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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Invisibility Syndrome of African Americans in Educational Institutions

Members of racial minorities face challenges as they strive to succeed as students at institutions of higher education. African Americans in particular often struggle to discover and express their identities within the university, according to psychologist Anderson J. Franklin, who spoke to a packed Boisi Center colloquium on October 1. Franklin, the Hon. David S. Nelson Professional Chair at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education, has written extensively about the resulting “invisibility syndrome” among African-Americans.

While the name of the syndrome is inspired by Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel The Invisible Man, Franklin’s work is focused upon helping current students find their own identity, and thus rendering them visible again. He has found that a vicious cycle begins when faculty and fellow students ignore the insights and contributions of African-American students, whose academic performance can then falter out of frustration or insecurity. Social and academic invisibility also prevents African-American students from integrating into the social networks that define campus life and cultivate an individual’s identity. 

In an attempt to avoid just this problem, Franklin said, some faculty or students overcompensate by singling out for attention minority students, who are then (implicitly or explicitly) forced to stand as the representative of an entire group of people. The pressure resulting from this “spotlight phenomenon” can be as crippling as that arising from invisibility syndrome.

African-American students will only realize their full academic potential, argued Franklin, when they are able to find their place within the university as complete individuals, bridging their past and present experiences and roles into an integrated identity. For university administrators, this means helping them cultivate friendships and social networks with others who face similar challenges; support services and opportunities for minority students to meet together are essential to this process.