Becoming “Open-Minded”: Dominant Prototypes as a Resource for Muslim Identity at an Elite University

Higher education offers countless material and symbolic advantages. Whether students—particularly minorities—attain those benefits, however, depends not only on admission but also on the degree to which they feel they belong and are valued on campus. This study investigates how students construct valued identities on campus by considering the case of Muslims, arguably the paradigmatic cultural outsider in American society today. Informed by social identity perspectives in social and organizational psychology, I analyze data from a prestigious research university, including archival sources from across the university along with observations and interviews with Muslim students. I show how the university constructed the prototypical student as “open-minded,” a subjective quality marked by a willingness to consider different ideas, cultures, and perspectives. Muslim respondents leveraged this prototype as a resource for contesting stereotypes and claiming virtuous identities in three analytically distinct ways. First, their accounts of campus life emphasized how experiences at the university helped them become more open-minded, thereby depicting themselves as prototypical students and outside the bounds of stereotypes. Second, they reconstructed the prototypical Muslim as open-minded by comparing themselves to other “bad” Muslims whom they depicted as intolerant and dogmatic. Finally, a few respondents turned the tables on stereotypes by portraying anyone who disseminated them as closed-minded. I conclude by discussing the implications of these findings for Muslim belonging as well as the study of higher education, symbolic boundary making, and stereotypes and social identity.