Black Undergraduate Women Reflect on What Prepared Them for College
The hashtag #BlackGirlMagic was created by a Black early childhood educator named CaShawn Thompson in 2015 as a way to “celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of Black women” and to congratulate Black women on their accomplishments. It was never meant to be a moniker for perfection, but in the ensuing years, the hashtag seems to have been marketed, co-opted, and taken a life of its own. While empowering in theory, achieving Black Girl Magic status in the real world ain’t easy — especially when it comes to college preparation and matriculation. My colleague Christa Porter and I interviewed 13 Black undergraduate women in a multi-site national study, discussing #BlackGirlMagic to understand the complex and nuanced meanings of the mantra as it pertained to college preparation and the college experience. One participant shared:
“It’s like a Black woman must be phenomenal in order to be seen. Like, her extraordinary
has to be ordinary for her to be like, ‘Well, okay, that’s a Black woman, I see her, she’s amazing, we appreciate her,’ but you’re only appreciating her because she’s extraordinary.”
The stories of Black women are multifarious, interconnected with the lives of their communities. Just as Black girls and women are socialized to navigate what Melissa Harris-Perry calls “crooked spaces” across all facets of their development (e.g., social-emotional, academic, and career), they also have unique realities to consider when preparing for college and many encounter the social demands of perfection. In a different study I conducted exploring the college preparation of 10 Black undergraduate women, they highlighted the unique challenges they face and the conditions that contributed to their success:
1. Trusted Navigators to Help Demystify the College-Going Process
Black women in America commonly value their trusted elders and hold them in high regard because of their wisdom and historical knowledge. Students in the study described people who demystified aspects of college preparation. Navigators included family members (i.e., nuclear, extended), mentors, teachers, administrators, and community members that supported their college preparation through forming connections and sharing opportunities. When speaking of her school counselors and teachers, Melissa shared:
“They told me everything they knew about college. I still talk to them now,
even in college, because, like I said, my parents can’t give me much information.
But I text them all the time. When I go back home to Chicago, we go out for lunch
dates, and they just give me immense advice on college, and my future
career goals, and things of that sort. So, they’ve really given me all my advice.
They’ve really just helped me out through the entire process. So, I’m really grateful
for them for that.”
Like Melissa, other students described being connected to school and community members who not only cared for them but were regarded as family. Across their lives, they experienced relationships with people who became navigators inside and outside of school who helped them feel more confident about their abilities and college.
2. Strong Connections to Families and Communities
The women interviewed were acutely aware of the cultural transition they faced at a predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Some felt isolated and wished they’d remained closer to home, while others discussed significant mental health challenges and a desire to leave the institutions despite maintaining over 3.0 GPAs.
But there were some young women who described their connection to parents and family and how these and on-campus relationships motivated them through difficult times. Black women performing well academically despite experiencing emotional turmoil is common and ignored in the discourse about Black women’s success.
3. Life Skills to Help Navigate Systems of Oppression
After one semester of college, the women grew awareness of socio-political issues related to their experiences as Black women attending PWIs. Some described feeling what Zora Neale Hurston called “the white gaze” when entering the room as the only Black woman in the honors college, while others described being ignored by peers and professors as the only Black woman in STEM classes. Ashley shared:
“I mean, I’m in honors classes and the room is mostly blonde hair and blue eyes. So, I walk in with my hair like this and the darkest person in there. And it’s very unsettling. It’s just weird not to see people like me around.”
Black women’s experiences are not monolithic. For example, participants whose parents immigrated from the Caribbean and Africa described a different sense of isolation. They did not feel entirely accepted by Black Americans or the white majority at the PWI but faced all the layers of oppression. All women shared various observations about gendered racism and intragroup conflict (i.e., nationalism, colorism, regional affiliation). Most importantly, conversations about how gendered racism will influence their future careers (i.e., pay, workplace dynamics) were not something they were prepared for.
These conversations with Black undergraduate women highlight the need to challenge all educators to take a more holistic approach to preparing Black girls for college and career, including the social and mental health challenges that Black women will face in primarily white institutions as well as the workforce. Schools must do a better job of ensuring that all students, and young Black girls in particular, see themselves represented in and throughout the school and curriculum and that students have an opportunity to critically question systemic oppression and the varying forms in which it manifests to help grow their critical consciousness.
Schools are uniquely positioned to help connect the experiences and knowledge students enter school already possessing with the skills and content knowledge needed for success in higher education. For Black girls especially, schools have not done well when it comes to culturally relevant pedagogy and must do better moving forward if we are to truly see #BlackGirlMagic manifested.
Janice A. Byrd, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor, Counselor Education, Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education at The Pennsylvania State University
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