Inspired by his personal experience as a Black student in the Ivy League, Ben Fields ’20 analyzed how racism, micro-aggressions and human behavior contribute to the academic career of Black students. His research is not only an important contribution to academia, but also offers a new perspective on how a sense of belonging and engagement play a critical role in diversity and inclusion on college campuses.
The African American label has traditionally limited my educational experience. Coming from a single parent household in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I came into contact with these barriers constantly. As a high school student, I worried that I would be mistreated in advanced classes, rejected from higher-paying jobs, and gatekept from opportunities for socioeconomic advancement. The consequences were real: I truly believed my only path to success was through professional sports, and did not bother learning about things that were not immediately relevant to my classes and grades.
Gratefully, after an arduous process of applying, I was accepted into Cornell. At the time, I had no idea how much Cornell would change my life. Here I was introduced to my two fields of study: development sociology and public health (which in high school, I had no idea you could study). On top of learning in the classroom, I participated in so many extracurriculars and study abroad opportunities to the extent that I feel like I am a different person. I am grateful to Cornell for expanding my goals, future opportunities, and network of people I know and care very much about.
My education taught many lessons, although not all of the things I learned were completely positive. For example, I learned how human behavior is related to labels and stereotypes and, consequently, how that contextualizes my place in the world.
I came to realize that we all operate on frameworks and beliefs from past experiences which helps us to navigate different environments. Unfortunately, racism and discrimination are not immune. There is no easy way to explain why racism exists.
Despite our progress, humans still have subconscious biases, and people will exhibit social behaviors that are consistent with those internal, often-unnoticed biases.
These small acts of discrimination happen in slight but increasingly noticeable ways, especially in a college setting. When I first matriculated at Cornell, I was optimistic about my place as a black student on campus. Over time, I recognized moments of bias: some people would not sit by me on the bus, in class, and in the dining hall. I started noticing that people would interact with me and show different body language when I wore black-affiliated clothing and accessories compared to what was common on-campus.
My personal experience motivated me to undertake a thesis under Professor Thomas Hirschl as a development sociology major: “Black Students in the Ivy League: Evidence of the Double Consciousness.” In my research I discovered two overarching themes: black students notice isolation events (microaggressions) at a much higher rate compared to white students; and that black students are still willing and able to navigate campus at similar rates to their counterparts. Based on my personal experience of constantly transforming depending on environments, I believe that it is evidence of W.E.B. Du Bois’ theory of the double consciousness.
Diversity and inclusion are issues in post-secondary education across the country. While we know that structural issues and inequality amongst black and white students exist, our knowledge does not extend to how black students are reacting to this difference in everyday life. To determine how this plays out, I created a survey to compare sense of belonging and engagement between black and white students at Cornell. Using the survey, 250 undergraduate students were interviewed on questions about microaggressions, self-initiated engagement, and resource use.
After analysis, black students had higher rates of perceived isolation compared to white students, however both groups engage the campus community at similar rates. This is consistent with data that shows black students face more issues but does not explain why engagement is similar amongst groups.
The findings are not only an educational phenomenon, but one that is broadly applicable to all black people living in the United States in any predominantly white space. Double consciousness can be explained in the popular use of the term code-switching, which describes how black people must be aware of their environment and conform through language, behavior, and other means to navigate it with little friction.
There is no simple solution to mitigate centuries of engrained human behavior. As I continue my academic career, there are other identities/intersectional relationships that I will further explore to expand my research. As time goes on and more black voices are heard, I do anticipate that change will come here in the U.S. and around the globe, and centuries of socialized beliefs about others will gradually shift to a more inclusive, welcoming world for everyone.
Ben Fields ’20 graduated from Cornell University with a double major in development sociology and global and public health sciences. He is currently a PhD candidate in Sociology at UC Berkeley. Ben's thesis “Black Students in the Ivy League: Evidence of the Double Consciousness” won first prize in the Center for the Study of Inequality's 2020 Honors Thesis Contest.
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