Race, Gender, and Identity Among Black Women in College uses African American women’s college experiences and the identity-related pressures that stem from these experiences as a vehicle that provides evidence about the ways that race and gender can be created through everyday interactions between one’s self, others and society. The book is a critical ethnographic study which provides empirical evidence of identity pressures using a concept I created, called the Unchosen Me, to name these pressures. My findings are a call to arms to reconsider how race and gender are studied (as interactions between one’s self, others and society) in addition to rethinking the manner in which college student identity is explored. The results demonstrate both theoretical and practical consequences of the Unchosen Me in terms of college experiences, college student retention, and social interactions more generally. There are serious and important implications for ways to better support students of color in predominantly White universities and in society more generally.

The data in this critical ethnographic study consisted of nine months of observations (following and actively observing the women in classes, events and social outings), individual interviews, and bi-weekly focus groups. This book is primarily based on the eight, bi-weekly focus groups that we called “Sister Circles.” I analyzed the data in multiple ways delving deeply into the meaning behind women’s statements and also to reflect on complex issues like race and gender. One of the appendices goes into quite a bit of detail on the rigor of this data analysis technique developed by a mentor of mine, Phil Carspecken, who rooted the analysis in the philosophy of Jurgen Habermas. While I did not want the technical issues of data analysis to distract from the women’s stories in the book, I really encourage readers to read this appendix. The research was an interactive process between me and the 30 women involved. Thus, the women played an active role in the research, continually offering me their insight and feedback on my interpretations, questions, and style of collecting data. This also meant that I played many roles in the research process: observer, facilitator, interviewer, researcher, mentor, tutor, and even friend to some women. I go into much greater detail on that in one of the chapters in the book because the truth is that this research deeply affected and changed me.

There is not just one simple reason why I do this work, but, I hope that my research in some small way helps to make positive social change. It is what I wake up thinking about and what keeps me up at night as I try to contemplate reasons for racial and gender inequality and ways to change it. Ultimately, I do this work because I believe that research can make social change. I know that change takes time and I am not so arrogant as to think that my book will single-handedly alter the world. But, perhaps slowly, over time, if people’s stories are told in books like this, it will embolden some people to act and others to listen, and hopefully, things will begin to change. As I reflect in one of the chapters, I think that I began pondering racial injustice, even if somewhat unconsciously at the time, as a child growing up in an extremely White rural community about forty-five minutes from one of the most poverty stricken American Indian reservations in the country. As a young adult, I lived in the Dominican Republic and in Botswana for a while and these experiences undoubtedly led me to grapple more consciously with racial privilege and oppression; my own responsibility for unearned privilege as a White woman and the way that humanity seemingly makes many of the same mistakes over and over again in different country contexts. Meanwhile, I made some really meaningful friendships with African American women here in the U.S. and these relationships undeniably connected me more deeply to this work. I keep wondering how, despite profound attempts to keep them down, as a group, African American women keep persevering, triumphing, and transforming society. There is still so much more to learn from them.

Q: How do you define the concept of the “Unchosen Me," and how does it apply to the women in your study?

A: The “Unchosen Me” is a way to describe those aspects or parts of our identities that we feel as if we did not choose for ourselves, those parts of identity that are imposed on us. I adapted and extended George Herbert Mead’s notion of the “me” part of self and Sheldon Stryker’s empirical work on it with the Unchosen Me concept. While one may have multiple identities, aspects of those identities are outside of volition or choice. This could be identified when we feel as if someone is reacting to us as if they already know us when they do not. Sometimes this might manifest as stereotypes – the way that we experience others’ judgment of us. Sometimes this might be manifested as a survival technique or a strategy to change oneself to fit into a particular setting or group. Or, this might be a feeling as if we are acting or behaving in a way that ultimately does not really suite us. All of us may feel that sense of an “Unchosen Me” from time to time – this sense that something about our identities is actually imposed on us or not fully chosen. For instance, when we are born, we are identified as a particular race or sex and this is not our choice. We may later self-identify differently, but, there will often be social sanctions or a lack of social recognition of this. If someone who has light skin as I do, for instance, self-identifies as Black, she may not be socially accepted that way despite her own self-identification (or vice versa). So, the Unchosen Me is about how we identify ourselves, the limits of our ability to self-identify our sense of self, and the way that those around us do or do not recognize us depending on the way that they identify us. It is a constant, interactive process between self, others, and the larger society.

My argument and the data in my book indicate that this is a painful and serious issue for those who are not in the majority group in a particular setting. That is, for students of color in a predominantly White institution like the ones in this book, the Unchosen Me is likely much more salient than it is for White students. The women in this study experienced the Unchosen Me as a series of dichotomous, polar dualities from which they felt compelled to act, between being in the spotlight or being invisible, being “too White” or “too Black,” or being a “good woman” or a “bad woman.” The women did not choose these dualities, which were experienced as extreme pressures, and yet they constantly felt compelled to interact within them. There was little room for them to simply be, they were continually caught in these imposed dichotomies. This resulted in a lot of pain for many of the women. Some of the women were highly successful in spite of it, some actually left college altogether, and some simply disengaged and just tried to get through it. My concern is that this is an injustice, especially since it is something that only some people (i.e. people of color in this case) have to deal with on a daily basis.

While the Unchosen Me is in many ways a relatively sad story, there were glimpses of resistance and hope, particularly when the Sister Circles came together. There was also hope in the way that many of the women succeeded in spite of these pressures. This will be the focus of my future work – the way that the Unchosen Me can be resisted in ways that still allow one to be socially recognized.

Q: You mention frequently that "programs geared toward increasing the persistence and success of students of color in higher education stress the importance of academic and social integration ... rather than challenging institutions to adapt to the needs of new populations of students." What are the risks of the present model, and what can be done to alter it?

