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Black Boundary Lines: Race, Class and Gender among Black Undergraduate Students


Intra-group differences among Black undergraduate students remain understudied. To gain a more nuanced understanding of Black student life, we must examine how other social locations, like gender and class, connect to the racialized experiences of Black students. This dissertation argues that for Black students, class and gender, along with race, create boundaries that are simultaneously rigid and fluid and that need to be negotiated. I conducted sixty-two in-depth interviews with Black undergraduates at a large public university. First, I find similarities in the economic challenges faced by both low-income and lower middle-class students that demonstrate fluid class boundaries between the groups. In contrast, a more clear distinction exists between these groups and those from solidly middle-class backgrounds indicating rigid class boundaries. Next, I find that the severe underrepresentation of Black students in the university creates rigid boundaries around Black racial identity. Black students are expected by their Black peers to be connected to the Black on-campus community via participating in Black student organizations, events and networks. Those that try to meet these expectations run the risk of being overburdened while others face difficulty in meeting these expectations. Black students employ negotiation strategies to deal with these tensions including stepping away from activities, saying "no" strategically, showing up when they can and avoiding predominantly Black spaces. Finally, I find that Black students regularly experience racial microaggressions from non-Black students and these microaggressions create rigid boundaries between them and Black students. Black students were seen as exotic, hypersexual and aggressive with variations on how these perceptions were directed at Black men and women. Black students were assumed to be low-income and from poor neighborhoods, regardless of their class background. Black students employed "equalization strategies" such as "beasting" or debating classmates, "being the best," educating others, silence and humor to resist these microaggressions. This study demonstrates how boundaries are constructed within an institutional context and the significance of race, class and gender in the lives of Black students. These findings have important implications for Black student retention in higher education.

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