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Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities: A Framework for Exploring Racialized Experiences

and High Achievement Among Black College Students

Author(s): Ebony O. McGee

Source:

Journal for Research in Mathematics Education,

Vol. 46, No. 5 (November 2015), pp. 599-

625

Published by: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5951/jresematheduc.46.5.0599

Accessed: 13-11-2015 15:38 UTC

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Robust and Fragile Mathematical

Identities: A Framework for Exploring

Racialized Experiences and

High Achievement Among

Black College Students

Ebony O. McGee

Vanderbilt University

I introduce the construct of fragile and robust identities for the purpose of exploring

the experiences that influenced the mathematical and racial identities of high-

achieving Black college students in mathematics and engineering. These students

maintained high levels of academic achievement in these fields while enduring

marginalization, stereotyping, and other forms of racialization. Their fragile mathe-

matical identities were manifested in the way they were motivated to achieve in order

to prove false the negative expectations of others. Their robust mathematical identities

were characterized by an evolving sense of self-efficacy and discovery, a growing

affinity and passion for mathematics, and a desire to be a mathematically inspiring

role model. Extending the work on identity development, I recommend more nuanced

interpretations of the interplay of human development, racialized experiences, and

distinctly race-related risk and protective factors that complicate mathematical iden-

tity formation for Black college students in mathematics and engineering fields.

Key words: Black college students; High achievement; Mathematical identity; Racial

identity; Racial stereotypes

Although the research community frequently discusses the achievement, or lack

thereof, of African Americans1 in mathematics, traditional reports often fail to

acknowledge that educational spaces too readily become breeding grounds for the

systematic marginalization of Black students. Over the past 20 years, a growing

group of mathematics education scholars have been challenging the narrow focus

on traditional quantitative standards of measuring academic success and have

This research was funded by the Spencer Foundation and the Jackie Robinson

Foundation. The views reected here are those of the author and do not necessar-

ily reect the views of the Spencer Foundation or the Jackie Robinson Founda-

tion. I would like to express my very great appreciation to Drs. Danny Mar tin

and Paul Cobb for their thoughtful feedback as well as to the ve anonymous

reviewers and the editorial staff of JRME.

1The terms African American and Black are used interchangeably throughout this article.

Journal for Research in Mathematics Education

2015, Vol. 46, No. 5, 599–625

Copyright © 2015 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc., www.nctm.org. All rights reserved.

This material may not be copied or distributed electronically or in other formats without written permission from NCTM.

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600 Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities

suggested a more expansive perspective that includes learning and involvement

negotiated inside and outside of the mathematics classroom (e.g., Gutiérrez, 2008;

Lubienski, 2008; Martin, 2000; Stinson, 2011). Rather than focusing simply on

student achievement measures, these researchers have critically examined the

experiences of marginalized students, their families, and their communities. They

have substantiated the need to understand the racialized mathematical experiences

of Black students, including the experiences of those who have maintained high

achievement in spite of encountering frequent marginalization (Ellington, 2006;

McGee, 2013b, 2013c, 2014).

Implying that failure is a predictable outcome for Black students studying math-

ematics leaves little room to explore Black students’ success, agency, and resil-

ience in the field. The lack of research on African Americans’ success in mathe-

matics leads to the mistaken conclusion—and widespread stereotype—that

above-average achievement in this area is somehow nonexistent among Black

students. Inattention to intragroup differences, including the fact that some math-

ematically talented Black students endure racial bias within and beyond the

classroom, fuels the perception of racial disparities in mathematics achievement

(Martin, 2012; McGee, 2013a).

Although the overall percentage of African Americans earning mathematics-

related degrees has decreased over the past 15 years (Chen, 2009), a significant

number of African Americans continue to excel in these fields at every stage of

the academic pipeline (Berry, 2008; Berry, Ellis, & Hughes, 2014; Martin, 2000;

Mutegi, 2013; Stinson, 2013; Thompson & Lewis, 2005; Walker, 2011). However,

the question remains: Who tells the stories of successful Black students—those

who score at or above proficiency levels, maintain high GPAs in mathematics-

intensive fields, and obtain the traditionally accepted metrics of academic

success—and explains why those stories matter?

My attempts to answer this question led to a study in which I analyzed the expe-

riences of 23 high-achieving African American college students who were math-

ematics and engineering majors at the junior, senior, and graduate levels (McGee,

2009). I explored the students’ racial and mathematical identities as a window into

characterizing the factors that accounted for their academic resilience. These

students’ personal histories revealed their experiences in the home, school, neigh-

borhood, and workforce with a particular focus on negotiating racial incidents in

school contexts. Although all of the students in that study had encountered signif-

icant obstacles, both in school and in out-of-school contexts, they exhibited resil-

ience in navigating through the difficulties in their lives. They universally believed

in the power of their resilience to positively affect their academic achievement and

life outcomes. The study accounted for the variation in how African Americans

not only interpret but also react to the opportunity structure in mathematics and

engineering, given their interactions. The meanings that arose from that work

became indispensable for understanding the diverse strategies by which high-

achieving Black college students interpret and respond to their experiences.

As a result of my analyses, I constructed a Model for Trajectories of Resilience

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601

Ebony O. McGee

Among Successful Black Mathematics and Engineering Students, which high-

lights the interplay between defining oneself with race-based expectations (fragile

resiliency) and defining oneself through self-generated criteria (robust resiliency).

This model integrates identity, meaning making, and racial experiences in under-

standing the mathematical outcomes of Black college students (McGee, 2009).

I have continued to build on these theoretical perspectives by considering the

fragmented and continuously negotiated aspects of mathematical identity develop-

ment for Black students. I reexamined my findings about fragile and robust resil-

iency through the lens of identity, merging certain parts of the resiliency model

and refining and redefining other parts. The result is presented here as the Fragile

and Robust Mathematical Identity Framework. This framework more holistically

explores the interplay of mathematical and racial identity in the experiences of

Black college students.

The purpose of this article is to illustrate the utility and explanatory power of

the framework in narrating and problematizing stories of Black college students

in the fields of mathematics and engineering who have excelled academically

through racially tumultuous terrain. I present a brief review of the literature related

to identity, describe the Fragile and Robust Mathematical Identity Framework,

and present two cases to illustrate its explanatory power using student-based

accounts that capture the structure of fragile and robust mathematical identity.

Review of Literature on Identity Development

Researchers focusing on identity development (e.g., racial, gender, mathemat-

ical) have advanced interpretations of the student experience—how power rela-

tionships are enacted in learning spaces as well as how students interpret, inter-

nalize, and negotiate their experiences (e.g., Martin, 2013; Smith, 1998; Stewart,

2015). Many researchers studying identity subscribe to the idea that people

negotiate different identities within different contexts, and some of these

researchers have provided powerful examples of the expectations surrounding

racialized and marginalized identities (e.g., Steele, 1997; Tatum, 1997). Such

research offers detailed perspectives about how teachers’ and learners’ identities

can be enacted and shaped by participation in socially situated practices.

