Psychology Study Reveals the Role of Race at Amherst College and Beyond

Amherst College Science Center

The following article comes from Dr.Elizabeth Aries, a Psychology Professor at Amherst College where she teaches a course called Intergroup Dialogue on Race. She has conducted research on the role of race and social class in an elite college and published two books (Race and Class Matters at an Elite College, 2008;Speaking of Race and Class: The Student Experience at an Elite College, 2013) on her findings. In this article, she shares her research in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In 2005 I began a longitudinal study of 58 students from the class of 2009. They were recruited from four groups: affluent White, affluent Black, lower-income White, and lower-income Black. I had two major research questions: (1) What challenges did students face on campus due to their race and social class? (2) To what extent did learning from diversity actually take place? Participants were interviewed and filled out online surveys at the beginning and end of their first year at Amherst, and again at the end of senior year. Participants’ experiences during the first year at Amherst are summarized in Race and Class Matters at an Elite College (Aries, 2008), and participants’ reflections looking back on four years at Amherst are described in Speaking of Race and Class: The Student Experience at an Elite College (Aries, 2013).

I carried out a third and final wave of this interview study when participants were turning age 30 examining their retrospective thoughts on their learning about race and class when at Amherst, and the ways race and class may have continued to impact their lives. I worked with honors students and special topics students on the analysis and interpretation of the interview data. I want to focus here on the White participants’ understanding of race and whiteness and how that changed over the 12 years of the study from entry to college to age 30, which was the topic Rosy Rohling ’18, one of my honors students, pursued for her thesis. Fundamentally racism is an issue created and perpetuated by White people. To engage White people in working for racial justice and dismantling the system of racial inequality in this country, it is important to understand White people’s racial viewpoints about themselves and racial inequality. My data set provided the opportunity to look at continuity and change in White participants’ views over 12 years from entry to the college to age 30. Here’s what we found.

When White participants entered Amherst, whiteness was largely invisible for the majority who had grown up in white communities. They did not think about themselves in racial terms or about race, and many believed race had made little difference in their lives or the opportunities they had. Some had been raised to be explicitly color-blind – to not see race. Some felt being White put them at a disadvantage because affirmative action policies were not color-blind and gave preferential treatment to Black people, and thus were unfair and discriminatory to White people. These participants failed to see or acknowledge the inherent racial inequalities these programs were set up to address. For many, there was little awareness of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination – they didn’t see them and some were unsure that discrimination still existed. Such sentiments are typical expressions of color-blind racism. Little awareness existed of white privilege, of the benefits to accrued to them because they were White. Few participants had any awareness of the systemic policies and practices that disadvantage Black people.

After four years at Amherst, through relationships with classmates of color, many White participants had learned about the impact that stereotypes, personal prejudice and discrimination had on the lives of people of color. Racial naïveté became less prominent, and racial awareness gained visibility due to the presence of people of color as part of their lives. Many of the White participants came to recognize their white privilege, to see they had been afforded more opportunities and advantages due to their race, one of which was the privilege of not having to think about race. Some participants came to see that they had internalized stereotypes and prejudice and possessed unconscious bias. However, many participants were not aware of the racism that students of color around them experienced on campus. Nor did relationships with classmates of color enable White participants to understand the role systemic racism plays in creating racial injustice, or how the racial structure of society continued to benefit them. Such knowledge was acquired only by those participants who took courses that dealt with the structures, policies and practices that perpetuate racism. The majority of White participants graduated without taking such coursework.

By age 30 the visibility of systemic racism gained prominence for almost half the participants, given the blatant examples of police violence and killings of Black people on the nightly news and the Black Lives Matter movement. Strikingly, even when exposed to blatant examples of systemic injustice on the nightly news, some White participants spoke of their awareness quickly fading from consciousness, especially those living in a predominantly white world where race was not salient. A third of the participants, however, developed a commitment to addressing systemic inequalities, and were doing so through their work.

Unlike people of color, White people receive little socialization about race and racial inequality. The increased awareness of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination and recognition of white privilege acquired at Amherst impacted the messages White participants wanted to give their children about race. (None had children yet.) Given their learning, many wanted their children to be aware of the internalization of racial stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination against people of color, and of their white privilege. Over a third of the White participants talked about the importance of raising their children in a racially diverse environment. They did not want their children to fall victim to the same invisibility of whiteness they had grown up with. Yet despite a growing understanding of systemic racism, only two participants spoke of explicitly teaching their children to take responsibility for interrupting the racial system they were born into that advantaged them in terms of housing, loans, voting rights, criminal justice, and education. As long as the invisibility of whiteness remains salient, and the visibility of systemic racism can so quickly disappear from view, it is difficult for White people to develop a commitment to addressing systemic inequalities.

These data are useful in understanding why it is that well-intentioned White people have for so long allowed racism to persist. Growing up in white communities, White people give little thought to whiteness or racial inequality. Nor are they educated about the history of race in this country. They grow up thinking race is a problem people of color have to deal with, not one that implicates them. Their racial privilege remains invisible. Being part of a racially diverse community at Amherst created important learning about race but did not guarantee that learning about race would occur. Amherst College can do more to ensure that cross-race contact is taking place, that White students come to understand their own racial bias and how its witting or unwitting manifestation harms people of color. It would be important for students to take coursework on of the ways racism was deliberately embedded by White people in the U.S. constitution, state constitutions, state laws, and perpetuated by many Supreme Court decisions, as well as the policies and practices of our institutions. If this learning is not part of the education that we give our students, our White students will be less likely to work for social justice, or to talk to their children about racial inequality and the need to actively work for change. They and their children will continue to perpetuate and thus unwittingly legitimize the status quo.