Racism on College Campuses
A few weeks ago there was a racist incident on my campus. In one of the resident halls, a message was written on a whiteboard that said, “Emmett Till Deserved to Die.” After the message was removed a new message appeared shortly thereafter that said, “You Can’t Erase the Truth.”
Unless you know the story of Emmett Till, you are probably unaware of how hateful and threatening this racist message is. For those who didn’t learn this story in history class (which is probably most of us), Emmett Till was fourteen years old when he was kidnapped and brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly talking to a white woman.
The incident at my college was actually the latest in a series of racist occurrences at New Paltz in the past few years. For a self-proclaimed liberal college in a liberal town in one of the most liberal states in the country, these blatant displays of racism are both frustrating and frightening. New Paltz, both the college and the town, proudly promotes diversity, multiculturalism, tolerance, acceptance, and understanding. However, the recent spate of racist episodes challenges the very foundation on which these well-intentioned ideals are based.
What’s equally upsetting is that these events are not unique to SUNY New Paltz. As the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education details on its website, racist incidents continue to plague colleges and universities across the United States. Whether it’s “colored only” or whites only” signs being placed (“jokingly”) on water fountains, confederate flags being hung in dorm rooms, racist skits being performed at fraternity or sorority events, racist graffiti being spray painted on campus buildings, or opposing players being taunted with racial slurs at sporting events, racism is undeniably widespread in higher education.
In an effort to process the recent episode of racism on my campus, I did an exercise in one of my classes in which I asked students to write about the first racist incident that they experienced or witnessed. Almost all of the non-white students were able to identity and explain a personal example that either happened to them or to one of their friends or family members. On the other hand, very few of the white students were able to pinpoint an early, specific example where they witnessed racism.
As a follow-up question, I asked the students if they could recall the first time they recognized white privilege. For this question, hardly any of the students (non-white or white) were able to identify a particular moment at which they recognized the societal advantages white people receive because of the color of their skin.
The responses to these two questions are both telling and troubling, and they speak to an enduring paradox of race in the United States: racism persists in a land of self-professed non-racists. Racism persists but very few (white) people are willing and able to acknowledge that they benefit from it.
The conclusions I am making are not accepted readily by white people. In fact, many of us probably don’t even want to talk about these themes, much less acknowledge them. This refusal and denial is a large part of the problem. How can we even begin to address racism if no one is willing to take responsibility for it? How can we expect to have a level playing field if no one is willing to acknowledge that the field is titled toward one side? In the United States, racism and white privilege are two sides of the same coin and we respond to each side in a similarly problematic manner: one side we deny and the other side we reject.
Sociologist Joe Feagin, a former president of the American Sociological Association, argues there is no way we will be able to overcome racism unless we are willing to recognize and resist the white racial frame. This frame is Feagin’s way of capturing the depth and ubiquity of racist ideology. The white racial frame is an historical construction held by whites and often adopted by non-whites that shapes the way we think, feel, and respond to the social world. As Feagin explains in this video, the white racial frames affects the way we understand (and largely misunderstand) the racial landscape by seeing the world through a dominant white perspective:
As a college professor, I am particularly bothered by these ongoing incidents of racism in higher education. Although I recognize that the United States is still a racist society and that college campuses are not immune to such societal problems, I also believe strongly in the purpose of higher education as a place where racism, white privilege, and the white racial frame (not to mention other forms of oppression) are put under the microscope so that they can be fully dissected.
I use the preceding scientific metaphor intentionally because I feel strongly that these topics are not exclusively the purview of the social and behavioral sciences. Racism and white privilege occur in all disciplines—science, business, fine and performing arts, and others; however, in most colleges, the discussion of these inequalities is ghettoized (another intentional metaphor) into a few disciplines (usually Sociology, Black Studies, and Women Studies). As a college student, unless you take a class in one of these disciplines it is highly possible—even probable—that you will never have to consider much less confront racism and white privilege. Not surprisingly, this lack of education makes many students, particularly white students, ill-equipped to recognize, respond to, and resist racism.
If students in the U.S. are not getting a comprehensive education about race in high school (as sociologist James Loewen argues convincingly in Lies My Teacher Told Me), and they are also not getting such an education in college (as I’m suggesting here), then is it any wonder that we have outbreaks of racism on college and university campuses? Educators and administrators must be willing to bring the topic of race into (and across) the curriculum if we have any hope of eradicating racism. Otherwise, we will resemble a version of the three not-so-wise monkeys—not seeing racism, not hearing racism, and not speaking racism—all while racism persists in our midst.
Want to learn more? I recommend these two books: Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real about Race in School and Challenging Racism in Higher Education: Promoting Justice.