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Research: Racial identity can boost academic performance

Minority youths get better grades in school if they have seen their racial identity as connected to academics, U-M studies show.
(Photo courtesy Daphna Oyserman)

In three studies analyzing racial and cultural identity, Daphna Oyserman, an associate professor in the School of Social Work and Department of Psychology, and her colleagues interviewed middle school and high school students about how racial identities affected their grades, school attendance or persistence on a math task. The researchers studied African American, Hispanic, Native American and Israeli adolescents.

Some forms of identity, Oyserman says, can reduce the risk of disengagement and protect youths from stereotypes. But the risk increases when someone doesn't have a racial identity or has one that only focuses on his group and not its place in society. The only form of racial identity that reduced risk and led to improved academic performance during the school year was a combined focus on both "in-group" and society. This focus could be either a positive sense of belonging to the in-group and society or a "minority" identity, which focuses on one's status as both an in-group member and a member of a group that is discriminated against or obstructed by the larger society.

In other words, Oyserman's study showed that an African American student who felt good about being Black and an American did well in school. However, an African American student who felt good about doing well in school because it reflected positively on the Black community excelled, even if he viewed society as somewhat racist and against him.

In one study, 94 Detroit-area eighth-grade African American, Hispanic and Native American youths were asked open-ended questions about racial-ethnic identity. The responses were entered into a database and double-coded by two coders who didn't know the respondents' identity or the research hypothesis. Youths identifying with peers of the same race and entire society had better grades than students who either didn't develop their own racial identity or identified only with the same race as others. The latter individuals were more vulnerable to race-ethnicity based negative feedback.

The second study involved 65 Native Americans in the state of Washington who were interviewed about their ethnicity before and after working on a math task. Academic persistence was greater among students who identified both with the peers of similar ethnicity and society compared with students who only identified with their peers or those who did not incorporate race or ethnicity into their self-concepts.

A third study included interviews of 524 Israeli high school students of Palestinian or Arab ethnic origin. They were asked to complete a math task and to describe their racial identity. Students who did not take race into their self-concept or believed they were only part of the in-group reduced their efforts, while students who felt as if they belonged in the in-group and larger society did not.

Oyserman's research is the basis for a brief universal intervention called School-to-Jobs, which helps young people make connections between hard work in school and racial identity. The goal is for students to realize that difficulty in school assignments does not mean they can't complete the work, she says.

"The students learn that they shouldn't use failure as a reason to stop trying," Oyserman says.

Students also became more comfortable about their racial identity through six weeks of intervention, which involved in-school or after-school small group sessions. After the sessions, the researchers invited parents and youths to attend two sessions about communication and interacting with adults in the community; the latter focused on a skill they call informational interviewing.

"The most important finding from the research is that even in the most high-risk areas, youths can succeed more readily if they remain focused on school, undeterred by failure or by concerns that maybe school is not for them," she says.

Those involved in the Detroit-based School-to-Jobs program had fewer unexcused absences per semester and better grades. They also spent more time on homework and were less disruptive in class.

Oyserman presented her findings at the recent American Psychological Society annual convention in Atlanta. The research will be published this winter in Social Psychology Quarterly, and the intervention is described in an article published this year in the journal Adolescence.

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