Science Brief

Relational diversity in higher education: A psychological perspective

An individual-difference approach to investigating group interactions can lead to improvements in the experience and achievement of minority college students

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

Rodolfo Mendoza-DentonRodolfo Mendoza-Denton is an associate professor of psychology at the University of California,  Berkeley, and co-director of Berkeley’s Relationships and Social Cognition Laboratory. He studies prejudice, stigma, intergroup relations, cross-race-friendships and cultural psychology. He received his PhD from Columbia University, and his BA from Yale University. He is a co-editor of the recent anthology Are We Born Racist from Beacon Press and writes a blog by the same name for Psychology Today .



“Gradually I began to think of myself as a social psychologist. With this change in self-concept came a new accountability; my self-esteem was affected now by what I did as a social psychologist, something that hadn't been true before… [An] observer might say that even though my background was working-class, I had special advantages: achievement-oriented parents, a small and attentive college. But these facts alone would miss the importance of the identification process I had experienced: the change in self-definition and in the activities on which I based my self-esteem. They would also miss a simple condition necessary for me to make this identification: treatment as a valued person with good prospects.”

Claude Steele, “Race and the Schooling of Black Americans” (1992)

In recent decades, real and measurable progress has been made in the United States toward ensuring equal access to institutions of higher education for all students (Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pedersen, & Allen, 1998). This goal has been particularly important for universities that have historically denied access to students on the basis of status characteristics such as race or gender (Bowen & Bok, 1998). A central challenge for institutional efforts towards diversity involves moving from what has been termed numerical diversity towards relational diversity – that is, moving from numerical representation to ensuring that members of all groups feel equally welcome and accepted within the institution (Fine, Weis & Powell, 1997; Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, & Gurin, 2002).

Even when conditions of equal access to students are addressed, it is important to recognize that members of different groups often do not arrive at the institution with an equal sense of belonging at the institution (Walton & Cohen, 2007). Members of historically marginalized groups may be especially likely to question their acceptance within the university (Bowen & Bok, 1998), may be more vigilant relative to other students about cues that signal their belonging, and may feel less trust towards university representatives and authorities (Mendoza-Denton, Downey, Purdie, Davis, & Pietrzak, 2002). As such, identifying the psychological mechanisms through which institutional belonging and satisfaction are reduced -- as well as enhanced – are critical goals on the road to relational diversity.

Individual differences among minority students: Race-based rejection sensitivity

Although the bulk of research and discourse on achievement gaps focuses on between-group differences in academic-related outcomes, research in my lab has instead capitalized on within-group variability to provide an empirically supported account of the psychological processes that mediate the behavior of members of stigmatized groups as they navigate the institutional context and pursue their academic goals. This individual difference approach has two benefits. First, this approach elucidates the cognitive-affective mediators that explain how membership in a stigmatized group can undermine belonging, satisfaction, and achievement in the institution. Second, identifying these mediators provides an empirically supported framework on which interventions can be built. On a broader level, the approach reminds us that groups are not monolithic, but rather collections of individuals whose experiences and viewpoints can differ as widely as those of between-group members.

Given the enduring nature of race as a source of stigma in the United States, my lab has tested the implications of race-based rejection sensitivity (RS-race; Mendoza-Denton et al., 2002) for African American and Latino/a students. In this model, either personally or vicariously experienced exclusion, mistreatment, or marginalization on the basis of status characteristics (such as race or gender) lead people to develop anxious expectations that they will be treated similarly in future contexts that afford the possibility of such rejection. Once developed, race-based rejection expectations elicit anticipatory anxiety and physiological stress responses in the face of potential discrimination (e.g., increases in cortisol; Page-Gould, Mendoza-Denton, & Tropp, 2008), as well as vigilance for rejection cues, disposing people to react intensely once rejection is perceived (Mendoza-Denton et al., 2002).  This work has demonstrated that individuals high in RS-race generally show less effective adjustment in university settings, including a reduced sense of belonging and trust in the university, greater anxiety about seeking help for academic problems, and a declining grade point average across the first few years of college.

