The Interview Insights On Race & Social Class at Trinity

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Trinity College is a typical American college campus that is coping with societal problems and changes that are common in the country as the twenty-first century continues to progress. The students deal with a plethora of issues for example, coping with everything from academic and social issues to issues regarding the complex socio-economic class hierarchy and how these issues can vastly alter someone’s college experience.  These issues can have reverberations and consequences socially and academically that continue throughout the student’s college career. Our seminar conducted interviews with sophomores at Trinity to learn their perceptions and thoughts of how social class and race impact the daily lives as well as the general college experiences that students have.  By reading the transcripts of the interviews and seeing the general patterns between the demographics of the students it is clear that there is some connection to the ideas of social class and race at Trinity College. Issues of race and social class are not always so evident at first glance of the campus community at Trinity, but upon a more in depth look and examination, there are differing perceptions and attitudes of how both race and social class are perceived at Trinity College.

To investigate this topic, our seminar conducted an interview-based study of students’ perceptions of race and social class at Trinity. Our interview guide posed ten open-ended questions and three demographic questions that explored topics, such as personal awareness, social interactions, and other students’ assumptions regarding racial and social class differences at Trinity. The Office of Institutional Research and Planning provided our professor with a stratified random sample of 55 sophomores from the Class of 2016, categorized by race (white or non-white) and first-year financial aid status (receiving or not receiving). Our professor sent personalized email invitations to this group, and assigned each of us to conduct an interview with all who responded and agreed to participate. The typical interview lasted about ten minutes, and was transcribed by the interviewer. The final sample consisted of 18 interviews: 10 students who received financial aid (4 white and 6 non-white), and 8 students who did not receive financial aid (4 white and 4 non-white). All names are pseudonyms and personally identifiable details have been masked, in accordance with our research ethics confidentiality agreement approved by the Trinity College Institutional Review Board.

By examining the transcripts of the interviews more closely it is not difficult to see a pattern that encompasses many of the students that receive financial aid from the college and their attitudes and their concern with self-presentation. Our interview research found that there are differences in how the students who receive financial aid feel about self-presentation and the students who do not receive financial aid feel about self-presentation. Therefore, how peers may or may not perceive them and their social class based on their self-presentation. Though one might think that in general the students who receive financial aid might be more cognizant of their appearance and self-presentation in comparison to their peers who do not receive financial aid, this is not what our research found. In fact, the interview data and transcripts actually show that more students who do not receive financial aid care or self-report that they care about their self-presentation.  Self-presentation is a key idea in college because as adolescents and students it is not unusual for people to find a significant other during their time in college.  In analyzing the interviews, we found that three out of the seven financial aid students are concerned with their self-presentation and four out of six non-financial aid students are concerned with their self-presentation. There also were patterns of how the Trinity sophomores perceived their own race and how it can be a barrier that is created for them and their social lives at Trinity College.

There is a distinct correlation in many of the interviews, about the possibilities of racial barriers that inhibit different races from interacting at Trinity. For example, a large number of the sophomore interviewees who are non-white, who said that they do believe that there some sort of racial barrier that inhibits certain students from being included in social events and activities. In one interview in particular, Juan observes that there are misconceptions about certain races and generalizations and stereotypes about what certain races and ethnicities should enjoy and activities people from those races should participate in (Juan p. 4). Juan observes that although he is non-white, he does not necessarily enjoy hip-hop or R&B as much as people of other races—white—would assume that he likes because of what his family’s heritage and culture might suggest in the larger scheme of things. Throughout many of the interviews, the interviewees indicated that there are definitely racial stereotypes that are expressed and beliefs that are held about certain races. The stereotypes of different races are definitely prevalent throughout the interviews. When asked if he thinks that there have been any assumptions made of him based on his race, Fred, an African-American student noted that he has been stopped by campus security on several occasions and asked if he is a student at Trinity. Though Fred seemed to brush off these somewhat negative interactions with campus security, it is still significant to consider how and why they happened in the first place (Fred p. 23). Nonwhite students in general did not suggest or really notice that their race had any influence on how they interacted with their fellow students at Trinity. This pattern gives good insight into how students at Trinity see the effect that their own race can alter their perceptions and experiences at Trinity.

Several of the interviewed students noted that a person’s social class won’t cause that person to be excluded or included in an event or activity, but it might change the possibility of a person participating in an event or activity for financial reasons or restrictions. One student, Serafino, feels that inclusive or exclusive situations are  “Not at a social level. I don’t think people necessarily include or exclude people based on social class, but some things people do just cost a certain amount of money to be able to do. When it comes to that I think there is a divide, there’s an exclusion factor, but just solely based on someone’s availability to participate in something. Not on a social level necessarily” (Serafino p. 34). Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, would argue that many of the students who were interviewed are in various stages of her theory of Racial Identity Development. Depending on who they associate themselves with socially or how they see themselves in terms of their race. Tatum would argue that students such as Juan, would be in the middle of the stages encounter, in which individuals experience “a certain level of racism, which leads to self- segregation and an active desire to find those who have shared experiences” (Tatum p. 55-56) and the immersion/emersion stage of racial identity development. For individuals in this stage of racial identity development, “…the person at the immersion/emersion phase is unlearning the internalized stereotypes about his or her own group and is redefining a positive sense of self” (Tatum p.76). Juan is in between these stages because although he acknowledges that he has been on the target of racism, he does associate with people outside of his race and does not intentionally segregate himself from students of different races (Juan p. 4). Tatum would say that Fred is somewhat in the pre-encounter stage of racial identity development. This would be the case because in the encounter stage, individuals,  “…absorb beliefs and values of the dominant white culture, including white superiority and black inferiority” (Tatum p. 55).