Mathematical Identity

Within the past 15 years, the mathematics education literature has established

the relevance of identity construction for mathematics learning and with regard to

learning outcomes (e.g., Boaler & Greeno, 2000; Cobb & Hodge, 2002; Gutierrez

& Rogoff, 2003). Some researchers have taken up the notion of identity as critical

to understanding students’ attitudes and responses toward mathematics (Boaler,

Wiliam, & Zevenbergen, 2000). The discourse in the recent mathematics education

literature addresses a number of conceptual issues, the most salient being the notion

that identity and its development cannot be understood without examining the

larger social context (Nasir & Cobb, 2002; Walker, 2012). Furthermore, there is a

recognition that identity is dynamic across situations and can be transformed from

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602 Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities

one moment to the next (Boaler & Greeno, 2000; Wood, 2013).

Althoug h this research has clarified the significance of identity-related

processes that are just as central to mathematical development as content learning,

only a small number of researchers have conducted studies on mathematical iden-

tity as it relates to African Americans (e.g., Berry, 2005; Martin, 2000, 2007; Nasir,

2000, 2002; J. A. Spencer, 2009). The number is even smaller for exploring math-

ematical identity in African American college students, who can ref lect on their

mathematics learning and participation within different academic time periods

and across crucial stages of their development (Ellington & Frederick, 2010; Jett,

2011; Noble, 2011; Stinson, 2013).

Racial Identity

Blacks in America have a history characterized by oppression and discrimina-

tion that has contributed to a unique racial and racialized identity. The role of racial

identity—that is, the extent to which societal and personal meanings of race inf lu-

ence a person’s self-concept and consequent behavior (Sellers, Caldwell,

Schmeelk-Cone, & Zimmerman, 2003)—in the lives of Black students is a

complex phenomenon. For example, Black students often face additional sources

of stress inside and outside the classroom because they often receive negative or

mixed messages about appropriate belief systems and cult ural capital (Lee,

Spencer, & Harpalani, 2003).

Racial identity is conceptualized differently for different racial and cultural

groups according to their individual beliefs (Nasir & Saxe, 2003). The

Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory (PVEST; M. B. Spencer,

2006, 2008) contributes to understanding about the diverse ways that Black

students and families cope with challenges. The PVEST model examines the

int eraction between environmental context and ident ity development and

presumes that an individual’s perceptions of his or her environment and experi-

ences are crucial to gaining an understanding of the experiences and responses of

Black students (M. B. Spencer, 2006).

African American Students’ Mathematical Identity

Recently, considerable progress has been made in understanding the mathemat-

ical identity of African American students, adding racial and cultural constructs

for analyzing students’ educational and mathematical learning experiences.

Mathematics education research has benefited from culturally and racially rele-

vant definitions of mathematical identity in unpacking the complexities of African

American students’ participation in mathematics. Martin (2000, 2006, 2009, 2013)

has published extensively on issues related to African American learners (children,

adolescents, college students) and parents, exploring the role of what it means to

be Black and a doer of mathematics and the intersectionality of mathematics and

racial identities. His work has taken into account the historical legacy of racism

and the continuing segregation and discrimination of African Americans and how

these experiences contribute to a collective identity of what it means to be Black.

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603

Ebony O. McGee

Martin (e.g., Martin, 2006; Martin & McGee, 2009) and others (e.g., Gutiérrez,

2008; McGee, 2009; Stinson, 2013) have advanced the assertion that mathematics

learning and participation can be conceptualized as racialized forms of experi-

ence. This perspective suggests that the meanings for race are very salient in

structuring mathematical experiences and opportunities and just as relevant in

shaping common-sense beliefs and official knowledge about who is competent (or

not) in mathematics. Although negative outcomes in mathematics education

among Black students are sometimes incorrectly attributed to race (as biology),

Martin’s work discussed above demonstrates the racialized nature of students’

mathematical experiences that most profoundly inf luences these outcomes.

Much has been gained from research and theoretical frameworks geared toward

better understanding of the mathematical identity development of African

American students. The intricate ways that mathematical identity intersects with

racialized experiences can serve as a guide for interpreting the mathematical and

racial experiences of Black students. However, the current framings of mathemat-

ical identity and its development do not present a comprehensive conceptualization

of the ways in which the racialized experiences of Black students may have an

impact on the development of their mathematical identities. Moreover, current

frameworks do not capture how high-achieving students’ may react to racial threats

on their mathematical identities. The duality of mathematical experiences for

African Americans is important because it offers insights into the subtle mecha-

nisms of how being raced and stereotyped cause added stress for many high-

achieving Black students who must expend extra emotional energy in order to

succeed in the spaces they inhabit. Understanding the developmentally and racially

sensitive nature of mathematical identity is crucial to unpacking critical turning

points in African American students’ mathematical academic and career trajecto-

ries. The framework presented in this article is an attempt to operationalize these

constructs with regard to the mathematical identity development of Black students.

Fragile and Robust Mathematical Identity Framework

The racialized experiences that high-achieving Black college students face in the

mathematics classroom can be described through the lens of fragile and robust

mathematical identity. Mathematical identities are coconstructed and renegotiated

around a number of factors, including the frequency of racialized events within and

beyond the mathematics classroom and the intensity of these events across a wide

set of situations. Thus, mathematical identity is fluid, continuous, dynamic, and at

times situationally dependent. How students make meaning of their environments

is critically important in addressing the experiences that they endure, which adds

another layer of description and understanding to their decision-making.

Motivations to succeed in mathematics within this framing include proving one’s

mathematical talents, and these motivations can be operationalized by negotiating

racialized experiences, which affect one’s dispositions connected with mathematics

accomplishment. However, repeated negative racialized experiences can produce

unhealthy consequences, even while academic scores remain high.

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604 Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities

The Fragile and Robust Mathematical Identity Framework attempts to explain

the complex experiences many African American students undergo, including

intersections with racial stereotyping, mathematics interactions, agency, resilience,

and passion for mathematics as well as learning how to play the game and feeling

heavily conflicted about it. In this framework, the term fragile is defined as the

delicate and vulnerable relationship between Black students’ mathematics success

and the persistent racialization they endure in their discipline. The term robust is

defined as the strength and agency that students develop in spite of their racializa-

tion to maintain self-motivated mathematics success. The three components of

fragile and robust mathematical identity are (a) central motivations to succeed in

mathematics, (b) the use of coping strategies in response to students’ racialized

mathematical experiences, and (c) dispositions associated with one’s successful

outcomes in mathematics. During specific time periods, mathematical identities

are either mostly fragile or mostly robust, and those labels became useful in

unpacking the actions and motivations behind the mathematical experiences.

Below, I describe each component in more depth.

Motivations to Succeed: Defending Versus Defining Oneself

The first component of the framework captures the shift between defending oneself

against stereotypes and other forms of bias and defining oneself according to criteria

that are purposefully self-generated (see Figure 1). In some cases, mathematics

achievement is framed as a preemptive defense strategy against potential and realized

racial bias (McGee & Martin, 2011a). As a result of being frequently stereotyped,

Figure 1. The three components of the Fragile and Robust Mathematical Identity

Framework: (a) motivations to succeed: defending versus defining oneself, (b) coping

strategies: reactive versus stable responses, and (c) dispositions associated with success:

external versus internal focus.

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605

Ebony O. McGee

subtly ridiculed, and racially discriminated against, some individuals express an

unyielding desire to excel in mathematics in order to disprove those who doubt their

mathematical abilities or hold a deficit perspective of Black students. Others harbor

a sense of obligation to meet the expectations of parents who want to substantiate the

mathematical and intellectual worth of their children through mathematics success.

