Some media outlets portrayed black student protesters as angry over petty issues — for example, suggesting that Yale students’ anger over white students’ use of blackface during Halloween, just one aspect of campus life that made them feel excluded and at times, maligned, was unreasonable.
The debate over whether black college students’ expression of concerns about racism on campus are “appropriate” often assumes that black college students and white college students are already on a level playing field in terms of the considerations and opportunities they receive. But no matter how prestigious the university, the students of color who attend classes there are anything but coddled. Access to Ivy League schools doesn’t erase the racism that students experience from their fellow classmates.
In fact, there’s an ample amount of research showing why black college students have to fight for recognition and respect on college campuses — particularly overwhelmingly white ones — which makes it clear why students are saying they’ve finally had enough of being treated as the “other” at their own institutions of higher education.
Confronting racial bias from professors and peers
Black students in higher education settings have to contend with assumptions about their competence and their interests from both their teachers and their fellow students.
For example, it’s harder for them to find a mentor. A 2014 study conducted by researchers at New York University, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania found that when students contacted professors for mentorship, faculty were significantly more responsive to white men than women and people of color — particularly in private universities and higher-paying disciplines.
To make matters worse, faculty often single out students for their race during conversations or during class. According to a 2013 Association for the Study of Higher Education paper, which conducted focus groups with graduate students at seven universities, students of color reported many instances of faculty suggesting their race affected their interests. One participant named Jasmine, a black student studying computer science, said her professor referred to her as “one of you.”
“You’ve never taught a student before? Never taught a softball player?” the student recounted her professor saying. “[I was] trying to figure out what he meant by, ‘one of you.’ And he finally came out and said, “I’ve never had a black student before.” It was just very, very uncomfortable. I know he didn’t mean anything like, negative by it.”
In the same 2013 paper, students of color said that they often felt excluded from the larger student population. They reported that their white peers didn’t always agree to share information with them, assuming they were undeserving of their place at the university and were trying to “piggyback” off of their work.
Students often have to pick their battles about when and how to address the gendered and racial microaggressions they face every day, according to a 2012 Journal of African American Studies paper on female black college students’ experiences. The study found that female black students used a variety of coping mechanisms, including resisting and speaking out against Eurocentric standards, leaning on a support network, and becoming desensitized and escaping.
Struggling with the psychological pressure of proving yourself
One of the greatest challenges of being a black college student at a predominantly white college is the pressure to represent your entire race positively by succeeding at everything.
Racist assumptions that black students didn’t get in through their own merit, an insult that seems to be lobbed around with a lot less force for legacy students, fuel that pressure to prove they “deserved” admission to the college. This is often known as “stereotype threat,” and research has shown students experience more feelings of isolation and negative stereotyping at less diverse universities as well as more pressure to perform well academically. The feeling that students have to combat negative stereotypes actually hurts academic performance for black students.
To make matters worse, a survey released earlier this month shows that even though black students are more likely to report feeling overwhelmed and angry, they don’t seek help as often as white students. Ebony McGee, a researcher at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, told the Huffington Post that it may be more difficult for black college students to access mental health services because white counselors are often ill-equipped to address anxiety that relate to a student’s race or ethnicity.
Dealing with a Eurocentric teaching focus
Thanks to a dearth of professors of color at many universities, black college students and other students of color say their point of view isn’t represented when, for example, Western culture is considered the default standard by which all literature, architecture, film, and art is judged.
“Recent scholarship has shown that asymmetries of power and distortions of understanding are created whenever only certain people are described as having an ‘ethnicity’ or being ‘gendered’ subjects — that is, as having marked identities,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a history professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote in an article for the American Historical Association. “This is manifest in the profession when scholars of strikes in American or European factories, for example, introduce themselves simply as ‘labor historians,’ while those doing research on Nigeria or Chile are expected to specify that they study African or Latin American workers.”
This kind of bias toward seeing European topics as “normal” and all other areas of the world as “other” often robs students of color from seeing work that isn’t framed from a European cultural influence. But it’s often difficult for black students to do anything to counter this dynamic.
In November of last year, for example, a student of color at Columbia University caused controversy when she asked white students whose Contemporary Civilizations course was taught by a professor of color to consider letting her switch classes with them. Although she said the switch would be “important to my health and life,” she received on onslaught of critical response. She was called “entitled” for asking to see herself represented in her own university’s faculty.
Being targeted by campus police
The number of armed officers at universities has gone up in the past decade, a U.S. Department of Justice report shows. During the 2011-2012 school year, 91 percent of public colleges had armed police officers. There has also been a recent uptick in the percentage of private and public colleges that employ officers who carry guns, from 68 percent in the 2004-2005 school year to 75 percent in 2011-2012.
There is already distrust between safety officers and black college students, who are often profiled by police officers off campus, and there has been a record of safety officers unnecessarily criminalizing small infractions or stepping outside of their authority when they approach black college students. For example, Portland State University students and Black Lives Matter activists protested the introduction of weapons to the campus police force due to concerns about who would be targeted by campus police.
Black college students are often stopped by officers for very minor issues. In September, a black college student who attended Hinds Community College in Mississippi was stopped by a campus police officer who said his pants violated the college dress code. When the student refused to show his ID, he was arrested for a failure to comply. Yet, after the incident, the college said he had not violated the dress code.
Failing to get solidarity from the administration
Among all of these problems with campus climate for black students, the lack of administration response to racist incidents has been the most mobilizing for protesters.
The former president of the University of Missouri, for instance, was accused of failing to act after a string of racist behavior toward black students on campus — such as the African American student association president being harassed by men in a pickup truck yelling a racial slur, a white male student calling black students a racial slur during the rehearsal of a school play, and the drawing of a swastika with feces in one of the college’s bathrooms. He resigned in November of last year after widespread student protests calling for him to step down.
Students on other campuses have had similar complaints, leading to other administrators agreeing to resign their positions. But there’s still a widespread sense that college administrators aren’t sensitive to the concerns of students of color speaking up about injustices on campus.
At Yale University — where students of color have submitted a list of demands for the administration after reports of racist behavior from their peers — President Peter Salovey has defended some of the incidents that students are upset about. Salovey defended a faculty member who hit “reply all” to disagree with an email from the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale directing students not to wear blackface, claiming that students of color should simply avert their eyes from peers wearing offensive costumes.
The email incident, though often portrayed as minor, was an example of a college faculty member undermining a task force working on making the campus climate more welcoming to students of color. For students of color, the choice to publicly criticize the committee represented a complete disregard for whether or not students of color feel welcome on campus. Are those students “coddled,” or are they simply seeking basic respect in environments that are tailored to white students’ needs?