A person’s social identity can be a source of ‘pride and prejudice’—that is, both belonging and exclusion. This insight can matter deeply for college students. Racial/ethnic disparities are linked to whether a student feels included on college and university campuses, and in turn to their academic achievement, degree attainment, and even health and well-being. Thus, social identities can be associated with risk of a lower sense of institutional belonging and myriad adverse consequences. Accordingly, solutions to inequalities or efforts to reduce such negative outcomes have frequently targeted social identities.

These efforts have, predictably, commonly targeted stigma associated with social identities and have produced powerful insights for theory and application. However, social identities, even those that place individuals at risk for a lower sense of belonging, are complex because they encompass stigma yet also strengths. Such social identities can function as a source of (1) stigma or prejudice, stereotypes, discrimination, and marginalization and (2) strengths or pride, resilience, and interdependence—a positive sense of connection to ingroup others. 

Targeting Both Stigma and Strengths

My recent research provides evidence that targeting stigma as well as strengths tied to social identities can afford multiple pathways to belonging and to solving varied inequalities.  

Andy Lin and I reviewed research in social, developmental, and educational psychology that demonstrates how the combination of ‘stigma and strengths’ shapes social identities for Latino/a/x and African Americans. Then, we showed how such stigma and strengths can be associated with multiple pathways to belonging, and in turn positive long-term consequences across academic and well-being outcomes.

We were able to analyze the actual text of written demands which had been submitted to administrators by college students from underrepresented racial/ethnic minority backgrounds and their allies. These demands were from students attending 80 colleges and universities, mostly in the United States. The demands were tied to nationwide and international protests on college campuses, and represented explicit calls for more inclusive college campuses. In the text of these demands we looked at whether this form of collective action, which was aimed at fostering a greater sense of belonging for racial/ethnic minority students on college campuses, referred to both stigma and strengths.

Indeed, demands across campuses overwhelmingly called for changes that would both reduce stigma and promote strengths. These included calls for transparent procedures for reporting and investigating discrimination. The demands also included requests for funding for ethnic studies classes, and physical spaces on campus that celebrate the cultural, heritage, history, and contemporary experiences of racial/ethnic minority groups.     

Pride and Prejudice Confirmed

Following this, we directly examined Latino/a/x and African American college students’ experiences of stigma and strengths on their campuses, using the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen—containing almost 2,000 Latino/a/x and African American college students at 27 U.S. colleges and universities. We defined experiences of stigma as prejudice and experiences of strengths as pride.

Students’ ‘pride and prejudice’ experiences definitely represented two pathways to belonging and to feeling connected meaningfully to their school. Pride experiences—such as taking a class in Latino/a/x or African American Studies—positively predicted institutional belonging, and in turn academic and well-being outcomes such as graduation rates, grade point average, depression, health, and missed school days. At the same time, prejudice experiences such as hearing a derogatory racial/ethnic remark were negatively associated with institutional belonging, and in turn the academic and well-being measures.

These results have implications for science and society. Researchers need to engage the complexities tied to social identities including the ways in which the same identity can be a source of stigma and strength. Administrators and leaders at schools or workplaces can implement policies and practices that reduce stigma and promote strengths to foster institutional belonging and in turn benefit a variety of academic and health outcomes.

For Further Reading

Brannon, T. N., Fisher, P. H., & Greydanus, A. J. (2020). Selves as solutions to social inequalities: Why engaging the full complexity of social identities is critical to addressing disparities. Cambridge University Press.

Brannon, T. N., & Lin, A. (2020). “Pride and prejudice” pathways to belonging: Implications for inclusive diversity practices within mainstream institutions. American Psychologist. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000643

Massey, D. S., Charles, C. Z., Lundy, G. F., & Fischer, M. J. (2006). The source of the river: The social origins of freshmen at America's selective colleges and universities. Princeton University Press.

Tiffany N. Brannon is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Her research examines socio-cultural interventions that leverage social identities as well as intra- and intergroup interactions to impact social inequalities.