Some students report a weariness that comes from having to constantly prove

oneself as worthy and competent. This emotion is often coupled with a deeper

appreciation of mathematics that fuels different incentives, prompting one to seek

out people, events, and organizations in which mathematical identities are

affirming and encouraging. This is an intentional shift in one’s energies from

proving oneself to teachers, professors, peers, and important others (e.g., intern-

ship employers, lab instructors, school administrators) to honoring one’s mathe-

matical identities in ways that bring happiness and fulfillment. This shift encom-

passes self-discovery and self-definition based on like-minded people, spaces, and

places and often includes the presence of mentors, other academically talented

students, and community and college organizations.

Coping Strategies: Reactive Versus Stable Responses

The second component of fragile and robust mathematical identity involves coping

with racially unsettling situations within one’s mathematical experiences. These

situations produce two central ways of coping: reacting in the moment or using clever

and well-developed responses. Reactive coping responses happen mainly after a

jarringly or surprisingly negative incident in the mathematics classroom. For

example, a mathematics professor tells a student on the first day of class that his

office hours were “made for students like you,” and the student temporarily stops

attending classes. Racial stereotypes and other forms of bias can be unpredictable

and are often met with reactions that range from contempt to sadness and depression.

Responding to subtle and overt forms of racism with anger sometimes exacerbates

already tense situations, can lead to unhealthy outcomes, and may increase personal

trauma (Chao, Mallinckrodt, & Wei, 2012; McGee & Martin, 2011a; McGee &

Spencer, 2014). Feeling hurt by stereotypes without having adequate outlets for relief

and understanding may produce temporary and volatile responses.

With time and maturity, one’s mathematical identity can become more robust

as more stable coping strategies are developed—strategies that do not entail simply

reacting to negative situations but instead involve clever, more sophisticated

retorts to counter racist assumptions. Unsatisfied with reacting in the moment,

students learn how to adapt in negative environments, which drives the formation

of a strategic set of skills that offer some protection against instances of overt and

subtle forms of racism. This strategic skill set allows students to sustain greater

emotional stability while minimizing the anxiety and drain associated with their

previous in-the-moment responses. After testing, fine-tuning, and refining these

response effects, students decide that their time and energy could be better used

working in positive and proactive spaces in which emotional safety and solace is

commonplace. Such coping strategies help minimize the impact of racism, sexism,

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606 Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities

and other forms of marginalization in racialized classrooms. These stable reactions

assist in sustaining mathematics achievements and appear to lessen the injury to

one’s racial and mathematical identities.

Dispositions Associated with Success: External Versus Internal Focus

The third component of the framework characterizes success in mathematics as

shif ting from bittersweet and externally driven to affirming and internally

fulfilling. One’s initial mathematics successes are frequently defined as bitter-

sweet because the drive to excel in the standard forms of mathematics achievement

(e.g., teacher and peer acceptance, test scores, correct mathematics homework and

in-class paperwork, or other mainstream measures of achievement) is motivated

by proving one’s intellectual capacities but not necessarily because of a strong

affinity for the subject itself. External proof from peers, teachers, school admin-

istration, and significant others is often the primary reason for sustaining high

achievement in mathematics. Being perceived as smart and capable of learning

and doing well in mathematics is an unrelenting promoter, causing students to

strive to achieve, almost to the point of obsession. One does not have to believe

the negative expectations that are presented and may even adamantly reject them,

but at the same time, one is driven to dispel stereotypes that situate one’s expecta-

tions of success as minimal.

When shifting from an external to internal affirmation for learning, one’s deci-

sions to succeed in mathematics are based on reasons associated with one’s affinity

with the discipline and one’s own self-satisfaction. Becoming more aware of racial

stereotypes, racism, and other forms of discrimination may lead one to recognize

the futility of attempting to rid society of low expectations for African American

students and to choose instead to serve as a role model for younger students, who

are likely to face the same racialized challenges in future mathematics classrooms.

A robust mathematical identity partially shields one from other people’s judg-

ments, thereby allowing one to maintain positive attitudes and behaviors. This

form of mathematical identity is framed as robust because mathematics achieve-

ment that is internally motivated and supplemented by emotionally healthy

networks is self-affirming and sustainable.

Descriptive Illustration of the Fragile and

Robust Mathematical Identity Framework

To i ll us tra te t he exp la nat or y pow er of t he Fr ag i le and Rob us t M at he ma ti ca l

Identity Framework, I share the stories of two African American students, partici-

pants in the McGee (2009) study, who characterized their learning experiences as

racialized. My goal is to present a nuanced understanding of mathematics success

in racially discriminatory spaces. Through the lens of this framework, I sought to

examine the development of mathematical identity for these high-achieving students

and to identify the approaches they adopted, created, or negotiated to maintain their

high achievement outcomes despite their racialized experiences. Also, I wanted to

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607

Ebony O. McGee

understand how these students made meaning of the racial bias in their mathematics

participation over the course of their schooling, including the K–12 years.

Method

Using extant data from McGee (2009), I conducted a comprehensive examina-

tion of the 23 African American college students who participated in that study.

Data had been collected within the students’ personal contexts, which included

their own language and cultural niches (Rubin & Rubin, 2012). I used McAdams’s

(2008) life-story interview process as a way of gathering details about the inf lu-

ences at various stages of their lives and mathematical development. For example,

each student provided an overview of the main “chapters” of his or her life as a

mathematics learner, including a summary and title for each chapter. Students

described particular and significant mathematics events, including a high point,

a low point, and a turning point. They interpreted racialized experiences and

explained where these experiences fit into the context of their overall life story.

Finally, they described where their story might be going (i.e., future chapters). The

students also provided details about their personal ideologies, including self-

description, religious beliefs, political values, and the tenets that guide their life.

A phenomenological interpretation of those data allowed me to paint a broad

picture of the students’ lives and experiences in their homes, schools, neighbor-

hoods, and college settings. Findings from these analyses are reported elsewhere

(McGee, 2013a; McGee & Martin, 2011a, 2011b; McGee & Spencer, 2012, 2014).

Participants

In this article, I showcase the experiences of only two students, Tinesha and

Rob. The choice for focusing on Tinesha and Rob was largely due to the encom-

passing ways in which their interviews most poignantly captured the findings of

the other 21 interviewees. Tinesha attended Medium University,2 a public institu-

tion located in a large city in the Midwest that serves the local population. It is

primarily a commuter campus and has about 25,000 students. About 90% of

Medium’s students are residents of the state. Tinesha completed her Master’s

degree in bioengineering and completed her first year as a graduate student in

mathematics education at a Midwestern university. Tinesha narrated many of the

gender issues that the other females in the study endured. Rob attended Soho

University, which is also located in a large Midwestern city. It serves a large inter-

national student and faculty population and caters to science, technology, engi-

neering, and mathematics (STEM) students. Rob graduated with his PhD in

applied mathematics and joined the faculty of a predominantly Black university

in a Midwestern city. Rob was raised in two different types of neighborhoods, one

racially mixed and the other predominantly Black, and he provided in-depth

counterstories of these two starkly dissimilar environments. Both students had

accumulated significant life experience as African American adults, which

2 Pseudonyms are used for institutions and participants.

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608 Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities

allowed them to articulate and challenge conventional stereotypes about African

American students in mathematics and engineering.

