Studies show undue stress, cultural expectations could hurt some racial groups in school
A study on racial achievement gaps completed by a CU researcher shows minorities may feel greater pressure to prove themselves in school.
Professor Geoffrey Cohen of the CU psychology department and a Yale University professor conducted a psychological experiment this summer involving 243 seventh-graders at a Northeastern middle school. The students, all from a variety of racial backgrounds, were asked to reflect on two personal ethics or principles they considered important; this was intended to lower their stress.
The results, which appeared in the Sept. 1 issue of the journal of Science, showed African-American students improved by three-tenths of a grade point when the term was finished, while white students demonstrated virtually no change, thus reducing the achievement gap by 40 percent.
This brings into question whether minority students feel greater pressure to prove themselves over their negative stereotypes and as a result grapple with extra stress to perform well in school – stress that could ultimately hurt some students’ academic performance.
“Because we’re interested in a very scientific approach to reaching conclusions, we feel as if more research outside the middle-school needs to be done. This would determine whether the findings would be relevant to other schools and areas,” Cohen said.
As to how Cohen’s findings relate to CU, some students had interesting reactions to yet another element of the ever-so-touchy subject of racial tensions. Some agree with his findings.
“I feel that because there are so few people of color on this campus, those of us who are here have to work twice as hard as your average white person in order to prove ourselves as equally competent and capable,” said Mebraht Gebre-Michael, an African-American, senior sociology major and former UCSU tri-executive.
While Boulder’s campus has attempted to improve campus diversity, the African-American population is still lacking when compared to that of the Asians and Latinos. The Top 100 Undergraduate Producers list in “Diverse Issues in Higher Education” ranked CU 59th for Asian and Indians graduates and 64th for Latino graduates, but CU was not ranked for African-Americans.
“A lot of people think that we’re here just because of affirmative action, so we have to always prove to the rest of the campus that we are just as smart, just as hard-working and deserve to be in this institution as much as our white counterparts,” Gebre-Michael said. “Listen to the people of color, listen to our protests, listen to history and try to think exactly why they’re upset.”
Others agreed, but with a different approach.
“My pressure comes more from my family than anybody else,” said Meri Hirsaee, a Persian-American and junior ecology and evolutionary biology major. “Because ethnic families feel like the only way their kids can prove themselves to the outside world is through education and academics, and if they fail in that, they’re basically considered worthless.”
Adam Smith, a white junior Japanese and East Asian languages and civilizations major, had his own experience with stereotypes.
“Yeah, everybody in Japan thought that I rode horses to work everyday,” he said.
Students aren’t the only ones forced to deal with impacts of racial divisions. Professors, too, are obligated to confront the issue, whether they feel strongly one way or not. Professor Michael Bell of the English department provided an interesting analysis of the matter.
“Perceptual stereotyping goes deeper than Homo sapiens. All kinds of biological survival depends on quickly identifying something unfamiliar in your environment,” Bell said.
He described a Berkley experiment involving a chimpanzee named Lucy, who demonstrated instinctual value judgments against a rival rhesus monkey by identifying it as “dirty” through abstract hand-gestures. This was mildly concluded as related to the crude origins of stereotypes.
“If perceptual stereotypes run that deep, I don’t think we can consciously grow out of them, or help our kids evolve out of them, without recognizing that biological basis,” he said.
Some minority students on campus, however, don’t seem to be bothered by the pressures of stereotypes at all.
“I can’t say it applies to me – like maybe in elementary school – but I’ve gotten so many D’s and F’s as to where I don’t even care anymore. So anybody who expects me to get straight A’s just because I’m Asian is stupid,” said Zhe Fu, a junior international studies major.