Several students noted that they tend to naturally gravitate socially to other students who come from similar backgrounds racially and ethnically to their own background, Kaylie, a nonwhite student, noted that she sees herself as the exception to this because she does not hang out with a group of students from her background, or a similar background.  As a result of this, Kaylie thinks that she has in fact become more aware of her race since coming to Trinity. “Yes, because I have noticed that black people making in general…they tend to hang out together and I actually do not hang out with many black people in daily basis… so whenever I go out with friends and library and anywhere I tend to be the only black person in my group” (Kaylie p. 37). Three nonwhite students, Michael, Luisa, and Kirsten all felt that the Mather Dining Hall has some of the most clear and evident examples of how segregated racially Trinity College can be in certain situations and places. All three of these students notice the literal and figurative division of where people sit in Mather and how that directly corresponds to their race or ethnicity. “…Especially like uhm, it’s interesting cause I feel like even in Mather you just see how the division is really apparent, and so like I’ve seen it there and I’m really conscious about it there too” (Luisa p. 9). Kirsten also observed the stark contrast of where students sit when they are eating in Mather. She said that on a daily basis this is the clearest example of how students are divided racially at Trinity College. “Daily interactions? Um, I mean, for example Mather I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it’s very segregated in terms of seating area. I mean at first I didn’t notice it until someone pointed it out and I was like oh yeah you know like there’s a sport side and then there’s like a minority side. So sometime like this year, like last year I was always like contemplating which side I should like sit in and it just ruined my meal. So after thinking about it I’m like I’m not even hungry anymore I’ll just go to the Cave” (Kirsten p. 18). These three students’ observations of the culture of one of the biggest communal spots on campus highlight the subtle presence, yet, presence, nonetheless of a divide in how students of minority races and ethnicities do not interact or coexist with one another at Trinity. It is interesting that though eight white students were interviewed, none of them identified Mather as a clear example of the racial segregation and separation that some of their non-white peers pointed out.

Stereotypes based on race and social class as identified by several of the students who were interviewed also relate to Stacey Lee’s theory of racial identity. In her book, Unraveling The Model Minority, Lee explains that people will act according to the stereotype that is consistent with how the society thinks and portrays them. Specifically, Lee states that, The process of identity formation among all of the Asian American students was influenced by their perceptions regarding their positions and locations within society and their understanding of their interests. Asian American students in all four groups judges their situations by comparing their social positions to that of whites, non-white minorities, and other Asian Americans,”( Lee p. 121).  Lee’s book chronicles her time and research at a high school in Philadelphia where racial identification  and racial categorization is common (Lee p. 4). The students who were interviewed, more specifically the non white-students, felt that because of their race, others perceived them to have certain characteristics and personality traits. Ruby, for example, explains how she does not fit one of the stereotypes associated with Asians, “…I mean, I guess it’s just like– how I said before, like, people assume that just ’cause you’re Asian you’re gonna be great at math and chem, and stuff like that. And, I’ve taken chem twice, and I basically failed both times already [laughs]. So, I guess just like that but… yea. Not so much people are like– like, blatantly racist. You know, but like they make assumptions that because people are Asian they’re gonna be great at, like, the sciences…” (Ruby p.30). This is just one example of how stereotypes and assumptions often increase the negative associations that go along with minority races.         This pattern of racial stereotypes, whether that be a negative or positive, is a something that the majority of the interviewees expressed during their interviews.

In conclusion, the patterns and commonalities in the interviews with students of similar backgrounds and racial demographics, it is clear that students at Trinity are in the process of understanding the basis for why these divisions are present on the campus of Trinity College. From a simple glance at the school and the student population, it is not necessarily clear that there are issues regarding race and social class at Trinity. Yet, when these issues are investigated in greater detail, there is evidence that race and social class backgrounds of students can have an influence on the everyday lives of students at Trinity. Both Tatum and Lee’s theories of racial identity development and racial identity have relevance in terms of how they accurately depict many of the problems such as race and social class that students deal with whether they are conscious of it or not, on a daily basis.

Works Cited:

Stacey Lee, Unraveling the “Model Minority” Stereotype: Listening to Asian American Youth, second edition (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009).

Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations about Race, revised edition (New York: Basic Books, 2003).