Black college students who attend predominantly White institutions harness a particular level of pluckiness and mental fortitude in order to achieve—usually having to prove their intellectual worth in the face of glaring or more covert bigotry. But that mental toughness and perseverance can take a toll on their psychological health, according to a new study from Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
“Weathering the cumulative effects of living in a society characterized by White dominance and privilege produces a kind of physical and mental wear-and-tear that contributes to a host of psychological and physical ailments,” said study co-author Ebony McGee, assistant professor of diversity and urban schooling at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. “We have documented alarming occurrences of anxiety, stress, depression and thoughts of suicide, as well as a host of physical ailments like hair loss, diabetes and heart disease.”
Those findings were explored in the paper “Reimagining Critical Race Theory in Education: Mental Health, Healing and the Pathway to Liberatory Praxis,” which McGee co-authored with David Stovall, associate professor of African American studies and educational policy studies at University of Illinois at Chicago.
Using critical race theory, the pair challenged the celebration of “grit” as a guiding principle for achievement among Black students, saying the resulting mental health risks are often overlooked.
“We have witnessed Black students work themselves to the point of extreme illness in attempting to escape the constant threat of perceived intellectual inferiority,” McGee said. “We argue that the current enthusiasm for teaching African American students with psychological traits like grit ignores the significant injustice of societal racism and the toll it takes, even on those students who appear to be the toughest and most successful.”
The study compared such high-achieving Black students to the historical figure John Henry—a slave who literally worked himself to death trying to prove his worth.
“John Henryism is a coping strategy often adopted by high-achieving African Americans, who may unconsciously (and increasingly consciously) sacrifice their personal relationships and health to pursue their goals with a tenacity that can be medically and mentally deleterious,” the study states.
The researchers urged more comprehensive examination of the mental, physical and emotional harm faced by African-American students and called on colleges and universities to make systemic, holistic changes to promote the wellness of those students.
“The process of healing from racial battle fatigue and institutional racism requires significant internal commitment and external support,” the study states. “Black college students are brilliant, talented, and creative, and they dream as big as other students. Pursuing higher education should not make them sick.”
The study seems to buttress findings from a Gallup study, on which the AFRO reported back in October. According to that report, Black alumni of historically Black colleges and universities tended to thrive more – in several areas of “well-being” – than Black graduates of predominantly White institutions.
“Although HBCUs are struggling in a number of areas, their overall success in providing Black graduates with a better college experience than they would get at non-HBCUs needs to be examined more closely, and potentially modeled, at other institutions,” the researchers wrote. “The profoundly different experiences that Black graduates of HBCUs and Black graduates of non-HBCUs are having in college leave the HBCU graduates feeling better prepared for life after graduation, potentially leading them to live vastly different lives outside of college.”