Diversity and Democracy

Stereotypes, Student Identity, and Academic Success

Stereotypes run deep in American society, and they can have profound effects on students' identity development and academic success. A selection of recent research suggests how some students negotiate their multiple identities to deflect the effects of negative stereotyping.

In The Black Box: How High-Achieving Blacks Resist Stereotypes about Black Americans, the authors explore how high-achieving black students negotiate their identities among their different peer groups (Fries-Britt and Griffin 2007). The nine participants in this qualitative study described pressures to disprove negative stereotypes based on race, sometimes at the expense of feeling connected to the black community (520). In addition to these psychological pressures, students experienced the stress of time lost to educating white peers (520). The authors suggest that better efforts to address race in the classroom might relieve the pressures high-achieving black students feel to advocate on behalf of their social groups.

The authors of American Indian College Students' Ethnic Identity and Beliefs about Education use quantitative research to examine the relationship between orientation toward education and ethnic identity (Okagaki, Helling, and Bingham 2009). Their comparative study of 173 American Indian and European American students suggests that American Indian participants saw education as more instrumentally significant than did their white peers (171), and that this view correlated slightly to students' perception of discrimination (172). The authors hypothesize that students who experienced discrimination saw education as a way to counter negative stereotypes (172). The research also suggests that students with greater "bicultural efficacy"--those who "believed that they can be true to their ethnic identity and participate effectively in the majority culture" (165)--showed greater orientation toward their student identities (167).

The Developmental Dimensions of Recognizing Racial Thoughts similarly illustrates students' attempts to make sense of stereotypes--in this case, those applied to Latino/a students (Torres 2009). After examining negative stereotypes on a cognitive level, the Latino/a participants in this qualitative study came to critique racist assumptions they had previously credited or internalized, with various success in developing their own ethnic identities (518). Students responded to these realizations in varying ways according to whether they identified as privileged or oppressed, with privileged students more likely to begin by seeking new interpersonal relationships and oppressed students more likely to begin by seeking new intrapersonal understandings (518-19).

Finally, in Multiple Social Identities and Stereotype Threat: Imbalance, Accessibility, and Working Memory, the authors seek new remedies to the phenomenon of stereotype threat (Rydell, McConnell, and Beilock 2009). Stereotype threat theories suggest that when students are reminded of negative stereotypes associated with an aspect of their identity (for example, that women are bad at math), they will perform more poorly on related tests (949). Using tests with prompts that described gender-stereotypical beliefs about ability, the study supported the hypothesis that activation of stereotypes does affect performance, but also suggested that by activating competing positive identities (such as that of student), test writers can "can eliminate stereotype threat effects" (949).


ReducingStereotypeThreat.org provides an in-depth introduction to the concept of stereotype threat, along with an extensive bibliography of related publications. Created by Steven Stroessner and Catherine Good, the site is an informative introduction for faculty and students interested in the topic.

Taken together, these studies suggest the deeply destructive impact negative stereotypes have on both students' psychological well-being and their academic success. Yet they also suggest that students may be able to draw on their multiple identities to combat negative effects. This may be an effective short-term strategy, but it is surely not an acceptable long-term solution. As the studies underscore, more research is needed to determine how colleges and universities can support students' multiple identities in both academic and social realms.

--Kathryn Peltier Campbell, editor


Fries-Britt, S., and K. A. Griffin. 2007. The black box: How high-achieving blacks resist stereotypes about black Americans. Journal of College Student Development 48(5): 509-524.

Okagaki, L., M. K. Helling, and G. E. Bingham. 2009. American Indian college students' ethnic identity and beliefs about education. Journal of College Student Development 50(2): 157-176.

Rydell, R. J., A. R. McConnell, and S. L. Beilock. 2009. Multiple social identities and stereotype threat: Imbalance, accessibility, and working memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 96(5): 949-966.

Torres, V. 2009. The developmental dimensions of recognizing racist thoughts. Journal of College Student Development 50(5): 504-520.

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