Speaking of Race and Class: The Student Experience at an Elite College
reviewed by Melissa Weiner - December 07, 2012
Title: Speaking of Race and Class: The Student Experience at an Elite College
Author(s): Elizabeth Aries & Richard Berman
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1439909679, Pages: 238, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com
With the Supreme Court decision overturning elements of the Michigan decision that made considering race difficult for college admissions, Elizabeth Aries and Richard Bermans Speaking of Race and Class: The Student Experience at an Elite College provides valuable insights into the ways in which diversity on campus benefits all students, as well as the complexities in ensuring all students success. The authors clearly show how students attitudes about racial and social class-based differences change over four years of living and learning together. Deeper knowledge is often generated outside the classroom and results in the shattering of stereotypes, which could have important implications for all aspects of social life as these students move into positions of power in their adult lives.
Using data from surveys and in-depth interviews with 58 students at the beginning and end of their careers at Amherst College, the book highlights a variety of themes relative to experiences students have on campus vis-a-vis their identities. These cover racial and class-based challenges in moving to an affluent campus, bridging the different worlds of college, racial insults, Blacks intra-racial interactions, how students see race and class anew, where we are and where to go from here.
Throughout the book, the authors do a magnificent job of highlighting the complexities of experiences that most students have and how they negotiate being on a campus with people from different racial and social class backgrounds. For example, we see the complicated negotiations among wealthy and working class students with the latter paying for the formers entertainment off-campus and the dilemmas of working class students in determining whether to accept what they see as charity or missing out on social experiences. Speaking of Race and Class does a phenomenal job of exposing the difficulties that white working class students encounter at this elite college where they experience many of the same phenomena, such as living in two worlds, as their Black peers, though in different ways. Interracial dating, both its wide-spread acceptance and complications, are thoroughly addressed by the authors as are inter-class dating that requires students to negotiate different ideas about money, masculinity, and their own social class. Some, by the end of their time at Amherst expressed resentment about the social class inequalities to which they were subject (i.e., not being able to take unpaid internships at prominent financial institutions during the summer because they had to find paid work). But all agree that their hard work paid off, particularly in generating more knowledge of the diverse world in which they live and their place in it. Students found their time at Amherst to be a positive experience and leave with a positive state of mental well-being (though there is no survey of mental health diagnoses). The least attitudinal change came from very affluent white students, and the authors describe the potential society-wide consequences given that many will become members of the social, political, and economic elite
However, all is not perfect on this diverse college campus. Examining racial insults, the authors find that Black students experience racism in their daily lives, from peers and faculty, as well as anonymously through an online forum. Coping strategies described often allow whites to continue using racist and racially coded language since many Black students do not always want to be the educator about race, either inside or outside of the classroom. In addition, many Black students experienced alienation from members of the larger Black community on campus due to tensions between Black students of different social classes and between African American and West Indian students. Notably, the authors find that most Black students avoid the Black tables in the dining areas and only a few sit there regularly due to a variety of inter- and intra-racial phenomena.
The semi-final chapter provides numerous suggestions for change at that school (relevant for similar schools across the U.S.). The authors argue that numerical diversity must be supplemented with policies and programs to allow all students to manage challenges on campus, reach outside their comfort zones, and flourish academically. Some recommendations include structured dialogue about race and class (but especially race) and support systems and mentors for lower-income students and Black students to protect them from discrimination and allow them to discuss strategies for managing their experiences during their time on campus. However, very few students want an assigned faculty mentor. The authors include advice from the graduating students to Black and low income and affluent students under separate section headers. All advise students to go outside their comfort zones and take chances while in college.
The final chapter features advice for all colleges with diverse student populations in a wide variety of areas, including mission statements, leadership, in the classroom, experiences with diverse classmates that enhance cognitive development and reduce racial bias and prejudice, and experiences in the dorms (which are not always positive). Describing some of the more successful policies at colleges and universities across the country, the authors are very clear in advising institutional support for racial and class-based diversity that must permeate all aspects of the campus. For example, co-curricular activities should occur alongside of cross-curriculum in-class, which necessitate campus-wide faculty development opportunities. Describing the potential negative and positive aspects of racial and ethnic cultural centers, the authors note that they can be safe spaces for students seeking a break from the hegemonic white culture of the institution, but they also can promote segregation if opportunities to interact across groups are absent. Finally, returning to students responses, the authors suggest mentoring and support groups addressing everything from cultural capital (i.e., study skills, time management) to summer research with invested faculty to peer mentoring.
Overall, the authors do a wonderful job of not only highlighting the difficult and complicated experiences of racial and class outsiders on an elite college campus, but also the benefits of diversity in higher education. Including discussions of Latinos experiences at Amherst would have made for an even richer understanding of racial dynamics on college campuses. While the authors state that the 27 self-identified Latino students would make too small of a sample, this population is only slightly smaller than the 41 African American students on campus. Current online statistics suggest that the Latino population at Amherst is either a tiny bit smaller, equal to or greater than that of African Americans. Students of color from all racial backgrounds represent an important and growing population on campuses across the country whose integration will bring both challenges and opportunities for administrators, faculty, and students. This book could go a long way in ensuring that these opportunities are not lost.