Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Higher Education Leadership


Elizabeth Allan

Second Committee Member

Suzanne Estler

Third Committee Member

Phyllis Brazee


This study examines White university students' understanding of race. Based in the scholarship on higher education and diversity, and framed in Critical Race Theory (CRT), this study explores the racial awareness of White students. This study contributes to the literature on the racial experience of Whites and an understanding of how White students conceptualize race. Findings from this study can inform college and university educators as they seek to engage the racial majority in a multicultural campus.

Fifteen 18-19 year old White students raised in a predominately White state, and attending their first year at a predominately White university, participated in this qualitative study. Each participant was invited to two interviews and responded twice to the writing prompt 'What is race?' Interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. Both the transcriptions and free writes were coded for themes and sub themes.

Findings are presented in three categories reflecting the three research questions. These categories are 1) Being White, 2) What is Race, and 3) Experience with Race. Some of the most prominent themes and subthemes are: Learning I am White, Whites are Disadvantaged by Affirmative Action, Race is Skin Color, I am Not Racist, and School Policies about Race.

Findings were analyzed considering White racial identity development, Whiteness, and racial ideologies. Participants appeared to be in the initial statuses of White racial identity development. They had little awareness of themselves as raced and the effect of race; Whiteness was unmarked and invisible in their lives. The White students' narratives revealed a lack of understanding of three key concepts: race, racism, and privilege. Their narratives also reflected three racial ideologies: American individualism and meritocracy, Color blind, and Liberal racism.

Participants’ narratives revealed students who were ill prepared to engage successfully in a diverse society. However, with a clearer understanding of how these White university students perceive race and Whiteness, educators can develop both formal and informal learning opportunities that will support multiculturalism on their campuses. By ensuring that their graduates understand race and privilege, colleges and universities can play a vital role in addressing racial inequality and securing a thriving multicultural society.