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Robust and Fragile Mathematical Identities: A Framework for Exploring Racialized Experiences and High Achievement Among Black College Students


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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 mathematical 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 identity formation for Black college students in mathematics and engineering fields.
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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
Journal for Research in Mathematics Education,
Vol. 46, No. 5 (November 2015), pp. 599-
Published by: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
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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 reected here are those of the author and do not necessar-
ily reect 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., 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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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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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 studentsmay 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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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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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.
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 McAdamss
(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).
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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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
Frequent moving/changing of
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
Motivated to lear n
mathematics to retain
the “smart” and “talented”
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
Being classified as a smart student,
especially in mathematics, opened
up many scholastic opportunities
Self-defined as naturally good in
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
Motivated to lear n
mathematics to prove
stereotypes wrong
Possessed an externally
driven determination to
prove his intellectual
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
Angered over being rejected
as “very smart” in some
mathematics classes
Tough love from mother
A smart and competitive younger
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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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
Experienced racial shock over
some African-born
students not wanting to
associate with Black
students—brief dis-
engagement from school
Rising confidence in mathematics
Increased academic capital and
savviness in navigating the college
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)
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-
Being mistaken for being
“non-Black” exposed
heightened experiences
with racist ideologies
Feelings of helplessness in
the plight of teaching
mathematics to Black chil-
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-
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
Motivated to lear n mathematics to
become “that Black math teacher”
(incorporation of more self-defined
Provided mathematics teaching and
tutoring at a predominantly Black
high school
Use of news satire as a coping mecha-
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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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
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-
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Human Development, Vanderbilt University, 230 Appleton Place, Nashville, TN 37203;; blackengineer
Submitted April 16, 2014
Accepted September 2, 2014
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... Two forms of mathematical identity that depend on the strength of a person's relationship with mathematics have been distinguished in identity literature as closely linked to confidence, beliefs and persistence in mathematics learning: robust and fragile identities (McGee, 2015). ...
... Robust identities relate to positive mathematical experiences and are largely intrinsically motivated while fragile identities are consequent on negative mathematical experiences and are extrinsically motivated (McGee, 2015). Robust and positive mathematical identities draw together persistence, an interest in mathematics, and the motivation to learn mathematics. ...
... Lastly, they found out that "mathematical identity formation is a constant social negotiation, in that learners chose to allow or refuse their past or present mathematical experiences to influence their identities" (p. 261) (see McGee, 2015;Varelas et al., 2012). Whereas Gweshe and Brodie's (2019) study covered MLIs over a period of about two months, my study straddles the over seven-year period that took learners from primary school to high school. ...
Full-text available
This study focuses on understanding mathematics learner identities of high school learners who participated in the South African Numeracy Chair Project after school mathematics clubs, an environment that afforded different mathematics identities from the traditional South African classroom. Mathematics learner identities feature prominently in current research on mathematics education because they affect whether and how learners engage in mathematics. They play a critical role in enhancing (or detracting from) learners’ attitudes, dispositions, emotional development, and general sense of self as they learn mathematics. Development of positive learner mathematical identity is therefore useful in making learners commit to their mathematics work. South African primary mathematics education is described as being in a state of crisis, and various programmes are being implemented to develop intervention models to improve quality and ensure the effective teaching and learning of primary mathematics. The South African Numeracy Chair Project initiative at Rhodes University provides for longitudinal research and development programmes with primary mathematics teachers and learners from previously disadvantaged schools, in order to find ways of mitigating the crisis. The after school mathematics clubs provide extra-curricular activities focused on developing a supportive learning community where learners’ active mathematical participation, engagement, enjoyment, and sense making are the focus. The clubs provide a supportive learning environment that is different to the traditional classroom and in which learners can participate actively and freely in mathematical activities. The study explores the nature of mathematics learner identities as learning trajectories that connect the past and future in negotiation of the present. It also seeks to discover how primary school club participation and experiences feature in the learners’ mathematical identities. The study employs two theoretical frameworks to analyse qualitative data that was gathered in the form of spoken and written stories, by 14 learners who participated in the after school mathematics clubs in primary school. The stories covered learners’ engagement in mathematics in different landscapes of practice that promoted the construction of different learner mathematical identities. A close analysis of the qualitative data revealed that learners’ mathematical identities are heavily influenced by the values that were foregrounded in the after school mathematics clubs. The clubs valued hard work and encouraged learners to ask for assistance when in doubt. In line with the club ethos, the learners storied resilience and hard work in their narratives. In addition, although many learners storied Mathematics as difficult in high school, they chose to continue taking the subject.
... A term called mathematics identity offers a lens through which to view students' decisions about mathematics. Depending on how strongly a person is connected to mathematics, two types of mathematical identities have been recognized in the literature: robust and fragile (McGee, 2015). Fragile identities are associated with unpleasant mathematical experiences and are mostly extrinsically motivated. ...
