The purpose of this study is to determine and discuss the barriers and challenges that African American women can face when obtaining higher education; the available research on this topic indicates the appropriateness of applying three key theories to the current study as a framework: Critical Race Theory (CRT), Social Learning Theory, and Feminist Theory. These theories are widely used in existing studies on the topic and related themes because the problem of African American women’s higher education is usually discussed in the context of their race, gender, and interactions with others. The discussion of the application of CRT to the context of Black women’s obtaining the higher education will be followed by the analysis of the literature the use of Social Learning Theory to explain the problem, and then the framework of Feminist Theory will be discussed.
Critical Race Theory
Critical Race Theory was formulated to explain social phenomena from the perspective of race and power. Firstly, CRT was formulated to be applied in the legal context in the 1980s-1990s. Later in 2001, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic presented the key concepts and assumptions of the theory to apply it for explaining the complexity of racial relations in different contexts (Harris, 2017). The main principle of CRT is that social relations, especially in the United States, are determined by the distribution of power in society concerning the aspect of the race. Whites have more power and influence in contrast to Blacks and other minorities, and this aspect affects all spheres of their life, including social interactions, education, and employment (Green et al., 2018). The main assumptions of CRT are that the US society is characterized by white supremacy, subtle and evident racism, and discrimination of racial minorities; colored people’s challenges in education and work can be explained by their race (Allen & Joseph, 2018). CRT is used to explain the relationships between race and racism and their possible application in different social contexts, including education and employment.
When it is necessary to examine the experiences of racial minorities, researchers choose CRT in contrast to other socio-cultural theories because of its usefulness to explain how race can influence individual and group experiences. CRT was used as the framework in the studies by Allen and Joseph (2018), Green et al. (2018), Harris (2017), and Walkington (2017). The researchers were interested in studying how race could influence different social processes and influence individuals’ experiences depending on their privilege or minority status. This theory directly relates to the present study as it is useful to guide the development of the problem statement and address the research questions. CRT is important to explain why Black women in higher educational institutions can face barriers, discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping. This theory explains how racial differentiation observed in educational settings can influence the experiences of representatives of different ethnic backgrounds. CRT is also effective to provide the answer to how institutional and racial biases are formed in society depending on the race factor and influencing students’ experiences in institutions.
Social Learning Theory
Social Learning Theory was developed by Albert Bandura in the 1970s. The main premise of the theory is that learning is realized in social contexts through observing and imitating others, following them as role models (Ahn et al., 2020). The key concepts of the theory are social context, behavior, reinforcement, and modeling. Thus, people learn and socialize in specific contexts, when forming their behaviors through reflecting on others (modeling) depending on reinforcement they receive from other people (Willis et al., 2019). This principle has led to the development of the key assumptions of Social Learning Theory: individuals’ behaviors depend on their observation, social learning, modeling, and experiences; people’s behaviors depend on social contexts and expected outcomes (Willis et al., 2019). People choose how to behave according to their views formed referring to their previous experiences, and by observing others, they can develop new behavioral patterns. Therefore, Social Learning Theory also explains how people learn through their daily reciprocal interactions with others and in the context of educational institutions.
Researchers chose to apply Social Learning Theory in their studies on African American women’s education because, on the one hand, it explains how previous experiences of people influence their current behavior and perceptions about Blacks, and on the other hand, how African American females adapt to the social contexts of higher educational institutions. Willis et al. (2019) supported their analysis of Black women’s isolation and experienced micro-aggressions Hispanic-serving institutions with the help of Social Learning Theory to explain the faculty and students can form their attitudes to Black women depending on their experience and how colored females can react to them. Ahn et al. (2020) also applied this framework for examining the quality of African American female students’ interactions in educational institutions.
This theory contributes to addressing the problem identified for this research because it is effective to explain whether African American female students can successfully adapt to higher education environments depending on their social experiences and certain obstacles. Social Learning Theory also explains how beliefs, views, and behaviors of colored women can change during their study concerning the behaviors and models they observe in educational settings. Social Learning Theory is appropriate to be selected as a theoretical framework for this study to explain how African American women’s adaptation to and coping with obstacles, as well as interactions with peers and the faculty, can depend on their social contexts and social learning.
Feminist Theory was developed as a result of researchers’ focus on studying feminism of the 18-19th century. The critical premises of the theory were formulated in the late part of the 20th century to guide further research in this area. The theory contributes to understanding social inequalities concerning the factor of gender, explaining the distribution of male and female roles and the associated power misbalance in society (Davis & Brown, 2017). Feminist Theory is used to explicate the relationships between inequality, discrimination, and stereotyping in society based on the aspect of gender and prejudice against women. Feminist Theory unites different theoretical models explaining gender differences and social interactions from various perspectives.
In the context of Feminist Theory, the principles of Multiracial Feminism were formulated by Zinn and Dill in 1996 (Ramos & Yi, 2020). In addition, feminist theorists developed the premises of Black Feminism in the 1980s, depending on the works by Cooper and Crenshaw (Coker et al., 2018). According to Feminist Theory, women in US society are perceived through the lenses of their gender, objectified, and stereotypes. Gender biases make them experience problems in education and employment.
The main concepts of Feminist Theory, as well as Multiracial and Black Feminism, are gender, race, stereotyping, inequality, power, and discrimination. Researchers studying African American women’s experiences in educational institutions actively used this framework in their research: Walkington (2017) used a combined framework concerning Black Feminism and CRT to explain obstacles faced by African American females in educational institutions. Squire and McCann (2018) referred to the critical feminist approach to examine women’s experiences in educational settings, and Ramos and Yi (2020) applied Multiracial Feminism for studying instances of racism, sexism, and structural oppression in their educational institutions. As a result, Feminist Theory is a typically used model in the context of researching African American women’s experiences when obtaining higher education. This theory allows for explaining how the gender of minority students can influence their experience regarding possible obstacles and barriers on their paths to education and career development.
The discussed theories, Critical Race Theory, Social Learning Theory, and Feminist Theory, create a unique framework for the current study to explain the nature of African American women’s experiences in higher educational institutions. These theories allow for understanding colored women’s experiences and possible barriers through the lenses of both their race and gender that influence their social interactions, behavior, and adaptation. From this perspective, the categories of gender and race play the key role in explaining how African American female students interact with peers, the faculty, mentors, colleagues, and others. These three theories compose the theoretical framework for the study adding to the understanding the grounds for African American women’s behaviors and choices when they face obstacles obtaining their education.
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Allen, E. L., & Joseph, N. M. (2018). The sistah network: Enhancing the educational and social experiences of Black women in the academy. NASPA Journal about Women in Higher Education, 11(2), 151-170.
Coker, A. D., Martin, C., Culver, J., & Johnson, C. (2018). Black women’s academic and leadership development in higher education: An autoethnographic study. Periferia, 10(2), 44-66.
Davis, S., & Brown, K. (2017). Automatically discounted: Using Black Feminist Theory to critically analyze the experiences of Black female faculty. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 12(1), 1-9.
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Ramos, D. M., & Yi, V. (2020). Doctoral women of color coping with racism and sexism in the academy. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 15, 135-158.
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Walkington, L. (2017). How far have we really come? Black women faculty and graduate students’ experiences in higher education. Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 39, 51-65.
Willis, T. Y., Mattheis, A., Dotson, B., Brannon, L. J., Hunter, M., Moore, A., Ahmed, L., & Williams-Vallarta, L. (2019). “I find myself isolated and alone”: Black women’s experiences of microaggressions at an Hispanic-serving institution. Journal of Women and Gender in Higher Education, 12(2), 186-204.