Using Critical Race Theory to Craft Undergraduate Research Experiences
by Buffie Longmire-Avital
Nineteen years ago I was in the middle of my first year serving as head resident advisor (HRA) to an almost entirely first year residence hall. As the HRA I was responsible for organizing and providing monthly professional development for the team of RAs who lived in the building. I was also the person responsible for the hall’s budget and schedule of RA-on-call coverage. Finally, I was the example – the bar setter for responding to rule violations. This meant I needed to be unapologetically tough and consistent.
On the first day of orientation that year, I remember checking the students in and taking note that, aside from me and two other RAs, the entire building was 95% White. Only two students of color checked in to the building that day. I wasn’t surprised; I still remember the headlines from my first year stating that 30+ students of color in the incoming class of 500 was the most diverse class yet. This was not my first year living or working as an RA in a residence hall that was predominately White. However, this was my first time doing it while holding the position of HRA. For the first semester, things went smoothly. It was not until spring, when the students all got a bit more comfortably and brazen, that I had to play the role of citation giver. It was also around this time that I realized holding this leader role and bar setter position in the package I came in – a Black female – triggered reactions that the White male HRAs did not encounter. This was not the first time I encountered gendered-racism, but it was perhaps one of the most poignant.
As the RA-on-call one weekday night, I had my door open and was in my room. A group of male residents slowly walked by my door and loudly uttered the N-word. This deliberate micro-racial-aggression was a retaliation for “busting” a party in a room a week or so earlier. This deliberate cowardly act ripped to shreds whatever waning illusions about my fit and acceptance into the general campus community I had. It left me feeling violated and threatened in the small space I had to call home, hundreds of miles away from my actual one. This was the moment that I realized that I would never just be a leader, a boss, or a social science researcher; I would always be a Black woman who leads, a Black woman who is a boss, or a Black woman who is a social science researcher. Though I did not have the academic knowledge or language to connect this experience with emerging scholarship and theory, this micro-racial-aggressive encounter/harassment was the genesis of my embrace of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which flows through all of my work now.
The following year I decided to pursue a Senior Honors research thesis. This year-long intensive project granted students an opportunity to engage in independent research while working closely with a faculty mentor. It was expected that the participating students generate their own research question and, with some guidance, conduct a study. For my thesis project I proposed investigating how the interaction between race, gender, and leadership style influenced perceived leadership effectiveness ratings. This study idea was born out of the gendered-racial discrimination I endured the previous year as an HRA. By centering my own experience as the base of my epistemological perspective, I took the initial steps of being a critical race theorist.
Solórzano (1998), calls for the recognition of five canons when attempting to infuse CRT into research:
- When race is centralized, it intersects with all other forms of oppression. I have previously discussed how integrated race and racism are in the fabric that forms our union. Race, however, does not overwhelm or dilute the experiences of other positions. It often serves as the amplifier. It was not just that I was one of three Black bodies in the residence hall; it was that I was also a woman in a position of authority. The intersection of these two marginalized positions that have historical been subordinate, now in a position to challenge the belief that one is entitled to do whatever they want, was too great for those students to process. Historically underrepresented students (HURMS) will likely have intersecting marginalized identities. Are we as educators meeting them at their intersections while simultaneously being accountable for our own?
- Resist and refute the mainstream or “dominant ideology.” Research aims to be objective; yet with a history of endorsing deficit-based perspectives, particularly for marginalized and historically underrepresented communities, CRT researchers can’t be willing accomplices in the erasure of context. The creation of pathways into undergraduate research is a topic I have previously discussed. Assumptions of equal access are not realistic; instead what is needed is contextually driven equity. I am also thankful that my ability to process my experience with gendered-racism was supported by faculty mentors who understood why I needed to ask and pursue answers to the questions I put forth. For the past 3 years I have been working with two Black American women. They have both expressed their exhaustion from navigating the Predominantly White Institution (PWI) landscape. Often, research meetings were transformed into sharing circles and work deadlines were pushed back. These are two of the most dynamic students I have had the privilege of working with, and sadly, their experiences are not unique. I can remember other students of color experiencing the same exhaustion. Recently, one student remarked that she was surprised that I asked her to continue working with me. She was certain that because she fell behind I would not take her back in the new academic year. That was not an option for me. I knew the systems she encounters daily, I knew her context, and in knowing her context, I was obligated to acknowledge it and use it to frame my evaluation of her. She and I both fought to keep her engaged, and she has become one of my strongest research students. It is not her ability to write surveys or enter data accurately that makes her dynamic. It is her ability to see exactly where the best place is to poke the hole in the bubble of neutrality that informs so many theories still in use today. Her willingness to challenge what has long been accepted in my field is an asset that I am able to value more and nurture.