Additionally, the quality and extent of the interview data collected for Tinesha

and Rob increased the trustworthiness of my interpretations of their mathematical

identities, including a thorough account of crucial time periods during their

academic lives. Tinesha and Rob were interviewed for a total of 259 minutes (over

the span of 21 months) and 220 minutes (over the span of 17 months), respectively.

They performed member checks on two of their three interviews, which allowed

them to check their statements for accuracy and intended meaning (both declined

the offer to review their final interview).

Data and Analysis

I analyzed the accounts of Rob and Tinesha through the lens of the three compo-

nents of the Fragile and Robust Mathematical Identity Framework. I identified

incidents (which I refer to as scenes) in the written transcripts of the interviews

that described important life experiences related to “being Black” and being a high

achiever in mathematics or engineering, that referred to the positive and negative

experiences in their stories, that revealed the host of challenges they faced, or that

indicated how they managed the various and complex forms of racialization they

had encountered. Multiple scenes pertained to each component of the framework,

and some scenes related to more than one component.

I drew on the PVEST model during my analysis by coding data with the partic-

ular goal of unpacking the participants’ risk and protective factors. For example,

I identified patterns of coping and resiliency (or lack thereof) that students devel-

oped over time (M. B. Spencer, 2008). I highlighted the students’ vulnerabilities,

pliability, and challenges (as identified by risk factors) as well as supports (as

identified by protective factors) in their social and academic lives. The students

themselves had identified these risk and protective factors based on their indi-

vidual perceptions and meaning making (cf. M. B. Spencer, 2006).

All data were analyzed using a constant comparative method from an interpre-

tivist stance (Suddaby, 2006). An interpretivist framework emphasizes the

significance of context and the multiple ways in which students form meanings.

The initial coding step involved open coding of words that appeared numerous

times in the transcripts. Next, open codes were grouped into axial codes. Axial

coding involved linking the open codes together. In the final step, selective coding,

explicated themes were developed and compared. Table 1 presents a sample of the

coding architecture for Tinesha and Rob at two distinct time periods, K–12

schooling experiences and college experiences. As a result of this analysis, for

each component of the Fragile and Robust Mathematical Identity Framework, I

identified a complex pattern of behaviors, characteristics, opportunities, and

barriers that supported the development of the students’ mathematical identities.

A senior colleague reviewed and critiqued my ongoing analyses in monthly

meetings. These interactions prompted multiple iterations of the codes and themes

and helped me identify core consistencies and meanings. This same colleague

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609

Ebony O. McGee

provided an additional layer of scrutiny and offered perspectives that challenged

some of my initial assumptions. The dialogue that arose from our meetings enabled

the refinement of my analysis of the fragile and robust mathematical identities for

Tinesha and Rob.

Positionality and Subjectivity of the Researcher

In formulating my own perspectives in this study, I juxtaposed my academic

and research background with my experience as a teacher of Black and Latino

students. Studying those learners requires an acknowledgment and discussion of

my own positionality and subjectivity. As Peshkin (1988) proclaimed, “One’s

subjectivity is like a garment that cannot be removed” (p. 17). With Peshkin’s quote

in mind, I confess that my research has been influenced by critical race theory,

which has helped me recognize that power, privilege, race, class, and sexual

oppression are at the root of many of the academic barriers these students face,

and the devaluation of humanity based on race. Thus, I made a conscious commit-

ment to perform this research from a race-conscious perspective, to examine how

being racialized operates in the mathematics classroom, and to challenge the status

quo by giving voice to the participants through their narratives.

I self-identify as a Black woman and a mother. Having endured the challenges

associated with being Black, female, and a “doer of mathematics” (Martin, 2006),

I have discovered that my experiences are similar to those of the students I research

and teach. Thus, I am sensitive to the struggles that are common to the African

American experience in U.S. society and to experiences in the mathematics field

in particular. However, because I was educated in an undergraduate mathematics-

intensive program more than 20 years ago, my experience and achievement in

mathematics differ from those of the participants in this study. Therefore, I

remained mindful of the participants’ more current perspectives and of the ever-

changing ways that race is constructed in the mathematics classroom.

Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identity:

Illustrated Through the Experiences of Tinesha and Rob

To demonstrate the components of this framework most effectively, I extracted

direct quotes from both Rob’s and Tinesha’s interviews that expressed their

thoughts and how they made meaning within each component of the framework.

Brief Background

Tinesha grew up in a low-income, “all-Black community (except for the owners

of gas stations and convenience stores)” that she described as a “Blackout,”

meaning mostly Black residents and culture. She attended predominantly Black

elementary and high schools and described her transition to college as turbulent.

Tinesha was considered a minority in a number of different but overlapping

contexts: She was a racial minority on campus and in her discipline as well as one

of the few women in her discipline. In contrast, as a Black student, Tinesha was a

racial majority in her first college mathematics class because—despite graduating

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610 Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities

Table 1

Tinesha’s and Rob’s Fragile and Robust Mathematical Identity Codes From

Two Broad Developmental Schooling Timeframes

Fragile Mathematical Identity Robust Mathematical Identity

Tinesha

(K–12

years)

Frequent moving/changing of

schools

Attended underresourced

urban schools

Bullied for “always being the

new kid” at school

Mother’s ailing health

increased Tinesha’s

responsibilities to care for

her younger brothers and

sisters

Motivated to lear n

mathematics to retain

the “smart” and “talented”

label

Being educated in a series of

deprived neighborhoods

Being raised in city housing projects

(provided close proximity to other

family members)

Multigenerational Sunday dinners,

where all the family gathered in

her grand mother’s small apartment

and celebrated life and family

togetherness

Being classified as a smart student,

especially in mathematics, opened

up many scholastic opportunities

Self-defined as naturally good in

mathematics

Close bond with brothers and sisters

who supported one another

Gained resilience from mother’s

perseverance in difficult times

Negotiated being the teacher’s pet

Attended predominately Black K–12

schools

Rob

(K–12

years)

Motivated to lear n

mathematics to prove

stereotypes wrong

Possessed an externally

driven determination to

prove his intellectual

abilities

Dark skin tone

Heightened sense of class

inequities as lower to

lower-middle SES in an

upper SES community

Attending an elementary

school with large number

of White and Asian

students

Angered over being rejected

as “very smart” in some

mathematics classes

Tough love from mother

A smart and competitive younger

brother

A self-determination to prove his

intellectual abilities

High quality out-of-school

mathematics teachers

Not looking visibly African American

Frequent receiver of praise for

mathematics skills

Rich mathematics content knowledge

from an international home

mathematics library

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611

Ebony O. McGee

Tinesha

(college

years)

Despair associated with being

placed in a pre-freshman

level remedial mathe-

matics course

Racialized stress from lab and

classroom situations

Temporarily avoided

attendance in classes in

which racial stereotypes

were active and undis-

puted by faculty and peers

Not communicating with

friends and family

members, after

experiencing a racialized

incident

Experienced racial shock over

some African-born

students not wanting to

associate with Black

American-born

students—brief dis-

engagement from school

activities

Rising confidence in mathematics

ability

Increased academic capital and

savviness in navigating the college

environment

Motivated to succeed in mathematics

college and career trajectories to

mentor Black and Brown youths

and start business (incor poration of

more self-defined strategies)

