How many times have you asked a young black woman what career she’s prepping for after college, or asked an undecided major what majors she is considering, and her response is a version of the following: “I know I want to help people, but beyond that, I’m not sure”. Full disclosure: before I chose the major that I’ll be graduating with in a few months, I confess to having given people the previous answer. I have also received the previous answer when questioning other black women about what they want to major in. The desire to help can lead black women into low-paying, high stress career fields in the ‘helping professions,’ and it often leads them away from burgeoning high-paying fields in STEM–science, technology, engineering, and math.
In an article for Inside Higher Education, Allie Grasgreen writes a review of Opting Out, a new book by academic Maya A. Beasley that seeks to elucidate the reasons for the persistent income gap between black students and white students who graduate from the most prestigious institutions. It turns out that even at the most elite colleges and universities, black women consistently gravitate toward education, social work and community and nonprofit organizing out of a desire to address social inequities, like disparate poverty rates among racial/ethnic groups and poor educational outcomes for African-Americans. This desire of black women to help is perhaps rooted in a long-standing tradition of concern for human rights and social justice amongst black people. However, by not choosing more varied majors, black students who graduate from college actually be reinforcing the very inequities that they believe themselves to be mitigating. Grasgreen quotes Beasley as stating that â€œBlack students aspired to careers in which they have greater numbers and/or to racialized occupations…whereas white students showed a more diverse range of occupational interests, free of racialized substance.â€
There are several things black students are doing to shoot themselves in the foot, starting with their desire to self-segregate. Due to a fear of experiencing racism and rejection from the wider-community, African-American students often gravitate towards “black” activities where they socialize primarily with other black students and live in segregated housing (even on predominately white campus). Self-segregation puts black students at an informational disadvantage: black students don’t gain access to the same networks for socializing and career advancement as their non-black peers. As we are all aware, or should be aware, often times getting ahead has as much to do with who you know as what you know. If black women haven’t had access to the same mentoring networks as their peers and don’t know how to play the same games (golf, anyone?) then they leave college with fewer of the intangibles that a college experience is supposed to provide than their peers.
From the article:
â€œCollege offers black students chances to do the same kinds of networking and to be exposed to the same information that most white students have had their entire lives,â€ Beasley writes. Yet, many of the students she interviewed socialized primarily with other black peers. â€œWhile black students may derive substantial value from these networks, there is also a considerable downside to their separation from the wider campus community. Racially integrated networks provide access to information otherwise unavailable to these students, including the existence of occupations they had never considered, the awareness of how to obtain training for them, and connections to professionals (white and nonwhite) who possess them.â€