When six-year-old Ruby Bridges walked through the doors of her Louisiana elementary school in 1960, she made history as the first Black student to enroll in an all-white school following Brown vs. Board of Education. Yet it soon became clear that simply having students of different races in that same building would not spell the end of segregation in American schooling. Bridges received instruction in an empty classroom for several days while the white students boycotted the school. And throughout the school year, federal marshals had to accompany Bridges into the building to shield her from the irate mob that gathered daily to shout threats and racist insults.
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To Nicole Stephens, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, Bridges’s story highlights a blind spot in the way that certain organizations still view diversity. “I think many schools and workplaces focus on the idea of getting people in the door and increasing diversity based on race, socioeconomic status, gender, and so on,” Stephens says. “But far less attention is paid to what happens after we get people in the door.”
In a recent study, Stephens and her collaborators sought to fill that gap by exploring the diversity of people’s actual interactions at American universities. They wondered: Does having a diverse student body actually lead people to interact with those of different social class and racial or ethnic backgrounds? And when those cross-group interactions occur, do they actually yield tangible benefits for students, like fostering a stronger sense of belonging or improving academic performance?
Stephens teamed up with Rebecca M. Carey, a former Kellogg postdoctoral student who led the study and is now at Princeton, Sarah S. M. Townsend at University of Southern California, and MarYam G. Hamedani at Stanford. Together, they recruited university students to provide detailed accounts of their daily social interactions and how those interactions left them feeling.
The data suggest that simply having a diverse campus is not by itself enough to foster interactions across social-group divides. But it was not all bad news. Among those with underrepresented backgrounds—such as racial minorities and those from lower-social-class backgrounds—students who had more diverse encounters reported more inclusion and, therefore, performed better academically.
What happens when we interact with people unlike ourselves?
When thinking about interactions among diverse groups of people, it’s important to understand one of the most commonly observed phenomena in the social sciences: homophily. This is the notion that people tend to prefer, and associate more often with, people who are similar to themselves.
“Similarity feels comfortable,” Stephens explains. “It feels easy. It feels natural. It feels good to have others who know what your background is like and who have shared assumptions about how to be a good person or how to be a student.”
Homophily helps explain why exchanges across class or race boundaries tend to be relatively uncommon—and why such interactions often produce feelings of discomfort, stress, and anxiety.
But while these interactions may be difficult in the moment, they also have the unique potential to help promote understanding and empathy. Decades of research have demonstrated that intergroup contact—or having people engage in meaningful interactions with people from different social groups—is “the gold standard for bias reduction,” Stephens says.
So, to what extent will people resist the forces of homophily, and are the positive long-term effects of such encounters enough to make the immediate experience of discomfort worthwhile?
Stephens and her colleagues knew that the modern university was a natural laboratory for studying these questions, given the extensive efforts universities have undertaken to get students from marginalized groups in the door. “In a country that is highly segregated, like the United States, universities are one of the few places where people have the chance to have meaningful and substantive interactions across the lines of social class,” she says.
“Even when these kinds of interactions are possible, people don’t take full advantage of that diversity.”
The researchers recruited 552 students at two North American universities to conduct a series of daily surveys in which participants listed their “most meaningful” interactions over the past 24 hours, as well as the perceived gender, race, and social class of their counterpart in each interaction. (Social class was measured based on the perceived income and education level of the counterpart’s parents.) Students also reported how stressful, threatening, and satisfying that encounter felt to them, and whether they felt that they belonged on campus that day.
The students were asked to complete this daily survey task eight times during their first academic term. The researchers then coded each interaction as either same-race or cross-race, and as either same-class or cross-class. (For instance, if an Asian student from a middle-class background noted a conversation with a classmate she believed to be Black and lower-income, the interaction would be coded as cross-race and cross-class.)
The resulting data set included a total of 11,460 interactions for the researchers to analyze.
At the end of the academic year, students filled out another survey that focused on their feelings of inclusion and belonging at their university. This was done by asking the students to indicate how much they agreed with statements such as “[This university] is a place for students like me.”