Participation in National Society of

Black Engineers and the Black

Student Union (incorporation of

more self-defined strategies)

Rob

(college

years)

Feelings of self-doubt

associated with his atten-

dance at a prestigious

STEM college institution

Disturbed by the legacy of

racism that persists in

many mathematics envi-

ronments

Being mistaken for being

“non-Black” exposed

heightened experiences

with racist ideologies

Feelings of helplessness in

the plight of teaching

mathematics to Black chil-

dren

Adoption of behaviors consid-

ered “smart” by main-

stream society (e.g.,

wearing nonprescription

glasses, nodding exces-

sively in class), which

created identity sacrifices

Great pride in being a mathematical

high achiever (self described cocki-

ness)

Use of racial comedy to cope with

being the victim of racist and

colorist stereotypes

Motivated to succeed in mathematics

college and career trajectories to

mentor Black and Brown youths

(incorporation of more self-defined

strategies)

Motivated to lear n mathematics to

become “that Black math teacher”

(incorporation of more self-defined

strategies)

Provided mathematics teaching and

tutoring at a predominantly Black

high school

Use of news satire as a coping mecha-

nism

Marveled over the ridiculousness

associated with witnessing racial

stereotypes in mathematics contexts

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612 Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities

at the top of her high school class and getting all As in mathematics—she tested

into a remedial mathematics course in which her classmates were primarily

African American and Latino.

Rob lived in a community that was cited as one of the most diverse neighbor-

hoods in the world (Mayfield, Hellwig, & Banks, 1999), although in his words it

was “cleverly disguised to perpetuate shrewd racial and even shrewder class

divisions.” He realized from a very early age that the stereotype that Blacks are

less intelligent than Whites prevailed in his school. He made a conscious and

deliberate choice to do well in mathematics to prove those stereotypes wrong.

Rob sadly remembers feeling intellectually berated and psychologically disem-

powered the day he came home from third grade and asked his mother, “Why are

all the White kids smart and all the Black kids dumb?” The reality of low expec-

tations and racial bias followed him through his high school experiences and did

not disappear, even when he won a coveted college scholarship to a prestigious

university known for producing world-class mathematicians.

Although Tinesha and Rob were successful in mathematics, their fragile math-

ematical identity motivations were driven by other people’s expectations. These

expectations stemmed either from their parents’ belief that mathematics achieve-

ment was one of the only ways to obtain a career and financial security or from

their need to defend themselves against the negative racial stereotype that Blacks

could not succeed in mathematics. They handled their stress and anxiety about

the perception and reality of lowered expectations by defending themselves

against racially biased ideologies through their academic achievements. This

resulted in encounters that included constant worry to the point of obsession about

negative stereotypes and temporary feelings of helplessness.

Defending Versus Defining Oneself

At first glance, meeting their parents’ expectations may appear to have been a

positive inf luence (robust) on the two students’ mathematics aspirations. Family

leaders—whether they are parents or guardians, married or single, or extended

family members—can assist in empowering Black students to be resistant to

academic failure and resilient for success (McGee & Spencer, 2015). However,

Rob described his mother’s motivations as being couched within the deteriorating

status of Black males and his probable lack of other options for achieving life

security. The message that Tinesha got from her mother was that mathematics

was the family’s ticket out of her low-income neighborhood in which over 80%

of families were living below the federal poverty line. Neither participant

mentioned that their parents advised them to establish an affinity for the subject

or encouraged them to follow their academic passions. Tinesha and Rob attested

to mastering mathematics initially because they felt they lacked other options. In

their home communities, there were few Black women and men gainf ully

employed in jobs requiring a college education, and their parents saw their math-

ematics achievement as a way out of those desperate conditions.

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Rob recalled that soon after his parents divorced, his mother was explicit about

the future of her two young male children:

My parents were divorced, and my mom let me know from day one that we were poor

and the only thing that we had going for us—I’m sorry—was our smarts and that we

better get smart fast.

Rob credits his mom’s candor for his early motivation and subsequent agency

to succeed in mathematics, but she also gave Rob the impression that his options

were very limited. Rob said that his mother’s ideology situated academic attain-

ment as their only way up the economic and social ladders.

For Tinesha, growing up in a predominantly Black neighborhood and being a high

achiever granted many extrinsic benefits, such as being assumed smart by teachers,

increased school leadership, and summer job opportunities. However, her reasons

to succeed in mathematics were fueled by fear that the high expectations of her

teachers could diminish with one “bad” grade. Tinesha’s narrative illuminates the

fragility of her success against the fear of potentially being perceived as a failure.

The transition to college produced new forms of racial insecurity. Tinesha felt a sense

of obligation to prove that she was worthy to teachers, peers, parents, and school

personnel of “just being there.” She explained further:

I came to realize, like, these people [college administrators, teachers, and her peers]

don’t expect too much of me in this class and so I’ve always had kind of like this idea,

even when I was younger, like elementary school, like if you tell me that I can’t do

something then I want to prove to you that I can.

As illustrated above, Tinesha and Rob were initially motivated by other people’s

expectations in their drive to be successful in mathematics, which is characteristic

of a fragile mathematical identity. Whether their parents expected them to gain

mathematical competencies as a way out of financial despair or to prove lowered

expectations wrong, their ambitions were not built or persevered from within.

However, over the course of their K–12 years, their mathematical identities became

more robust and appeared to align with intrinsic motivation and realistic self-

appraisal, which guided their behaviors and reflections on their mathematical expe-

riences. This was accompanied by a healthier understanding and appreciation of their

racial or ethnic identities. These factors seemed to create new forms of protection.

Rob’s reasons for seeking success in mathematics shifted from proving his

intelligence to “doing mathematics ’cause it makes me happy.” He attested to

performing mathematical tasks “just for the fun of it.” Rob admitted that over time

his peers and professors did not really question his mathematical astuteness, but

“jokes” that were denigrating and discriminatory comments plagued his graduate

school experiences. For example, his applied mathematics professor asked him if

he knew any “good cleaning ladies or maybe one of your relatives might be in a

need of a job,” and Rob responded, “All my family members have master degrees

and know how to clean their own houses.” Rob expressed a sense of despair that

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614 Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities

his mathematics professor, whom he worked with extensively, would reduce the

women in his family to stereotypical roles of Black womanhood. Rob concluded

that as long as his intellectual competence was not questioned, he could “put up

with smart fools making racially stupid assumptions.”

Tinesha’s determination for continuing to pursue engineering and mathematics

education shifted from her fear of potential failure to her commitment to teaching

and the love she has for herself as a Black person. Her keen awareness of the

realities of the racism and racial discrimination that exist for aspiring Black math-

ematics students comes from her own experience as well as the continuing struggle

that she witnesses in teaching mathematics to Black and Latino youths. Tinesha

is committed to using her engineering and mathematical abilities toward the

improvement of her family, neighborhood, and the Black community at large.

