Mills, K. 2020. “It’s Systemic: Environmental Racial Microaggression Experienced by Black Undergraduates at a Predominantly White Institution.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education 13 (1): 44–55.
Black undergraduate students experience college distinctively, especially when they are enrolled at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Navigating these environments requires resiliency, including the ability of Black collegians to face the risks associated with racial microaggressions. It also requires the students to protect themselves from microaggressions and adapt strategies to offset the microaggressions that often lead to such negative outcomes as dropping out of college (see Bowman 2013). Identifying the risk factors that these students face is critical for institutions that want to support the Black student population.
This article focuses on the risk factors faced by Black collegians enrolled at a PWI. These factors range from offensive jokes and remarks to low expectations for their academic performance. The author convened 17 Black collegians in a focus group designed to discuss microaggressions and derived a typology for categorizing them. Findings suggest that Black college students experienced six types of microaggressions: “(a) segregation; (b) lack of representation; (c) campus responses to criminality; (d) cultural bias in courses; (e) tokenism; and (f) pressure to conform” (p. 44). Understanding these forms of microaggression may help administrators at PWIs frame strategies to improve the campus climate for Black college students.
DISCUSSION OF THE FINDINGS
Students offered examples of the various forms taken by racial microaggression in the university. They reported experiencing a lack of representation due to the “limited numbers of persons of color, particularly Black or African American persons, throughout the university” (p. 49). Simply put by one student: “In my years at [university] I’ve had two Black professors” (p. 49). Lack of representation also was noted in leadership positions throughout the university.
Another microaggression was campus response to criminality, “[the] assumption of criminal status by the university police/practices, campus police, peers, and the greater university community” (p. 49). Not only did Black students perceive themselves to be “targets” (p. 50) for campus police, but they also noted instances when hate speech was condoned as “freedom of speech” in official communications from university leadership.
Cultural bias in courses also was noted as a microaggression, mostly by the Black women in this study. They described courses as “Europeanized” and shared that “discussions of race and submission of assignments highlighting race (e.g., cultural appropriation) were not well received by classmates or faculty” (p. 4). Black students also described “polarizing” classroom conversations about race, and they indicated that white peers often had a “nonexistent, generic” understanding of Black history that contributed to their “misunderstanding of sociopolitical movements such as Black Lives Matter” (p. 51).
Black students also identified tokenism as a microaggression. They “felt undervalued by the university and asserted that the university exploited Black students for the appearance of a more racially diverse campus” (p. 51). As one student noted, “If you do not run. If you do not catch balls. If you do not do these things for [university], then you as a Black student, you mean nothing to them” (p. 51).
Study participants also experienced pressure to conform as a microaggression. As one student noted, “I feel like we do have to change ourselves or try to fit into like what a White, typical White man is in order to get the same things that they get” (p. 52).
IMPLICATIONS FOR ACTION BY CAMPUS LEADERS
About the Author
Kristen Mills is a postdoctoral researcher of equity and diversity at Ohio State University.
Literature Readers May Wish to Consult
Bowman, N.A. 2013. “How Much Diversity is Enough? The Curvilinear Relationship between College Diversity Interactions and First-Year Student Outcomes.” Research in Higher Education 54: 874–894.
Harper, S. R., and S. Hurtado. 2007. “Nine Themes in Campus Racial Climates and Implications for Institutional Transformation.” New Directions for Student Services: 7–24.
Sue, D. W., C. M. Capodilupo, G. C. Torino, J. M. Bucceri, A. M. Holder, K. L. Nadal, and M. Esquilin. 2007. “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice.” American Psychologist 62 (1): 271–286.