When Russell Lowery-Hart was a professor at West Texas A&M University, his adopted son was attending the very same institution. And at least as far as appearances go, the father-son relationship was somewhat unusual in West Texas: Lowery-Hart is white and his son is African-American.
“He would talk about his experiences, and they were just so different from what I thought they would be,” says Hart, who now works at Amarillo College. “I wanted to explore and understand what it meant to be an African-American student at colleges similar to the one we were at.”
Soon, Hart launched a qualitative study to do just that. His small team of researchers focused on three major U.S. college campuses — two public, one private. In total, 87 African-American students participated over a five-year span, taking part in lengthy interviews and discussions.
Hart quickly discovered many common themes developing in the experiences the students related to him. Three in particular, he says, stood out.
Students were regularly frustrated when professors put them on the spot during discussions related to black culture. They often felt they were expected to speak for the entire black experience. Secondly, during freshmen orientation, students reported being pulled from the larger group to receive a more specific African-American orientation. Almost all the students felt this approach highlighted their difference in a negative way. Lastly, the study found that students had profound struggles adapting to their predominantly white campuses. They often experienced severe push back from their families over this issue.
The completed study, “Understanding the African-American Student Experience in Higher Education Through a Relational Dialectics Perspective,” is already making waves in higher education.
“A lot of the literature around this topic frames this from an either-or mentality, as if students either want to be included or they want to be separate. But it’s far more complicated than that,” explains Lowery-Hart. “What we’ve discovered is that students want both. They want to honor their past and embrace their future.”
Q and A
Nick Gilyard will be returning as a senior to Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky. He is a leading member of WKU’s champion forensics team.
Do you feel singled out in class for your black experience?
Absolutely! If I’m in a class and there’s a question related to African Americans in any way, my classmates almost always look at me as if I have the answer.
What's the most common form of racism you experience on campus?
We get safety emergency alerts via email and text, and the description is usually vague: “6-foot black male in jeans and a t-shirt.” I’ve noticed in the aftermath of [those] texts that people walk faster in front of me, or avoid me. But luckily I haven’t been confronted with blatant racism on campus.