Diversity does not lead to diverse interactions
The researchers first calculated how often cross-class and cross-race interactions should be expected to occur due to sheer chance, based on the demographic makeup of the campuses and the students in the study. For example, if at one of the universities 43 percent of the student body were students of color, then the average white student there would be expected to engage in cross-race interactions 43 percent of the time. Using similar calculations for each group, the researchers could calculate the overall portion of cross-class and cross-race interactions that would be expected by chance. They then compared those hypothetical numbers with the actual rates at which students reported cross-class and cross-race interactions.
Overall, the researchers found that there were 15 percent fewer cross-class interactions and 27 percent fewer cross-race interactions than should occur by chance alone.
In terms of cross-class interactions, those from lower- and working-class backgrounds were more likely to engage in cross-class interactions than students from middle- or higher-class backgrounds.
When it came to interacting with students of a different race, certain groups were especially likely to gravitate to people like themselves. Black, Native, and Latinx students (grouped together in the study) reported interacting with a white or Asian counterpart less than a third of the time, even though white and Asian students made up 73 percent of the collective student body at the universities. While both white students and Asian students were also disproportionately likely to seek out those of the same race, compared with how interactions would look if they occurred by chance, the tendency was much less extreme than with Black, Native, and Latinx students.
Taken as a whole, the results show that “even when these kinds of interactions are possible, people don’t take full advantage of that diversity,” Stephens says.
Consistent with previous research, students tended to walk away from their cross-class and cross-race encounters feeling less empathy for their counterpart than in same-class and same-race interactions. They also tended to believe that those encounters had not gone as well as in same-class and same-race interactions.
But even though students overall were avoiding many cross-class and cross-race interactions, these uncomfortable exchanges seemed to impart real benefits for those from underrepresented backgrounds.
For students from lower-class backgrounds, and students who were Black, Native, and Latinx, those who participated in more cross-group interactions tended to have higher GPAs at the end of the school year. (This result held even after controlling for students’ prior academic performance, suggesting that it was not the case that higher-performing students simply gravitated to more-diverse social groups.) The same students also reported feeling greater feelings of belonging.
On the other hand, cross-group interaction seemed to have no impact on either the academic experience or achievement of students from middle- or upper-class backgrounds or white or Asian students. However, the researchers suspect that these students also benefited from these interactions in ways that were not measured in this particular study (e.g., appreciation of diversity or complexity of thought).
How feeling included leads to academic success
Why did diverse interactions deliver benefits for students from underrepresented backgrounds but not their more-privileged peers? The researchers point to several possible explanations.
First, the data show that these interactions led underrepresented students to feel more like they belonged on campus. “If you’re coming from a background where your family members didn’t go to college, and you don’t have familiarity with the middle-upper class context of higher education, then when you enter that space, it’s very normal to feel like an outsider,” Stephens says. Decades of research have shown that those feelings can hinder academic performance by making students less comfortable and more stressed—so when disadvantaged students feel more at home, their performance will naturally improve.
It is also likely that these interactions gave the underrepresented students an opportunity to acquire “cultural capital,” an understanding of the unwritten rules that often dictate who succeeds and who fails.
“You can learn, for example, how to interact with professors, how to ask questions in class, how to seek out the resources you need to succeed,” Stephens explains. “Those are the kinds of things that you can learn from the cultural insiders who take it for granted that they belong. These are people whose parents have educated them since they were three years old about how to take advantage of resources and how to influence the situation to get what they want. So learning from those people can be highly advantageous.”
Yet the low rates of organic cross-cultural interaction suggest that students are unlikely to seek out diverse social groups without some prodding.
Stephens recommends that universities group students together randomly in dorms or class projects rather than allowing them to choose roommates or project partners on their own, to counteract the pull of homophily. (Indeed, she is currently conducting a longitudinal intervention to evaluate the potential benefits of assigning college students to engage in meaningful interactions with people from different class backgrounds.)
“We need to think about how to intentionally create systems to ensure that people are actually interacting across differences and have the potential to benefit from those differences,” she says.
Jake Smith is a writer based in Chicago.
Carey, Rebecca M., Nicole M. Stephens, Sarah S. M. Townsend, and MarYam G. Hamedani. 2022. “Is Diversity Enough? Cross-Race and Cross-Class Interactions in College Occur Less Often Than Expected, but Benefit Members of Lower Status Groups When They Occur.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
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