At different points during their undergraduate programs, Tinesha and Rob

decided that using their energy to try to rid the education system of stereotypes

and other forms of bias was not the best use of their time, and they opted for more

affirming conditions for achieving success. They gravitated toward friendships

and faculty associations that supported a more robust mathematical identity and

validated their high achievement, as well as other important facets of their identi-

ties (e.g., race, gender). Both students became learners of Black history and

acquired a broad grasp of the African diaspora. For Rob, this translated into

healthier strategies to endure racism and color bias. For Tinesha, through learning

about the mathematics and science achievements of her ancestors, she developed

a sense of pride that bolstered her determination to complete her engineering and

entrepreneurship career trajectory.

Reactive Versus Stable Responses

Although Tinesha and Rob negotiated spaces that assaulted their identities, their

reactions to the biases they experienced in those spaces oscillated bet ween

unstable, in-the-moment reactions to more stable and confident reactions. When

their mathematical identities were more fragile, they responded to the shock of

being perceived as inferior with in-the-moment and emotionally draining reac-

tions. These experiences and situations challenged their academic well-being,

resulting in emotionally charged coping reactions that sometimes led to academ-

ically hurtful but impermanent responses. When Rob was in the sixth grade, his

mathematics teacher always placed him at the second highest mathematics table

(she tracked her students within the classroom by students who sat at one of five

tables), and when Rob complained that he more than deserved to be at the highest

table (occupied by White and Asian students), she refused. When Rob continued

to complain, his mathematics teacher sent him to the principal’s office because he

had been, in the teacher’s words, “pissed about it.” Rob was “pissed” that this

teacher assumed that he was not capable of being at the highest mathematics table

in spite of his persistently high mathematics grades. Rob eventually got so mad

that he walked out of the classroom with a purposeful male bravado, flinging his

arms and stomping his feet, in hopes that he would scare his teacher. He did just

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615

Ebony O. McGee

that, and Rob was banned from his mathematics teachers’ classroom for several

days until his mother threatened the principal with legal action. Rob reported that

he felt conf licted about the outcome: He missed out on having almost perfect test

and homework scores, but he was somewhat proud of himself for standing up to his

racist, White mathematics teacher. He recalled several other early school experiences

in which he reacted in ways that protected his mathematical identity from being a

target of threat but ultimately resulted in temporary academic setbacks or harm to

his psyche. As Rob’s understanding of bias and discrimination increased, he learned

to respond more cleverly to situations in which his intellectual abilities were

degraded. Thus, his emergent mathematical identity, which included more stable

responses to racism, actually took shape as he encountered more variations of bias,

and he developed strategies to react with sarcasm and humor.

In Tinesha’s Calculus III class, the professor began class one day by asking

students a series of questions. Tinesha answered several of his questions correctly,

and the teacher, with an amazed look on his face, exclaimed, “Wow, that’s right.

And Tinesha, no one helped you with the answer?” Tinesha shook her head no and

held back her tears and embarrassment until the class had ended. Tinesha did not

attend that class again for a week, which did have a negative impact on her achieve-

ment in the class, albeit temporarily.

In reflecting on these experiences, Rob and Tinesha both felt that they had a

right to be upset over such incidents, but they also felt that they could have handled

them in ways that did not negatively affect their academic outcomes. However,

both students expressed hurt, anger, and disbelief over being targets of bias and

stigma. Although Rob was in sixth grade and Tinesha was in her third year of

college when these incidents took place, both students reacted with genuine frus-

tration and felt that their academic experiences were tainted by unfairness. Rob

and Tinesha were unified in the assurance that acts of racism would always hurt,

no matter how sophisticated the strategies they used to minimize their force, even

as they perfected more adaptive ways of coping (hooks, 1996).

Tinesha’s college experiences created new racial wounds that began to heal over

time, and after much internal turmoil, she directed her time and energy toward

repairing her damaged mathematical identity. For example, both Tinesha and Rob

joined organizations that celebrated the brilliance of Black STEM students or

organizations that honored STEM achievement (McGee, 2013a). When confronted

with negative covert and overt forms of racism, they developed and borrowed

sophisticated methods of dealing with stigma and bias. For example, Tinesha

walked into the first day of mathematics and engineering classes with her book

prominently displayed, and she purposefully left her A+ calculus test on her desk

for all the class to see. Rob frequently wore shirts that had racialized logos on

them, such as “Danger: Educated Black Man”; he embraced racialized comedy

(e.g., Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, the satirical publication The Onion) to provide

stress relief and find solace in shared experiences of marginalization. Rob recalled

shifting from being obsessed with pleasing his teachers to caring about “how to

love mathematics for my own self-worth and not other peoples’ expectations.”

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616 Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities

Most important, both students appeared to benefit greatly from having a better

appreciation of their own mathematics capabilities, realizing that their talents and

abilities were greater than the stereotypes that agitated them.

Tinesha found a great deal of enjoyment in her lab experiences and research

internships. She revealed that learning how to cope with stereotypes at Medium

University helped her deal with racialized encounters in her work-related research

positions. Tinesha admitted to “letting too many snide remarks slide” from some

of her research colleagues and suggested that some of the “drama” may well have

fallen within normal hazing of new employees. She concluded:

I love my research and I know I deserve to be doing this work. Sometimes the others

in lab the will ask me one of those “What is it like to be Black” questions, like “How

did it feel to live around gang-bangers?” Then I asked them, “Well, how did it feel to

be privileged and not really struggle for anything?” That shuts them down fairly

quickly. But I always continue to talk with them as if we did not just insult each other

and that actually helps to smooth things over for the most part. But there are always

a couple [of her colleagues] that wouldn’t give me the time of day.

This excerpt shows that Tinesha had developed a sophisticated and clever strategy of

trading stereotypes to show how both parties’ experiences could be misrepresented.

Tinesha’s and Rob’s robust mathematical identities provided space to operate

from a position of strength rather than being drained by the force and intensity of

their efforts to demonstrate their intelligence. Racialized experiences were still

present in their lives, but the ways in which they responded to stereotypes were

less detrimental to their psyches and more reflective of how “being raced” works

in academic and workplace settings.

Rob and Tinesha made it clear, however, that even as they became better at

dealing with multiple forms of racial bias, it was still emotionally and mentally

draining. With experience, they were able to create a mixture of strategies to

minimize the psychological damage associated with being a high achiever in a

field in which negative racial stereotypes exist. Described in more detail elsewhere

(McGee & Martin, 2011b), these strategies successfully protected their mathe-

matics (and scholastic) achievements but had negative effects on their emotional

stability. Self-efficacy was certainly in play when Rob and Tinesha used their

judgment to shape their beliefs and capabilities to control the narrative of their

mathematics achievements. As they sought to protect their multiple selves (mental,

emotional, and academic), another set of characteristics began to evolve that

included positive yet realistic self-appraisal.

Rob protected his robust mathematical identity by dropping out of a prestigious

STEM postsecondary institution because he constantly felt the burden of being

perceived as an “affirmative action student.” It might appear that dropping out of

an elite college was an unhealthy reaction until one grasps Rob’s reasoning:

I really thought that I got in because of affirmative action. This experience of self-

doubt revolved around race. And I said to myself, “This is very depressing.” I dropped

out of Science Tech [his initial college before eventually attending Soho University].

I was a smart boy, near genius, but I felt out of place.

