Book by Rachelle Winkle-Wagner
Review by Sybil L. Holloway
Center for Counseling and Human Development
Are you looking for a different type of book – one with groundbreaking research on a controversial topic and written by a courageous author? If so, then Rachelle Winkle-Wagner’s The Unchosen Me: Race, Gender, and Identity among Black Women in College may satisfy your quest. It’s a unique addition to the existing literature on identity development.
The Unchosen Me challenges and expands upon previous theories of race, gender, and identity and offers a new and more comprehensive way of viewing the identity process especially as it pertains to Black female college students. Specifically, the author moves beyond psychologically-based theories of identity development toward a broader sociological perspective that she proposes. Her research also helps to fill a gap she identified with respect to African American women’s college experiences. Winkle-Wagner coined the term “the unchosen me” and connects it to issues of opportunity, privilege, and choice. She gives special attention to the “double-consciousness” described by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903/2003) and recently studied by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden (2003) whereby African Americans navigate between White norms and Black norms.
Winkle-Wagner argues that race and gender are created, unequally, through interactive processes involving institutions (e.g., colleges) and social structures. She states that, “The central concern of this book is to understand the process whereby race and gender are created. Using a predominantly White institution of higher education as my laboratory, I examine race and gender theoretically and empirically through an ethnographic study with African American college women.” (p. 4). She notes that many programs that focus on the success of students of color in higher education emphasize academic and social integration and that this “…integration affects students of color, specifically African American women, in potentially negative, though often unintentional ways.” (p. 9). The author’s interest in social justice compels her to use a robust data-gathering system, “critical qualitative methods,” an advocacy approach of critical inquiry. She conducts her research with great respect and sensitivity.
The Unchosen Me is engaging, but densely packed with theory and research. The author provides a solid foundation upon which she builds. Each of the book’s eight chapters opens with a thought-provoking quote by either famous leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr. or students reflecting on their college experiences. Then each chapter delves into the meaty issues at hand (e.g., Chapter 6 – “Too White” or “Too Ghetto”? The Racial Tug-of-war for Black Women) with a description of the concepts under study along with an integration of reflections from students who participated in the author’s “sister circles.” Appendixes provide details about the research subjects and the data analysis and validation process.
One of the most fascinating pieces for me was the revelation that the author is a White woman. She spends an entire chapter (Chapter 3 – Research across the Color Line) explaining her challenges with gaining the trust of her Black research subjects, dealing with her outsider status within the “sister circles”, and continuing to do her own self-analysis. The fact that she was able to establish intimate connections and obtain meaningful results (despite their lack of generalizability) is truly amazing. The fact that the “sister circles” became formally adopted at her university and continued after her research project ended attests to the significant value of her work in the lives of these college students.
I was initially drawn to this book because of my interest in diversity issues. And, this topic has personal relevance since I am a Black woman and a psychologist. Having majored in both psychology and sociology while in college and recognizing the value that each perspective offers, I like the way that Winkle-Wagner expands upon the existing literature on this subject by combining elements of both in order to provide a more complete explanation of one’s identity process. Additionally, having conducted my own qualitative research in the past, I have great appreciation for the author’s methodological choices.
Advisors will be able to use the information in The Unchosen Me to better understand their Black female college students and their needs and the identity challenges they face. Serving in advocate roles, advisors can provide support for students by connecting them to valuable resources and support networks and securing mentoring services on campus and in the community. In these ways advisors can increase their students’ satisfaction and success and help their colleges meet their retention goals. At the end of the book, Winkle-Wagner offers some concrete suggestions for practical change within institutional support structures, local support structures, and national and statewide support structures. Her ideas are worthy of consideration.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903/2003). The souls of Black folk. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics.
Jones, C., & Shorter-Gooden, K. (2003). Shifting: The double lives of black women in America. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
The unchosen me: Race, gender, and identity among black women in college. (2009). Book by Rachelle Winkle-Wagner. Review by Sybil L. Holloway. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 227 pp. $55.00. ISBN # 978-0-8018-9354-4