... Fragile identities are associated with unpleasant mathematical experiences and are mostly extrinsically motivated. Robust identities are associated with pleasant mathematical experiences (McGee, 2015). Learners with robust identities tend to be assertive, persistent and have a positive outlook on mathematics. ...
Full-text available
Many problems faced by mathematics learners both at the school and college levels have occurred so far. Mathematics education students involved in mathematics daily also face various problems, be it problems related to cognitive and affective abilities. Problems such as the emergence of mathematical anxiety, negative self-perception of mathematics, lack of mathematical competence, and many other problems have become the recent focus in mathematics education research. So, how do mathematics education students, especially prospective mathematics teachers, view themselves as related to mathematics? What is their mathematical identity? This study aims to determine the mathematics identity possessed by prospective mathematics teachers. To find out the mathematics identity of prospective mathematics teachers, a descriptive design utilizing a survey with five open-ended questions was asked. Demographic data were analyzed using descriptive frequencies, while the five open-ended questions were analyzed using summative content analysis to analyze free-text responses from 225 prospective mathematics teachers. Free-text responses contain answers to five questions in each component of the mathematical identity obtained from disseminating questions through google forms. We obtained the results that prospective mathematics teachers generally have a positive mathematical identity, but some components need improvement. However, it was also found that the results were quite surprising concerning the mathematical identity of the prospective mathematics teacher. A complete explanation will be discussed in this article.
... mathematics education mainly focused on students who experienced drop-out (e.g., Hernandez-Martinez, 2016) and disengagement (e.g., Solomon & Croft, 2016). Also, researchers explored how, while being academically successful, some students are nevertheless at risk of being marginalized or excluded, for instance in connection to markers expressing race (e.g., McGee, 2015;Stinson, 2013) or gender (e.g., Hall & Suurtamm, 2018;Solomon et al., 2015). Identity research has thus primarily illuminated lack of success and/or exclusion. ...
Full-text available
Drawing on autobiographical essays written by master’s students in mathematics preparing to become teachers, we investigate what mathematical identity these students articulate and how. By means of a discursive thematic analysis centered on the notion of ascesis, we show that the participants’ identity revolves around a characterization of mathematics as a challenging, useful, and comforting activity or knowledge, which is however regarded negatively by others. Indeed, mathematics is described as a uniquely challenging activity which requires an increasingly demanding self-discipline. Moreover, mathematics is depicted as a variously useful form of knowledge which is additionally capable to offer comfort to those who engage with it. However, the participants often remark that other people regard mathematics negatively, a fact explained by stressing others’ inability or unwillingness to understand or appreciate mathematics’ inherent positive features. This sets the boundary of an ideal club of math enthusiasts whose elitist membership is regulated in terms of acceptance or refusal of its constitutive values. Belonging to the club as well as proselytizing in order to recruit new members appears to be central to the participants’ mathematical identity.
... Those who succeed are typecast as hardworking while others are deemed incompetent or lazy (Gresalfi & Hand, 2019;Horn, 2007). This is a burden projected onto students' mathematical identities that even successful students, especially from historically excluded groups, manage daily (McGee, 2015). ...
Full-text available
Students’ opportunities to persevere in making sense of mathematical ideas have long been considered significant to learning. Building on existing literature and a case study of video-based teacher collaborative sensemaking, we propose a conceptual framework for bridging perseverance and sensemaking. This framework synthesizes dispositional, metacognitive, and contextual-interactive theoretical perspectives on perseverance. Informed by these three research perspectives, the conceptual framework brings forth three interrelated mediators for bolstering perseverance practices and dispositions towards mathematical sensemaking: students’ positions as capable sensemakers, explicit problem-solving heuristics, and facilitation of student participation within their collective Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). We argue that the three mediators, when brought together, provide a holistic and generative lens for teaching and teacher learning. To illustrate the framework and its utility, we build on a case study featuring a veteran middle-school mathematics teacher across his classroom facilitation of students’ engagement with a classical mathematical task, the Tower of Hanoi, and a subsequent video-based debrief about the lesson with his colleague and our research team. We first frame the analysis around classroom events, and then investigate teacher learning opportunities in the lesson debrief. By making explicit the complex work of directing perseverance towards sensemaking, this study provides a more nuanced understanding of perseverance for teaching and teacher learning. Moreover, developing clarity around notions of perseverance in mathematics classrooms helps mitigate the potential dangers of the term being taken up in ineffective or even harmful ways.
... Two common themes in mathematics education identity literature are race and gender. Researchers have shown that students experienced gendered (review by Leder, 2019;Leyva, 2017) and racialized identities in their mathematics learning (Gholson & Robinson, 2019;Gholson & Wilkes, 2017;Hotchkins, 2016;Larnell, 2016;Leyva et al., 2021;Martin, 2019;McGee, 2015;McGee et al., 2017). For example, Larnell (2016) illustrated the narratives of two African American learners placed in non-credit-bearing remedial mathematics courses. ...
