Becoming “Open-Minded”: Negotiating Muslim Identity at an Elite University

Abstract: Muslims arguably represent the paradigmatic cultural outsider in American society today, but relatively little research explores how they navigate key sociocultural and political institutions. Higher education represents a particularly important context in need of exploration, since it 1) enables access to social and economic opportunities, 2) consecrates dominant American culture, 3) facilitates educational and professional identities that confer social legitimacy, and 4) constitutes a historically privileged pathway to leadership in the Muslim community. Yet college students also express low impressions of Muslims. To investigate how Muslim college students negotiate stereotypes and validate positive identities on campus, I analyze data from Elite Urban, a prestigious research university, including archival sources from across the university along with observations and interviews with Muslim students. Informed by social identity perspectives in social and organizational psychology, I show how Muslim respondents typically distinguished themselves from negative stereotypes about their co-religionists by narrating how the university helped them become more “open-minded”—a quality rooted in a willingness to consider different ideas, cultures, and perspectives that the university constructed as constitutive of its students. These narratives not only positioned respondents as prototypical students but simultaneously associated open-mindedness with Muslim prototypicality. Students reinforced these claims by distancing themselves from other Muslims in their home communities and media hot-buttons like Saudi Arabia whom they depicted as relatively closed minded. These findings have implications for Muslim identity and belonging, higher education, and the study of boundaries and social identity in sociology and social psychology.