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Graduate Student Spotlight: Cecile Gadson

High school students experience conflicting stressors on a daily basis, balancing school, work and social life along with sports or other after-school activities while still trying to figure out the next steps in their lives. Some students, however, face additional pressures. Cecile Gadson studies the experiences of black adolescent girls in high school and the microaggressions they face every day, specifically at the intersection of gender and race.

Microaggressions are actions that subtly or unintentionally express a biased or prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group. They aren’t necessarily explicit and may be veiled as compliments or jokes but contain an element that makes their victims feel insulted or uncomfortable. Holding a purse tighter or crossing the street in avoidance when a person of color is nearby, telling a person that it must have been easy to get into college because of their race or gender, or telling people to present or dress in certain ways are all examples of microaggressions.

“People seem to feel very comfortable touching black girls, particularly their hair,” said Gadson, a graduate student in psychology. “Teachers specifically would touch and smell these girls’ hair every day without asking.”

Gadson, along with a co-facilitator and a process observer, interviewed 33 participants, ranging from 13 to 17 years old, from a total of 10 different schools. She talked with them about their subtle experiences with racism and sexism, asking, “What are some stereotypes you experience as a black girl?” “Do you ever feel like you’re treated differently as a black girl?” and “Have people made comments about your body as a black girl?” Gadson follows up by asking if their experiences are different from black boys, leading the girls to focus on microaggressions specific to their experience as members of two marginalized groups: women and people of color. These are the experiences that she records for her qualitative study.

Gadson is involved in a girls’ mentoring group and an LGBT youth advocacy group in the community in which she collected her data. It was important for her to do community-based work and to use her research to be an advocate for these students.

“It was very hard but important work. Qualitative research takes a long time, and this isn’t exactly a happy topic, either,” said Gadson. “But my hope is to shine a light on black girls’ experiences that are often lost when we just look at race or gender. Having real people to do this for—that’s what kept me going.”

Gadson said her research can be applied to clinical work and policy. Clinicians can use the data to help identify experiences that contribute to distress experienced by clients. The findings can be applied to understand the disproportionate treatment of black girls in schools and change school policies that target them,  or be applied in diversity training for educators and youth agencies. Ultimately, Gadson wants to use her data to benefit the community, either in a consulting role or as an advocate for improving school policies.

“When you’re on a grad student’s timeline, it’s easy to stay within the academic walls, but we shouldn’t forget about the importance of community-based work,” she said. “I’m glad I had that experience and I hope to continue to shine a light on these voices.”



Raphael Rosalin (865-974-2152,