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‘Being Black, Being Male on Campus’

Through the voices of 40 individuals, new book examines what it’s like to be a black man on a college campus today.

February 9, 2017
 

College is often a transformational time for students, filled with challenges, uncertainty and self-discovery. For black male students, these challenges can be even more daunting. That’s what Derrick R. Brooms tries to capture in his new book, Being Black, Being Male on Campus (SUNY Press), which explores the experiences of 40 black, male college students trying to navigate social, academic and cultural life on campus.

Brooms, associate professor of sociology at the University of Louisville, wanted to shift the narrative about black men in educational settings by writing about their lived experiences rather than retention and graduates rates. The discussion surrounding black, college-going men today is predominately negative -- the media and broader public give more attention to the “disinterested, disengaged black male” than the one who performs and achieves at or above average. And those latter scenarios are often depicted as rare success stories.

The author, a black man who was once a college student himself, wrote this book in hopes of allowing the 40 men to tell their stories and, in the process, reveal what it’s really like to be black and male on an American college campus.

Brooms spent almost three years interviewing 40 students from two unnamed public universities. Some attended a predominantly white institution in the rural Midwest where black students make up about 15 percent of the 10,000 students on campus. The others attended college in the South, at a larger metropolitan research university where black students account for 11 percent of the student body.

Through one-on-one interviews, focus groups and surveys, Brooms learned about the men’s early influences, aspirations and how they fit into the larger college experience. Each chapter of the book is peppered with anecdotes Brooms collected during the interviews, revealing honest, complex and emotional reflections.

Inside Higher Ed recently asked Brooms about the book. His emailed responses are below.

Q: Much of your book draws from the experiences of 40 black men whom you interviewed in depth. Why did you decide to take this narrative approach in chronicling the experience of black men in college?

A: This approach was taken to highlight their voices as a measure to assess and understand their experiences from the men’s point of view. I believe that if we are to understand the men’s experiences, then we must make space for them to express and make meaning from their experiences. This perspective is even much more necessary given the ways in which black men have been diminished and denigrated in wider society, in educational discourse and in educational institutions in particular. Much of what we learn about ourselves is offered to us through the messages we receive from and the interactions we have in social institutions. Given the importance placed on schooling and educational attainment, we must do more to understand how black students experience schools and how institutions act on them.

Importantly, much has been said about black males in the educational pipeline and, all too often, negative portrayals and deficit narratives accost them and their efforts at every turn throughout the K-20 pipeline. Additionally, we constantly hear that black males are in “trouble” and in need of “saving,” and we also hear that they are not serious or they do not care about school. Much of this narrative uses and depends on statistics to make a case about achievement gaps. That is, one might argue that if we simply looked at the numbers then we could determine who is doing well and who is not. But educational experiences across the K-20 pipeline are no simple matter. All too often, the onus of black males’ performance is placed at their feet, as if their experiences are not impacted by school faculty and staff and by institutions -- as well as other environmental, ecological and sociopolitical factors ….

Thus, we have a critical need to listen to and learn from black men, and other students of color, as they attempt to navigate and negotiate their time in college. Quite often, black men’s voices are left to the sideline. If we are serious about understanding the experiences of these and other students, and if we are serious about improving their schooling experiences, then we must begin with them as creators of knowledge about their own lives and experiences.

I see this work as being written with these 40 black men, as opposed to me writing about them ….

Q: How do your own experiences as a black, male college student compare to the ones represented in your book?

A: I see many of my own experiences with those of the black men represented in this book. I attended the University of Chicago (’96) for college and had a myriad of experiences, both positive and negative. Overwhelmingly, my positive experiences outweigh my negative experiences. Still, all of my experiences inform my teaching praxis, service (both on and off campus), and research. Quite easily, I can recount instances in college in which my intellectual acumen was denigrated and questioned simultaneously; I experienced racial harassment, racial slurs and disparaging remarks on and around campus; and I experienced racism in and out of the classroom. There were a number of individuals who seemingly wanted to make it quite clear that I didn’t “deserve” to be at the university -- or, more accurately, that I didn’t deserve to be at “their” institution.

What mattered most in my experiences were relationships that I developed with peers, faculty and staff who cared about me, supported me academically and personally, and who wanted me to succeed. These individuals mattered a great deal in how I experienced college. Additionally, it mattered that I was able to connect with and engage in a variety of organizations on campus that helped support my efforts as well. Thus, as I think about the students that I teach, work with, learn from, serve and support, I think about their possibilities in addition to their strengths and assets.

