Over the past few decades, the United States has become increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. However, within the discipline of psychology, studies of the lives of people of color in the U.S.—especially young women—have been much too narrow, according to Professor of Psychology Sheila Walker. “The field of psychology tends to essentialize and pathologize the study of racial and ethnic minorities,” she explains. “There is an implicit assumption in the psychological literature that African Americans, for example, are mostly living in poverty. Because of this, many studies focus primarily on problems, such as substance use, teen pregnancy, or poor academic performance.”
Walker is helping to remedy this gap in literature with a study of her own. In September, she published African American Girls and the Construction of Identity: Class, Race, and Gender, a booklength examination of how different racial and socioeconomic contexts impact the formation of identity for young African American women. Her book is an intimate look at how class, race, and gender intersect within familial and social contexts—homes, neighborhoods, churches, and schools—to shape girls’ sense of self.
Walker and her Claremont Consortium research students spent two years visiting the girls in her study and their families, attending their extracurricular events, and bringing them to the Scripps campus on weekends. During this time, Walker observed how each girl’s sense of self changed throughout some of the most pivotal periods of her adolescence. Walker found that “affluence is not a guaranteed protection against the identity-damaging effects of racism, and poverty is not necessarily a risk factor for an irresolute identity.”
“I hope that the book will contribute to psychological studies in general by demonstrating the importance of class and its intersection with other social categories as a lens through which to explore various psychological phenomena,” says Walker. “There is no aspect of our lives that is not touched in profound ways by our class positioning and all that it affords. Class determines where we live, how we live, what we believe and value, how much social and cultural capital we have, our access to the opportunity structure, and so on.”
The book’s cover art is by Scripps Professor Emerita of Art Samella Lewis. The work, titled Cleo, captivated Walker, who explains, “It’s a haunting image of an African American girl with huge, innocent-looking eyes, holding a long-stemmed rose. But if one doesn’t look closely, one misses that the rose stem ends in a dagger! I thought that this image was perfect for a book on black girls, as the image captures their beauty, their sweetness, and their toughness.”
Walker has been a professor at Scripps for 25 years. Prior to Scripps, she taught at a large state institution where she worked with many young women who struggled to find a voice in the male-dominated spaces they inhabited, making her transition to Scripps all the more interesting, from a psychologist’s perspective. “It is a different sort of experience to be able to teach and mentor young women who have both the confidence and the opportunity to imagine whatever sort of future they want and to interact with and be guided by faculty who may themselves have undergone similar challenges as young women.”