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Ebony O. McGee

Rob reacted to his perceived “affirmative action” status by initially buying into

the notion that affirmative action was his main reason for being at Science Tech.

He decided that internalizing this stereotype day in and day out was slowly chip-

ping away at his mathematical and racial identities. To escape this daily ordeal, he

left the school and enrolled in Soho, a less prestigious STEM-intensive institution

located within a racially diverse city, where his mathematics and racial identity

thrived.

To maintain their robust mathematical identities outside the classroom, Tinesha

and Rob gravitated toward organizations and people that embraced their intel-

lectual and racial identities. Tinesha sought out activities, mostly involving

African Americans, in which she could build strength and find comfort and

support (e.g., Black Student Union, neo-soul poetry sets, tutoring Black and Latino

youths in mathematics). She also incorporated more self-satisfying and affirming

experiences to counter, and in some cases diminish, her reactive experiences, such

as taking several courses with the same professors to avoid having to prove her

talents to unfamiliar faculty. Rob and Tinesha both used these strategies, and they

ultimately persevered in moments of challenge and conf lict, which seemed to

make the difference in their maintaining success and feeling good about it (and

about themselves).

Outcomes: External (Bittersweet) Versus Internal (Affirming)

Tinesha and Rob had high levels of achievement in mathematics and engi-

neering, regardless of whether they were operating primarily from a fragile or

robust mathematical identity, but how they felt about their accomplishments was

different. Rob’s and Tinesha’s high mathematics achievement did not overshadow

the continuing challenges that they faced, including being treated unfairly. During

particularly fragile times, they sought mathematics success for external reasons,

most often to prove their ability to a teacher, to a peer, or, more generally, to our

biased society. They felt that their mathematics success was tempered by contin-

ually being devalued by an educational system that constantly seemed to demand

proof of their competence. They also were driven to excel to earn praise from

teachers and peers, meet parental expectations, earn high test scores, and garner

other mainstream measures of achievement, but they rarely spoke of feeling any

satisfaction from their achievements. In other words, Rob’s and Tinesha’s former

definitions of success in mathematics were largely marked by the acceptance they

sought, acknowledgment that they were smart and capable of learning and doing

well in mathematics.

In Rob’s K–12 schooling, he made a conscious decision to excel in mathematics

as a strategy to showcase his intelligence. Although Rob said some of his success

was a result of “awesome competency and aptitude” in mathematics, he constantly

felt the pressure to maintain a smart persona. The victory of excelling in mathe-

matics was tempered by the notion that he was compelled to contend with insidious

negative stereotypes about Blacks achieving in mathematics, which at times

overshadowed his mathematical talents.

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618 Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities

I realized early on that in fact getting good at math was really about showing I was

smart. So the thing is, that’s why I decided to get good at it, quite consciously. But the

fact of the matter is, I know I have to always be on point because I understand that

some people think that Black people are stupid at math. That’s it.

After proving his mathematical talents by earning three master’s degrees and a

PhD in applied mathematics, he fears for his African American students who will

have to carry the torch of presumed mathematical inferiority.

Tinesha’s initial success in the undergraduate bioengineering program was in

part positioned as a defense against negative racial stereotypes. As the only Black

student in many of her engineering classes, her desire was a simple one:

I wanted these people in this class to know that I might be the only Black person here

but I’m certainly not the dumbest. Because I get the constant feeling that they [professor

and peers] did not think I belong there. And if you ask me for instances, I can give you

a couple, but more really, it’s the looks they give me. I know I’m not crazy. And [I] see

them looking at me and they are saying, “You don’t really belong here.”

Tinesha and Rob did not believe or accept the negative stigmas that persisted;

nevertheless, they were driven to dispel those expectations. Their academic

successes were not as fulfilling as they expected, largely because of their anticipa-

tion of the next experience of being mathematically devalued.

As Tinesha and Rob drew on their passion for mathematics as a motivation for

learning, their mathematical identities shifted toward being more robust. Rob and

Tinesha spoke of falling in love, or at least “strong like,” with mathematics and

engineering, and they saw these fields as avenues for teaching and mentoring

younger students and helping them develop their passions. They also placed a great

deal of emphasis on a responsibility to serve underrepresented students and greater

dedication to their communities. Mathematics changed from a way for them to

demonstrate their intelligence to a tool for understanding, knowing, and serving

the world or their communities. Thus, they appeared to have internalized pride in

their mathematics accomplishments and found mathematics self-gratifying.

Rob, now a mathematics professor at a predominantly Black university, realizes

that his presence alone represents much more than just being a content-rich math-

ematics teacher. Rob intentionally sought out his school as a place where he could

carve out a greater purpose for his mathematical talents:

If I want to be effective in my subject, I actually need to teach in a predominantly

African American institution. And in fact, I mean, I really wasn’t that excited about

being a professor anymore, I was just getting this PhD just to get it. In other words,

maybe you detected some of that initial frustration, I did not expect to get that job

[assistant professor of mathematics at a predominantly African American university].

If I hadn’t gotten that job, I really wasn’t excited about teaching anywhere. You know,

I’m a good teacher, but if my teaching isn’t integrated with my sort of social justice,

I’m actually not that excited about it. I like math and I’m excited about math. But in

the back of my mind, I’m always just like, you know, like the reverend says, if not

me, who? If not now, when? Someone’s got to do this, and I think I’m prepared to do

it [teach mathematics to Black college students].

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Rob readily identified teaching mathematics to Black students as part of his

motivation to teach. At the time of my interviews, Rob’s mathematical identity

appeared confidently robust and was connected with his desire to fight for educa-

tional equity and justice for Black students, armed with a thirst for mathematics

and the knowledge that critical mathematics access and education can change the

conditions of his students’ lives. Rob is still deeply troubled by high-achieving

Black students’ lack of confidence, and he wants to create a “competition-

crushing” all-Black high school and college math team:

Being good in mathematics is like being an athlete, an Olympic athlete. My goal [is]

to create an all-Black math team. Just like [the one] I had—minus the White kids. . .

. Someone’s got to do this, and I think I’m prepared to do it. As a college teacher or

as a high school teacher, I have got to undo years of neglect from stupid teachers. I

mean, some of these kids think that they are beat before you get started.

Rob had benefited from being a member of a math club for most of his high school

career. Even though his high school was about 75% Black and 18% White, his high

school math team was mostly White and Asian. Rob is determined to serve as a

role model for Black students and to inf luence their beliefs that they are fully

capable of succeeding in the field.

Similarly, at the time of my interviews, Tinesha was an instructor and performed

in a leadership capacity for a progressive youth-oriented mathematics organiza-

tion. Her students were mostly Black and Latino and came from neighborhoods

that were considered distressed. However, her future goals were far grander:

I would own a business. A company specifically, and design orthopedic devices

specifically to integrate into human bodies. And then I would have those proceeds

from the company. And all the proceeds that don’t go back into running the business

and things like that. After taking care of my family, the proceeds would go into creating

a school, an engineering school where Black and Brown students kind of learn in this

very dynamic nature, if I can say that. So I envision an everyday school except every-

thing is culturally centered and mathematically centered. So mathematically culturally

centered. I would have to create culturally centered math. There would be boards [of

directors] and teams of people, engineers and other mathematicians. Hopefully all

Black engineers just to kind of put the idea out there, you know. ’Cause I think, like,

Black engineers, you know, are stuffed under the carpet sometimes.

