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The Atlantic Cites COE Research

January 21, 2016

As documented in The Promise magazine, alumna Ebony McGee is no stranger to facing acts of racism in the workplace.

“I endured a slew of what I now know were racial micro-aggressions happening at my job,” McGee said.  “My colleagues would put some engineering problems on my desk and call it a joke or say, ‘Because you went to a historically Black college you probably don’t know,’ implying I didn’t know as much as someone who went to a traditional White institution.  Low expectations was the primary assumption and it made me really disillusioned.”

Ebony McGee.jpg

Those moments spurred McGee, PhD Curriculum and Instruction '09 towards a career as a researcher investigating how Black students react and overcome acts of racism.  Today, her research, completed with David Stovall, PhD, professor of educational policy studies, is highlighted an The Atlantic analyzing the recent discontent demonstrated by Black college students across the country.

“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,” explains Ebony McGee, an assistant professor of diversity and urban schooling at Vanderbilt and co-author of a recent study on black students and mental health, in a post on the university’s research blog. The study, whose analysis is based on critical race theory, explores how racism affects the ability of high-achieving black students to have healthy mental attitudes toward their work and college experiences. “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,” she writes.

McGee and her co-author David Stovall, an associate professor of African American studies and educational policy at University of Illinois at Chicago, discuss how the discourse around the academic survival of black students and their experiences on predominantly white campuses often fails to analyze the effects of societal racism on their mental health. “We have grown accustomed to talking about grit, perseverance, and mental toughness without properly acknowledging the multiple forms of suffering [black students] have confronted (and still confront) as part of that story,” write the researchers, neither of whom are mental-health professionals. Colleges rely on all the positive aspects of grit to define the “college experience” by paying attention only to its static definition: courage, resolve, the innate ability to bounce back from obstacles. But history, the researchers argue, has shown that the types of institutional biases that are at play in the U.S. education system are structured to devalue the work of students of color, which can’t be fixed with an extra dose of mental toughness:

"While it is debatable whether pushing oneself to the limit to outwork the next person is an admirable quality, we have witnessed black students work themselves to the point of extreme illness in attempting to escape the constant threat (treadmill) of perceived intellectual inferiority. However, what grit researchers do not adequately examine is the role that race plays in producing anxiety, trauma, and general unpleasantness in students of color engaging in high-pressure academic work. The psychological and emotional energy required to manage stress in academic and social contexts as well as systemic and everyday racism can be overwhelming and taxing."

Read the full article in The Atlantic.