Q: Based on your own college years and what you learned from the 40 subjects in the story, how has the campus experience for black men evolved in the last few decades?

A: As has been seen by recent events across college campuses, our students tell us that although much progress has been made, there is still a great deal of work to do to make educational opportunities more equitable for students of color. In particular, I’m thinking about the recent #BlackOnCampus movement and the My Culture Is Not a Costume campaign, along with the alterations and discontinuing support for various programs of study such as bans on Mexican-American studies, defunding (or underfunding) of ethnic studies programs, and cuts to black studies programs, to name a few. Here, I wish to note that many of the issues and struggles highlighted impact black male students and other students of color alike.

In recent years, we have witnessed our students develop a much sharper analysis of their college experiences, which has been bolstered by their learning from the past. Much of what students shared during the past few years eerily resemble experiences of black students on white campuses from decades ago: hostility, isolation, alienation, racism and micro- and macroaggressions. Black male students continue to highlight campus environments that are hostile to their presence and disturb their sense of belonging. They continue to recount separate and segregated college campuses -- even as efforts for “diversity” have increased dramatically over the past two decades. They highlight how they feel unsupported by many of their peers, faculty, staff and administrators, which often repositions them as “outsiders” on campus. As a result, as the students in my study offered, they often are in a state of limbo in trying to find their place on campus where they believe they (can and do) belong, where they feel valued and that they matter, and where they feel that they can succeed.

An important component of their experiences are their abilities to achieve and succeed in spite of, not because of, the campus environment or obstacles that they faced. This finding reveals the assets and strengths, resilience, and motivation that the men bring with them to campus, which they invariably rely on to “make it through” college ….

Q: All the students you interviewed attend historically white institutions. This affected how they were treated, what was expected of them and how comfortable they felt on campus. What can and should be done to alleviate the pressure and isolation of feeling “like you’re really, really, really a minority” on campus, as one student put it?

A: The challenges that students of color face on white campuses require that we think differently about college and the impact of the campus climate (institutional history, structures and policies as well as programs and opportunities, perceptions and attitudes of campus, and external sociopolitical and political economic context). Without a doubt, campus climate affects what students experience on campus, how they experience their time on campus and their efforts for success. Education scholars such as Jacqueline Fleming, Walter Allen, Edgar Epps, Sylvia Hurtado, Sam Museus and others have provided us with data on institutional culture and climate, frames for understanding students’ experiences, and made a number of recommendations for improving college campuses for students of color. Additionally, the work of James Earl Davis, Terrell Strayhorn, T. Elon Dancy, J. Luke Wood, William A. Smith, Shaun Harper and many others has been instrumental in illuminating how black men experience college in these college environments. As I reflect on their research in conjunction with my own work and findings from this study, I believe there are a number of things that colleges can do to alleviate undue pressures and isolation that students feel and experience.

First and foremost, I believe that student voices must be at the heart of improving campus environments. We must consult with students about their experiences and their needs so that any programs that are developed keep them as a focal point. Whatever we do for students but without students is against students. Second, I believe that improving campus climate takes a collective effort, spanning the gamut of administrators, faculty and staff members. We cannot afford to pass off these efforts to a single office on campus (e.g., office of diversity) or a single point person (e.g., diversity officer). Campus climate affects all students; thus, all members of the campus community should be charged with contributing to improving how all students across various social identities experience campus. Third, I strongly encourage colleges and universities to move beyond compositional diversity and make greater efforts toward inclusion. Diversity has become rhetoric and a buzzword that too many colleges tout as an achievement. Instead of diversity, I encourage college administrators to focus on inclusion; instead of a diversity plan, colleges need to establish and intently pursue inclusion and equity plans. Here, colleges must provide specific and strategic resources to ensure that all students are provided with opportunities to perform at their highest abilities. Creating an inclusive campus climate must be an institutional effort that occurs in both in-class and out-of-class settings. Building an inclusive campus requires that faculty and staff members are invested in inclusion; we must move away from what Jeff Duncan-Andrade calls “hokey hope” and instead be much more intentional in our efforts to create and sustain inclusion on our campuses ….