Subtle bias, attributional ambiguity, and achievement

The predictive utility of RS-race may seem at odds with many strides that have been made towards ensuring equality in educational and other institutional settings, as well as laws and social prohibitions against discrimination. We must remember, however, that targets of stigma must still contend with less overt, “underground” forms of discrimination. As prejudice becomes increasingly subtle and even unconscious in its manifestations, members of stigmatized groups must often resolve the ambiguity of not knowing whether others are biased against them. This creates an atmosphere in which the effects of individual-difference variables such as RS-race are magnified, precisely because the interpretation of ambiguous cues depends in part on the cognitive structures and meaning-making mechanisms that individuals bring to bear on each situation.

To demonstrate the importance of such person-environment interactions in ambiguous contexts, Mendoza-Denton, Shaw-Taylor, Chen, and Cheng (2009) conducted a study in which women were asked to complete an academic task in one of three contexts, operationalized as the décor of the office in which participants completed the task. The “chauvinist” office contained cues that the occupant (the purported evaluator of the task) held sexist attitudes; objects included an empty case of “Big Daddy IPA” beer and pictures of bikini-clad models on motorcycles. The “progressive” office contained cues that the evaluator held egalitarian attitudes towards women; items in this office included a “Race for the Cure” banner and a certificate from a coeducational fraternity promoting equality across gender. Finally, the “ambiguous” office included an empty case of Snapple and a certificate from “Volunteers of America, Ivy League Undergraduate Division.” Although there were no cues in the office that explicitly revealed the occupant’s attitudes towards women, his gender and his position as an evaluator of participants’ aptitude were expected to activate discrimination concerns specifically among women high in gender-based rejection sensitivity (RS-gender).

The findings revealed that when cues of the evaluator’s egalitarianism were clear, this safe context led all participants to perform equally well regardless of their standing on RS-gender. However, when the male evaluator’s attitudes were not explicitly communicated, women high in RS-gender, preoccupied by the possibility of prejudice, were especially likely to underperform. Moreover, consistent with the “ironic effects” of prejudice (Shelton, Richeson, Salvatore, & Trawalter, 2005), when cues of chauvinism were clear, women high in RS-gender were, in a way, “released” from ambiguity, and their performance did not suffer. The context manipulation did not significantly affect the performance of women low in RS-gender because they are, overall, not as vigilant about gender-based rejection cues in the environment.

The importance of feeling valued

Although the above study did not manipulate actual feedback, it is important to note that the provision of feedback across ethnic or gender divides is uncomfortable and anxiety provoking for both student and evaluator. In fact, recent research suggests that White teachers will often give unrealistically and unfounded positive feedback to minority students in an effort to avoid seeming prejudiced (Crosby and Monin, 2007). For stigmatized students, by contrast, receiving academic feedback is often a classic case of attributional ambiguity. Attributions to discrimination (rather than one’s ability) can lead to a discounting of negative feedback and thus protect self-esteem (Crocker & Major, 1989)— but have also been directly tied to academic disengagement and disidentification (Major & Schmader, 1998; Steele, 1992, 1997).

How are teachers and evaluators to give feedback in these difficult circumstances? Recently, Mendoza-Denton, Goldman-Flythe, Pietrzak, Downey, & Aceves (2010) proposed that minority students’ concerns and emotions around being valued by their professors and teaching assistants may be critical in students’ decisions whether to accept academic feedback as legitimate (cf. Tyler & Blader, 2003). These insights follow directly from the group-value theory of procedural justice (e.g., Tyler & Lind, 1992), which suggests that relational indicators such as fair and respectful treatment from members of a given group (in this case, the university or academic community) are directly related to people’s willingness to trust the opinions and feedback of members of that group (Andersen, Downey, & Tyler, 2006; Spears, Ellemers, Doosje, & Branscombe, 2006).

