UVA Study Focuses on Racial Discrimination Within Peer Groups - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

UVA Study Focuses on Racial Discrimination Within Peer Groups

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A group of researchers from the University of Virginia is studying discrimination, but not between people of two different races. The research focuses rather on discrimination between people of the same race.

The studies were conducted by Assistant Professor Dr. Joanna Williams and Ph.D student Myles Durkee. The research explores discrimination between members of the same races and the same peer groups.

"Currently there's a lot of research on discrimination, but the vast majority of research on discrimination assumes that the individuals are most often or can only be discriminated against by people outside of their race," Durkee said. "But we're finding, especially on college campuses, that people tend to almost self-group themselves... and there's often times internal threats and forms of discrimination that occurs within those environments."

The research began by asking black college students at UVA and Piedmont Virginia Community College about their experiences with discrimination. The issue of being discriminated against by members of their own race came up in every discussion, so Williams and Durkee began focusing specifically on that topic.

"A lot of individuals talked about within-group discrimination, and within those groups one of the most common types was... this actuation of 'acting white' or not 'acting black' enough," Durkee said.

Williams said that's when their research took a turn. "We began to be interested in exploring race-related harassment and discrimination by focusing on who the perpetrator is," she said.

The two researchers then surveyed more than 200 black students. The results revealed that 60 percent said they experienced some type of discrimination within their own racial group. 

This could be more troubling than discrimination from a different racial group, they said.

"If you're rejected by someone in your own group it might actually be more hurtful than if you're rejected by someone in an outlying group," said Williams. "We tend to judge people in our own group who deviate from expected set of norms more harshly than people who are members of out-groups."

Interracial discrimination can cause emotional problems as well, Durkee said. "Based on the frequency that individuals were accused of ‘acting white'. That was associated with more depressive symptoms, more anxiety symptoms, and more emotional problems," he said. "Being accused of not being an authentic member of your race is having a negative on your well-being overall."

Durkee said within-race discrimination comes in many forms. "Sometimes it happens in the way you dress, the way you talk, who you hang out with, in other forms, but a lot of participants in our survey perceived this as a form of discrimination and they saw it as a threat and an insult to themselves."

This issue could be particularly pertinent in diverse areas like Charlottesville because people are more likely to be aware of differences between racial groups. "So kids are now more aware of social boundaries when it comes to things like race, or it could be other group membership like who's on a sports team," Williams said. "But when we're talking about racial or ethnic or religious diversity, some of those social group memberships become more salient," she said.

The research is currently under review for publication in major academic journals. The researchers are conducting additional research surveys that include follow up questions to expand the understanding of this issue.

As early as this spring, they may start surveying Charlottesville middle school students about their experiences with discrimination. "That's a time when we know kids can start thinking of what it means to be a member of a group and we start rejecting one another based on who is authentically a member of that group and who isn't," said Williams.

Many of the respondents surveyed so far said that middle school is when they began experiencing discrimination. "Group membership is really a critical part of the middle school experience, early adolescence, and moving on to later adolescence, so it's something that we're really kind of particularly interested in studying at this time," said Williams.  

Williams and Durkee want their research to have a positive impact on people's lives. "We're hoping by understanding this a little more we can start to help educators think about how to structure school settings, to help kids understand some of these social boundaries, and to help kids appreciate diversity within particular racial or ethnic group communities, rather than relying on this rigid set of expectations," said Williams.

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