Full-text available
Culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) seeks to improve equity in instruction and leverage students’ experiences by promoting academic success, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness. We examine instructors’ perceptions of student identity to understand the ways undergraduate mathematics instructors are enacting or experiencing barriers to enacting CRP. Interviews with ten mathematics faculty at Hispanic-serving institutions identified two potential barriers to enacting CRP: first, instructors’ hesitance to communicate about student identity, especially with respect to race and gender; and second, instructors holding epistemologies that mathematics is culture-free. Despite these barriers, almost all interviewees implemented the academic success tenet of CRP. These barriers may prevent instruction around cultural competence and sociopolitical consciousness, which are the two tenets that most capitalize on students’ informal knowledge, identities, and cultural experiences. Changing discourse by taking more risks in conversation and inviting a more diverse range of people to the undergraduate mathematics community are potential ways to address these barriers.
... This shows that someone who has self-efficacy can control his/her feelings, thoughts, and actions. Faith followed by passion; actions based on firm belief about success will stimulate the emergence of high morale (Ebony O. McGee, 2015;Goulet-Lyle et al., 2020;Gunderson et al., 2012). ...
Full-text available
Self-efficacy, problem solving, and gender differences are aspects that many researchers concern to today. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to describe the profile of students’ self-efficacy in solving problems based on gender. We used a qualitative approach with exploratory research to answer the research objectives. We used the Mathematical Ability Test (TKM) instrument, Mathematical Problem-Solving Tasks (TPMM), and interview guidelines to consider the selected subjects. Next, two students were selected (14 years old, of different gender, and had good math skills) to participate in the study. Data from transcripts and student work were used to perform data analysis. The results revealed that there were fundamental differences between the two subjects based on three dimensions of self-efficacy (magnitude, strength, and generality). This is discussed further in this article. Finally, we suggest to explore the influence of regional culture on students’ self-efficacy in the classroom.
... But in other education locations (e.g., social studies or science classrooms), practices also occur that could appeal to the mathematical gaze, even if the stakes of learning are not mathematical (e.g., when the consumption or production of social studies or science data is mediated by mathematical literacies; Heyd-Metzuyanim et al., 2021). Further, even within education settings that are dedicated to mathematics instruction, we may call on the mathematical gaze to look across the teaching and learning of particular mathematics and examine more enduring phenomena such as the construction of mathematical identities (McGee, 2015) or the components of mathematical anxiety (Ho et al., 2000). ...
Research shows that identities and self-esteem are positively associated with racial/ethnic minorities’ intent to persist in STEM, but two bodies of literature yield contradictory findings on the relationship between multiple identities and racial/ethnic minority self-esteem. In the bicultural identity literature, individuals exhibit greater well-being when identities share meaning; however, in the stereotype management literature, racial/ethnic minorities exhibit poorer well-being when identities share meaning in STEM spaces. To make sense of these contradictory findings, we draw upon the theory of racialized organizations, identity theory, and the stereotype threat literature. We argue that stereotype threat moderates the relationship between shared meanings and self-esteem in STEM spaces because stereotype threat is a culturally nonverifying message that prevents the simultaneous verification of identities. Using a sample of 424 Black and Latinx college students in STEM, we find that our proxy measure for shared meaning is associated with lower self-esteem when levels of stereotype threat are high. Findings highlight that the relationship between multiple identities and self-esteem depends on context; it also reinforces the need for social psychologists to theorize about context, racial processes, and issues of power and inequality.KeywordsMultiple identitiesSTEMNonverificationShared meaningsSelf-esteem
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Among challenges of refugee students attempting to pursue ambitions to attend a university and subsequently take up a professional career, are uncertainty about how to navigate from high school to college and unawareness of career fields. In this paper, we report on results of a project focused on promoting STEM aspirations and understanding college navigation among refugee families in the United States. Through partnerships between refugee community organizations and a university, families participated in workshops that included learning about a breadth of STEM careers and how to chart a successful course from secondary to postsecondary education.