A: The present model seems benign, suggesting that college students simply need to integrate academically and socially into an institution and they will be more likely to persist with their degree. Yet, as many other scholars have suggested and I concur, the underlying assumption of this model suggests that all students must adapt to fit the mainstream or dominant culture. The problem stems from the history of power and dominance, the way that some people have been subordinated, exploited, and even enslaved by others. In a country with a past of racial segregation, injustice, and inequality, this essentially means the students of color must adapt to the White mainstream and that women must adapt to fit male-centered norms.

As many have argued about the problem of assimilation theories, there is a façade of integration because not everyone can be fully integrated. In other words, if “White” is the norm that people are supposed to integrate into, those who cannot by their skin tone self-identify as “White” can never be fully included. There is also a problem with what has to be lost in order for one to integrate. Integration, the way it was originally theorized, assumes that one must forget past identities and relationships in order to be successful on campus. Again, my unease with this integrationist approach is that some students, particularly students of color in a predominantly White setting, will have to give up more than will White students. That is, White students will typically find it easier to simply “fit” on campus while students of color will often feel as if they have to give up many aspects of their past in order to belong or integrate. The data in this book suggest that African American women felt a significant sense of loss of their sense of self, their past, or their culture in their attempts to integrate on campus.

Altering the model is difficult, but, not impossible. This model has been the dominant way of thinking about student success for nearly 40 years now. Altering the model means that more people must be brought to the discussion of ways to facilitate the success of underrepresented students. It means listening, watching, and learning from those who are often ignored or pushed into the minority, or “minoritized,” as some scholars are now putting it. Practically, this suggests that students must be asked what might work best for them and policies or programs should stem from that.

Q: Another point emphasized in the book is that "the campus... sends a powerful message about what is important, about whether or not diversity is truly valued, through the allocation of resources." In a time of unusually tight budgets, where should institutions direct funds to have the greatest impact as far as promoting diversity and supporting minority and underprivileged students?

A: Many of the women in this study were involved in college preparatory or bridge programs such as Upward Bound or other federally funded programs that attempt to help students prepare for and transition into college. The best programs, according to these women, were the ones that started early (around fifth grade) and continued throughout their college experience. The best way to spend limited resources, from the point of view of the women in my study, would be to create a seamless academic preparation and support program, with financial assistance in the form of grants (rather than loans) that started in at least fifth grade with a promise for fully funded higher education and lasted until the students’ senior year in college. A federally-funded, need-based, nationally accessible program would be ideal because it would change the face of higher education accessibility and degree completion. But, campuses could also start their own version of this and they would be the better for it. Many of the ideas for better support and retention programs could stem from the students in these programs.

Q: You write of your “hope… that this knowledge [i.e., that presented in your book] will facilitate the process of beginning to revolutionize persistent inequalities… .” Who is your ideal audience for this book, and what would you like them to take away from it?

A: There are a few audiences for this book. Certainly, I aimed this book toward scholars and practitioners in disciplines such as higher education, sociology, Black/African American Studies, and Women’s Studies. But, the topic of this book is beyond a disciplinary background or audience. I intended it to be for anyone who is interested in the issues of race and gender inequalities or for those who desire to attempt to ameliorate those inequalities. I hope that African American women, and perhaps those who also identify with another underrepresented group, might identify with the stories of the women in this book and feel as if it helps to tell part of their story. For those in majority groups as White people like me often are in this country, my hope is that reading this book helps them to begin to understand some of the experiences that people of color might have on college campuses or in society more generally. Perhaps this book can also play a role for White people to begin to identify some of their own responsibility for perpetuating, or alternatively, for beginning to revolutionize, as I put it in the book, race and gender inequalities.

Q: What further research would you like to see on this topic -- and do you hope to do any of it yourself?

A: There is definitely a need for more research that focuses on the experiences of African American women. Compared to other populations, the voices and lived experiences of these women are often ignored. While this book is largely about the way that many African American women are often constrained from identifying their own sense of self in a White social setting like a predominantly White university campus, there was a glimmer of hope in the story too. When the women came together in these Sister Circle groups, they made meaning of their experiences together, supported each other, and essentially resisted some of the pressures that they were experiencing on campus. My latest book project tries to get at some of the ways that African American women resisted the Unchosen Me or impositions on their identity. I am currently conducting life story interviews with African American women who graduated from predominantly White colleges or universities from 1958-2009. I chose to study women who graduated from college because they were successful at negotiating the predominantly White setting, at least relative to being able to complete their degrees. The history of African American women’s college experiences has essentially been lost and so this new project is an attempt to give voice to it. But, it also will focus on the triumphs and agency of African American women – the way they have resisted pressures to identify their own sense of self and been successful in spite of impositions on their sense of self in White settings.

It would be interesting to examine the Unchosen Me theoretical concept among different populations in various settings. For instance, I am currently conducting interviews with African American women who graduated from historically Black college and universities (HBCUs). Explorations into experiences with the Unchosen Me or impositions on identity among different populations are important too. Other underrepresented students may experience the Unchosen Me in similar ways. Additionally, an investigation of these issues among African American and other racial/ethnic groups of men would be informative. I caution researchers about the typical comparison between Black and White populations because too often the White groups are positioned as the norm or standard against which all other groups must be measured. Yet, it is important to know whether White students experience some Unchosen Me identity pressures, although I would hypothesize that it would be much less of an issue for them, at least in a predominantly White setting. The initial study for my book did include 11 White women and they did not experience identity pressures in the same way as Black women. But, I opted not to include them in this book because White women’s experiences were so different on the White campus that I felt like their stories should be pursued in a separate study.

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