Finally, I strongly encourage administrators and other stakeholders to stop viewing instances of hostility and racism as isolated incidents on campus. Such a perspective continues to diminish and marginalize students’ experiences and allows for students to be otherized on campus. At the same time, we also cannot allow our students’ struggles to be “learning opportunities” for the campus. We have mounds of data from as far back as we care to look that recount many of the challenges that our students face. Colleges and universities must do more to improve equity and build inclusive campus environments. We need to move from being reactive to proactive so that we take intentional steps toward improving our college campuses so that all of our students can thrive, excel and pursue their goals.

Q: Explain to readers the Black Male Initiative program. For many students featured in your book, BMI was an integral part of their overall college experience. Why does this program work so well? How can BMI be expanded or improved?

A: Black Male Initiative programs are male-centered programs primarily designed to increase the retention and graduation of black male students. These programs have boomed across colleges and universities over the past two decades. Many of these programs consist of both academic and social components intended to provide support and resources for black men on campus. Academically, the programs help support students’ in-class experiences through formal and informal mentoring, tutoring, student-led study sessions and workshops and activities that have an academic focus. Socially, the programs offer opportunities for black men to connect on campus, learn from each other, engage in social activities and support each other in their social and personal lives. Thus, across both domains, the programs can help black men establish a “community” on campus that supports their efforts in multiple ways.

For the men in my study, BMI was an integral part of their overall college experience, and they identified the program as a significant space for their academic and personal development and growth. The men gave primacy to the peer relationships that they developed through their engagement in the program, which helped alleviate feelings of isolation and alienation. Instead of feeling alone, the men interpreted BMI as a communal space where they could be supported. Additionally, given the challenges that many of the men faced, they also identified BMI as a counterspace on campus, which helped them resist some of the hostility that they experienced. This counterspace was critical, as they were able to share experiences and learn from each other ways to negotiate and navigate the college more effectively. Additionally, BMI helped reduce the size of the campus and helped them put their experiences within a broader perspective. Within BMI, the men expressed that they had a community to lean on and learn from, which helped bolster their academic efforts and their persistence. Some of the men intensely expressed that BMI helped them gain or further their sense of purpose on campus.

Importantly, how the men made meaning of their BMI experiences was situated within their own needs, goals and desires. What their engagement and meaning making from BMI reveal is the need for multifaceted and multidimensional efforts to enhance their collegiate experiences. The men identified BMI staff as key institutional agents who they believed were invested in their success. Their beliefs that these staff members, as well as BMI members and a handful of faculty and staff, cared about them and wanted them to succeed helped strengthen their resolve to be resilient and persist. These findings amplify the importance of relationships and support in these black men’s college experiences.

BMI programs can be expanded and improved through greater institutional efforts to support these programs. In my assessment of the programs in this study as well as several others, BMI programs are understaffed and underresourced. Unfortunately, and not necessarily surprisingly, too many BMI programs have one staff member or budgets that defy logic of being called a budget! At one institution in the study, a single staff member served as an adviser, program coordinator, coach, advocate and mentor (both formal and informal) to all of the students engaged in the program. This type of structure does not sufficiently meet students’ needs, and it can undermine the possibilities and longevity of BMI staff members as well. Additionally, given the range of student needs, more resources are required to support their college matriculation. I argue that BMI programs cannot be posited as one-stop shops where supposedly all of these students’ needs can be met. BMI programs must be positioned to work in conjunction with other offices on campus and must include faculty involvement as well. Student affairs and academic affairs, especially at the institutions included in my study, have a long way to go in working collectively and collaboratively to support these students. At the same time, in thinking about faculty of color in particular (several of whom were identified by students in the study), our colleges and universities must do more to support and appreciate the various roles that they play on our campuses. We cannot ask more of faculty of color while continuing to underappreciate the multiple levels of service they provide to and the multiple roles they play for our students and campuses. And when we think about faculty involvement in BMI-type programs, we need faculty support from a range of backgrounds, disciplines and social identities.

Finally, I also believe, as the students shared as well, that our administrators must do more to support BMI programs. Students want to see administrators’ support through their actions and their presence. Students want more than administrators saying that they care; in fact, students interpret care through actions and behaviors. The mere existence of a BMI-type program is not enough. Just as improving campus climate takes an all-inclusive effort, improving the collegiate experiences of black men requires inclusive and holistic efforts.

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