The purpose of this qualitative metasynthesis is to integrate findings on science identity across multiple science learning contexts. The eighteen studies that were included address identity development in association with science learning and academic preparation for future schooling and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). A typology was constructed which classified the investigations according to research questions, theoretical framework, methodology, learning context and setting, subjects, and definitions of identity. Key concepts and themes were synthesized, resulting in several important conclusions. The metasynthesis revealed that many studies focus on interactions in classrooms, laboratories, or professional settings where students’ social interactions influence science identity development. Additionally, the research revealed critical factors that can either nurture or act as barriers to science identity development. Finally, a new longitudinal science identity development trajectory emerged which suggests the presence of a sequential process as participants transition from science novice to expert.KeywordsMetasynthesisScience identityUnderrepresented groupsIntersectionalityScience learningNon-cognitive factors
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Background Within mathematics education research, policy, and practice, race remains undertheorized in relation to mathematics learning and participation. Although race is characterized in the sociological and critical theory literatures as socially and politically constructed with structural expressions, most studies of differential outcomes in mathematics education begin and end their analyses of race with static racial categories and group labels used for the sole purpose of disaggregating data. This inadequate framing is, itself, reflective of a racialization process that continues to legitimize the social devaluing and stigmatization of many students of color. I draw from my own research with African American adults and adolescents, as well as recent research on the mathematical experiences of African American students conducted by other scholars. I also draw from the sociological and critical theory literatures to examine the ways that race and racism are conceptualized in the larger social context and in ways that are informative for mathematics education researchers, policy makers, and practitioners. Purpose To review and critically analyze how the construct of race has been conceptualized in mathematics education research, policy, and practice. Research Design Narrative synthesis. Conclusion Future research and policy efforts in mathematics education should examine racialized inequalities by considering the socially constructed nature of race.
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Urban Ills: Twenty First Century Complexities of Urban Living in Global Contexts is a collection of original research focused on critical challenges and dilemmas to living in cities. Volume 1 examines both the economic impact of urban life and the social realities of urban living. The editors define the ecology of urban living as the relationship and adjustment of humans to a highly dense, diverse, and complex environment. This approach examines the nexus between the distribution of human groups with reference to material resources and the consequential social, political, economic, and cultural patterns which evolve as a result of the sufficiency or insufficiency of those material resources. They emphasize the most vulnerable populations suffering during and after the recession in the United States and around the world. The chapters seek to explore emerging issues and trends affecting the lives of the poor, minorities, immigrants, women, and children.
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There is growing need to showcase the agency and determination of African American parents seeking equitable educational opportunities for their children, given that their narratives defy mainstream stereotypes of passivity, disinterest, and lack of effort. In this article the authors investigate the early role of parents in fostering sustainable mathematics and academic success among 24 high-achieving Black college students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In particular, this study sheds light on the ways parents support their children's mathematics participation and learning in and outside of school settings. Black parental involvement is misunderstood. This research shows that African American parents are aware of educational inequities and respond by becoming advocates, motivators, and even early teachers of mathematics for their children.
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Background/Context: There is a growing body of research that conceptualizes mathematics learning and participation as racialized experiences; that is, learning experiences structured in part by the negative and unjust race relations that are present in U.S. society. However, the role racialized experiences play in the lives of Black elementary education pre-service students from urban contexts, as both students and future teachers of mathematics, is under theorized. Theoretical Framework: Using critical race theory’s racial micro-aggressions and the development of a mathematics identity, the author explores the mathematics experiences of 13 Black advanced undergraduate students who are elementary education majors. The participants’ narratives reflect their experiences as both students of mathematics and future teachers. Research Design: A qualitative phenomenological research design was used to explore the prior and current mathematical experiences of the study participants and their future trajectories as teachers of mathematics. Reponses were coded to reveal themes of racialization and the development of the participants’ mathematics identities. Results: The participants’ narratives cited Black male fathers and close male relatives as their first mathematics teachers, the presence of culturally affirming at-home mathematics activities, and detailed aspirations to teach mathematics fearlessly to their own children and future students. Their more recent experiences included academic struggles in mathematics, often stemming from racial stereotyping and non-affirming college mathematics teachers. Their voices suggest that, within the context of learning mathematics, they have generated self-constructions that include racism as part of their shared African American experience in mathematics schooling that have implications for their teaching of mathematics. Conclusion/Recommendations: Recommendations include the provision of professional development that targets gaps in mathematics that are the result of inadequate and discriminatory learning opportunities, and culturally sensitive professional development for mathematics college faculty, with differentiated training for mathematics faculty not born in the U.S. In light of the high proportion of Black teachers working in urban schools who face a host of difficulties, this research also supports the continued development of combatting racial micro-aggressions in mathematics education as a decisive tactic to improve the retention of Black elementary education teachers.
A general theory of domain identification is used to describe achievement barriers still faced by women in advanced quantitative areas and by African Americans in school. The theory assumes that sustained school success requires identification with school and its subdomains; that societal pressures on these groups (e.g., economic disadvantage, gender roles) can frustrate this identification; and that in school domains where these groups are negatively stereotyped, those who have become domain identified face the further barrier of stereotype threat, the threat that others' judgments or their own actions will negatively stereotype them in the domain. Research shows that this threat dramatically depresses the standardized test performance of women and African Americans who are in the academic vanguard of their groups (offering a new interpretation of group differences in standardized test performance), that it causes disidentification with school, and that practices that reduce this threat can reduce these negative effects.