Mendoza-Denton et al. (2010) had African American college students receive either positive or negative feedback on an essay they wrote after either disclosing or not disclosing their race. We assessed participants’ RS-race prior to the manipulations. In the race undisclosed condition, we observed only a main effect of feedback, with positive feedback leading to greater self-esteem. When race was disclosed, however, feedback valence did not affect the self-esteem of participants higher in RS-race, but it did affect the self-esteem of those lower in RS-race, such that positive feedback led to the gains in self-esteem. As expected, concerns and emotions around being valued mediated the observed effects on self-esteem. These findings suggest that, contrary to the idea that African American students as a whole are likely to discount feedback when they feel their race played a role in the evaluation, those students who were less concerned about their belonging in the institution showed evidence of self-engagement and valuing the feedback -- even when their race was known.

The question, of course, becomes this: how does one structure academic environments to foster a sense of belonging among minority students, such that their identities are not threatened and academic engagement becomes more likely?

The role of cross-race friendships in fostering institutional belonging

Given the centrality of rejection and acceptance concerns for RS-race, my colleagues and I have hypothesized that cross-race friendships should have a beneficial effect on students high in RS-race. Intergroup contact in general, and intergroup friendship in particular, has been previously linked to a variety of positive intergroup outcomes, including reductions in prejudice as well as positive experiences during intergroup interaction (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). Further, cross-race friendships can be particularly beneficial in that they can be the stage for unambiguous cues of acceptance from members of the outgroup.

My colleagues and I conducted an intensive experimental intervention study that induced friendship in cross-race vs. same-race dyads. We measured changes in cortisol (a hormonal correlate of stress) over the course of the 3-week intervention as well as a variety of interpersonal and institutional outcomes following the intervention. We found that among minority students high in RS-race, cross-race friendships bolster institutional belonging and satisfaction (Mendoza-Denton & Page-Gould, 2010), as well as attenuate cortisol reactivity during intergroup encounters (Page-Gould et al., 2008). We also showed that cross-race friendships attenuate negativity and promote future intergroup contact among students high on implicit prejudice. Thus, the intervention benefitted the very groups who were at greatest risk for experiencing negative intergroup relationships – those who are particularly prejudiced, and those who are particularly concerned about being targets of prejudice. Overall, the findings emerging from this research program are important because they are among the first experimental evidence for the benefits of cross-race friendships on intergroup outcomes, and provide a method for fostering positive intergroup relations in diverse environments.

Conclusion: The benefits of ingroup and outgroup affiliations are not mutually exclusive

The findings above are sometimes misinterpreted as minimizing the importance of ingroup affiliations (e.g., same-race friends, ethnically-centered theme programs) for fostering institutional belonging and achievement. In fact, the Common Ingroup Identity Model (see Gaertner & Dovidio, 2005) suggests that sharing an identity (for example, as University students) among individuals who are different in other ways provides benefits such as reduced intergroup bias and greater institutional belonging and commitment among minority group members (Dovidio, Gaertner, Flores Niemann, & Snider, 2001). Critically, as noted by several researchers (see  Gonzalez & Brown, 2006), the benefits of fostering a common ingroup identity are only observed among stigmatized groups when their subordinate group identity is not threatened —i.e., when one can have a dual identity. We have argued that in the context of friendship, subordinate identities are protected at the same time as superordinate identities are strengthened. Consistent with this notion, Mendoza-Denton, Pietrzak, and Downey (2008) find that among African American students, ethnic identification is positively related to academic achievement in historically White institutions—but only when students are not concerned about race-based rejection in their institution. Together, then, these findings suggest that efforts to increase cross-group friendship are not incompatible with institutional efforts to clearly communicate acceptance of the minority group through institutionally sanctioned groups or activities that center on minority students’ ethnic background. Our lab is currently collecting data to support the benefits of both cross-group and in-group contact for students’ well-being, achievement, and belonging in educational contexts.


The research described here, and the writing of this article, has been supported through several sources. These include grants from the Russell Sage Foundation’s Program on Cultural Contact, the Greater Good Science Center, and the Hellman Family Faculty Fund at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as the Fetzer Institute. I am indebted to these programs for their support.   


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