- Research is a tool for social justice. Research, practice, and training that seeks to eradicate systems of oppression while offering models for empowerment is central to CRT. Creating more opportunities for HURMS is social justice work. However, simply populating your lab or work group with students who identify as HURMS is not sufficient. It is important for me to model to each student and potential independent researcher how social science research could be participatory, community centered, and needs-based. Undergraduate research, in my opinion should aim to engage and train students in responsible and sustainable (i.e., not taxing to communities of study) pursuits of knowledge.
- Experiential Epistemology. Using experience as the basis, inspiration, or motivation for conducting a research study should not automatically diminish the credibility of the proposed research or analytical method. My emotionally painful encounter with racist students trolling my personal space left me devastated. I remember breaking down after my African American art class. I simply put my head on the table and began to weep. My professor was also my art mentor. He let me cry, found tissues, and also found another beloved professor of mine, who was not Black but who used her own experience of being a Jewish woman to comfort me. For what seemed like ages but was most likely only a few minutes, I cried with my head down, and each professor flanked my side, both offering hands to tether me to them. The experience haunted me for some time but it was also a pivotal catalyst to finding my own research voice. My research meetings with my undergraduates are not linear or structured. We constantly pause to reflect on our findings and our reactions. These moments of pause are not filled with silence, but instead these moments are full of stories, anecdotal narratives that both support and challenge our processing of the study data. The stories and narratives are a legitimate component to the research process because we should all be conscious of our personal frameworks. The stories and narratives are also essential for sustained critical mentoring. These are the moments that I learn about and from my students; these are the opportunities to connect their lived experiences with research, theories and other scholars. These are the moments I attempt to both develop and reinforce my students’ connections with academic scholarship.
- CRT is inherently transdisciplinary. The study of social constructions and systems from only one disciplinary lens at a time is futile. Social constructions would not be so resistant to dismantling if they were rooted in only one place. In establishing a CRT structure for working with HURMS I do not hold on to disciplinary boundaries. I am a psychologist with a public health bend. That is me. My students are from these disciplines and others. In my experience HURMS have sought me out or connected with me because of the topics I explore, the spaces I create, not merely the discipline(s) I represent. This means that I am working with students who have an ample background in social science research, classic psychological theories, and methodologies. This also means I am working with students who have none of these skills. However, they bring the skills from their primary disciplines, and we meet in the middle. One of my most rigorous students is currently exploring the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality for Black Gay men. He brings with him a nuanced emic epistemology that richly informs all aspects of our study. He is a theater arts major (who also happens to be an RA) and while I toil over p-values and interrater reliability, he is using the data of our mixed-methods study to create a series of vignettes inspired by the stories we have collected. Our meetings consist of storytelling, teaching exchanges between him and me, theory building or connecting, and finally mutual growth.
Five Critical Race Theory (CRT) tenets for aligning this framework with critical mentored research experiences. These are not positions or steps only to be enacted upon if working with HURMS; these five components are beneficial for all students and teacher-scholars.
- Solórzano, D. (1998). Critical race theory, racial and gender microaggressions, and the experiences of Chicana and Chicano Scholars. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11, 121- 136.
- Yasso, T.J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8 (1), 69 – 91.
Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies, is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focuses on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.
How to cite this post:
Longmire-Avital, Buffie. (2019, January 4). Using Critical Race Theory to Craft Undergraduate Research Experiences [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/using-critical-race-theory-to-craft-undergraduate-research-experiences/