Tinesha’s mathematical identity was heavily tied to using her cultu rally relevant math-

ematics and engineering education to improve the opportunities of African American

and Latino students in distressed communities. She wanted to create a company that

would provide health-care products for people in her communit y who need orthopedic

devices. Tinesha had received several scholarships to attend college, and she said that

her own company would offer scholarships to Black and Latino students.

Rob and Tinesha developed their aspirations by encompassing mathematics

within a collectivist ideology (Akom, 2003) that is connected to improving the

lives of young Black students. They developed from anxious students preoccupied

with disproving negative racial stereotypes (fragile identity) into inspirational,

self-defined scholars in their fields who strive to do their part to make the world

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620 Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities

a bet ter place for future generations of students like them (robust identity).

However, stereotypes and low expectations continue to plague their mathematical

identities in spite of their agency and perseverance to maintain them.

Discussion and Conclusion

The Fragile and Robust Mathematical Identity Framework encompasses the

experiences, perspectives, ideologies, and the complex terrain that Black students

must navigate in order to persist in college-level mathematics and mathematics-

related majors. To my knowledge, no one to date has attempted to “operationalize”

the mathematical identity development of African American students in a frame-

work. The framework exposes the deficit narratives, practices, and policies that

high-achieving Black students face daily, the strategies that they employ to greater

or lesser success, and the ways in which their motivations affect their satisfaction

of their mathematics achievements. It also validates that race matters in terms of

how most Black students either identify themselves or are identified and treated

by others (Gosa & Alexander, 2007). The accounts of Tinesha and Rob demon-

strate that racist experiences take place in the mathematics classroom, adding to

the research on how school mathematics is used to perpetuate social inequities

and how Black students navigate racialized spaces while achieving and main-

taining success. Using the framework, I described how these students responded

to issues of race and racism in their lives, how they exhibited strength and perse-

verance in the face of persistent stereotypes, and how they characterized their

experiences in mathematics learning and participation, both inside and outside

the classroom (Martin, 2012; Sellers et al., 1998). The intersection of race, resil-

ience, and mathematical identity is an important concept for researchers to

consider when unpacking the ways that African American college students learn

and succeed in competitive and socially valued mathematics-related fields and

how they experience life in their campus environments (McGee, 2013a).

Because of the high number of racialized incidents that still occur in the lives

of high-achieving Black mathematics and engineering college students, fragile

mathematical identity appears to be a permanent aspect of their mathematical

identity as a quick form of protection and response to treatment that is largely

based on stereotypical assumptions about Black intelligence or the lack thereof.

These strategies are situated as fragile because they operate from a preoccupation

with defending oneself against external and damaging criteria. Mathematical

identity functioning in a mainly fragile state results in perceptions of one’s intel-

lect being unfairly judged. These viable and seemingly unavoidable outcomes are

what keep some students in a constant state of fear that their success in mathe-

matics could be devalued. As a result, their perseverance in mathematics is

motivated more by a challenge against their presumed fear of failure than by the

reward of success (McGee & Bentley, 2015). This leaves me wondering how many

Black students who could have navigated the academic mathematics terrain

instead aborted their majors because of lack of know-how in developing a more

intrinsically guided mathematical identity and positive Black identity. Future work

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Ebony O. McGee

using this construct could assist in exploring these important factors as well as in

challenging current ideology that suggests the mathematics itself is the culprit as

opposed to other possibly equally important motivational inf luences. Moreover,

researchers and educators need to understand more fully the negative ideologies

about Black achievement in mathematics and their role in adversely affecting the

psychological motivations of high-achieving Black students.

Educators and researchers often discuss how experiences of racism and discrim-

ination can result in lower academic achievement for African Americans without

having a vigorous understanding of the other side of achievement outcomes:

African American high achievers. Warikoo and Carter (2009) remind us that

learning is not simply conceptual knowledge and skill development but also nego-

tiating and decoding the system. The construct of fragile and robust mathematical

identity characterizes how students can simultaneously manipulate socially

constructed racial boundaries and use adaptive coping strategies to deal with

racism and discrimination in the classroom and in life while engaging in achieve-

ment-oriented behaviors. In the stories of Tinesha and Rob, we saw how students

learned to operate within racially charged spaces that minimized their accomplish-

ments, criticized their culture, and rewarded behavior that emulates the White

middle class. Thus, educators becoming more race conscious in designing learning

opportunities for students might lead to increased intrinsic and self-guided moti-

vations to develop a passion for, not simply a proficiency in, mathematics.

The Fragile and Robust Mathematical Identity Framework draws attention to

the structural forces within U.S. history and culture that continue to challenge the

mathematics efforts of high-achieving African American students. I further

postulate that we are losing talented, intelligent Black students who have not had

the opportunity to develop robust mathematical identities. If some African

American students get stalled in a fragile mathematical identity and never progress

to one that is robust, then presumably they will not develop a strong, sustainable

mathematical identity. This can potentially limit the number of African American

professionals in mathematics-based fields. Understanding students’ fragile and

robust mathematical identities could assist in improving the climate and not just

the outcomes for Black students in mathematics.

Consideration of further research and next steps with the Fragile and Robust

Mathematical Identity Framework leads me to a series of questions that I pose to

the mathematics education community. Should we ask high-achieving Black

STEM students to become more resilient to acquire their STEM degree, or should

postsecondary systems be more committed to disarming the structures of racism

so that Black students need not be resilient to the point of compromising their

racial and mathematical identities? What are the short-term and long-term effects

of conti nually attem pting to achieve in a STEM envi ronment in which

encountering racial obstacles is the norm? We must contemplate how much resil-

ience and perseverance is healthy and nurturing as well as how much longer and

at what cost Black learners must continue to work to succeed in STEM fields. How

might mathematics teachers work within this framework to assist Black students

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622 Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities

in not becoming “stalled” in a fragile mathematical identity? How might this

framework for mathematical identity assist in understanding the otherness factor

for mathematically talented, historically underrepresented students (e.g., females,

Latina females, Native American students, Southeast Asian students)? As Black

STEM students struggle to develop coping mechanisms to safeguard their

academic hardiness and protect themselves from racially injurious educational

environments, what are the roles of the institutions in mitigating these injuries?

In an era in which simply being African American or Black continues to be

devalued by the larger society, including college institutions (Perry, Steele, &

Hilliard, 2003), students’ resistance to fulfilling negative stereotypes is a strong

acknowledgment of their abilities to persist in the face of stereoty pe threat.

Applauding the hidden agency of these students’ negotiation of racial spaces within

and beyond the mathematics classroom can create a more complete picture of Black

mathematics success. This emerging framework affords a starting point for under-

standing and answering these questions and highlights the complexity of the expe-

riences of mathematically high-achieving African Americans.

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Author

Ebony O. McGee, Depar tment of Teaching and Learning, Peabody College of Education and

Human Development, Vanderbilt University, 230 Appleton Place, Nashville, TN 37203;

ebony.mcgee@vanderbilt.edu; blackengineer ingphd.org

Submitted April 16, 2014

Accepted September 2, 2014

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