Digest No. 08 - January 2021

Microaggression Experiences among Black Undergraduates

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.


How do Black collegians attending a predominantly white institution experience racial microaggressions? According to the students who participated in this study, racial microaggressions are experienced through segregation: “the university policies and practices that communicate purposeful segregation between White and nonwhite students” (p. 49). For example, one student said that Black students tend to live in residence halls “very strategically put in the Northwest corner to where it’s not the center of campus” and “on the outskirts” where prospective student tours do not go (p. 49). Importantly, the student comments that he believes that such residence hall assignments are made “[on] purpose” by the institution “to fill a quota and not really, you know project us to the next level” (p. 49).

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).


Although the author rightfully discusses the limitations of this single-institution study, many of the study’s findings are applicable to CIC member institutions. Administrators should use the six microaggressions expressed by students in this study as a rubric for designing campus-based policies and interventions. How do our policies and practices potentially harm Black students on campus? How are Black student organizations valued and resourced? Are faculty members adequately trained in facilitating productive dialogue without tokenizing the Black students in class and in confronting both hate speech and the coded language white students present in class? Questions like these need to be routinely visited for real, anti-racist change to occur.

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.