4 Ways Colleges Can Promote Anti-Racism on Campus

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4 Ways Colleges Can Promote Anti-Racism on Campus

March 10, 2021

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With more incidents of police brutality against Black and brown Americans, and more colleges contending with their racist legacies by renaming campus buildings and removing statues that memorialize white supremacists, it's clear that colleges and universities must take a bold stance on the importance of becoming anti-racist institutions.

Campus hate crimes and bias incidents have risen sharply in the past decade. A few recent examples of racism at predominantly white institutions include the racist fraternity chants by the University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the noose found at Johns Hopkins University, and the swastikas drawn around the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus.

Even with the physical closure of campuses across the U.S. due to COVID-19, racism remains an ongoing problem. In February, students at City University of New York campuses became the victims of racist "Zoombombing" when several individuals infiltrated online forums to post white supremacist messages and images during Black History Month virtual events.

“These despicable [virtual] attacks were brutally real and carry the potential to cause lasting, substantial damage. … [We] must do all in our power to counteract the culture and climate that give rise to this abhorrent behavior.” Source: — Matos Rodríguez, City University of New York Chancellor Link:More Info

Racism and white supremacy have been deeply embedded in the fabric of the U.S. since the country's inception, and universities are but a microcosm of society. Many students of color experience racial microaggressions in and outside the classroom, which can ultimately influence their sense of belonging, self-efficacy, and ability to complete their degrees.

After George Floyd's death last year, many colleges issued statements detailing their renewed commitment to eradicating racism, promoting a culture of anti-racism, and alleviating barriers in order to create equitable opportunities for historically marginalized student populations.

Universities play a key role in educating future generations and working vigorously to establish safe and equitable spaces for students of color. Below are four strategies for how colleges can condemn racism while fostering an anti-racist campus climate.

Eradicate the Culture of Silence Around Racism

Rises in both racial tensions and racist incidents on campuses have heightened the need for college leaders to hold candid conversations about race and racism, which remain largely taboo topics. These days, many are met with resistance, anger, or disengagement when attempting to discuss race and racism. Being open and responsive to conversations around race is a main tenet of anti-racism.

For many white people, learning to examine how their racial privilege manifests, as well as how this privilege creates unfair social and economic disadvantages for racial minorities, is the first step toward being an ally. When you remain silent and indifferent to racism, you inadvertently indicate your complicity in perpetuating oppression.

Unfortunately, it's white indifference and silence that invigorate the system of white supremacy. In order to eradicate this culture of silence around racism, we must acknowledge that racism exists and that the majority doesn't get to choose when and how to define racism.

When you remain silent and indifferent to racism, you inadvertently indicate your complicity in perpetuating oppression.

It's time for white people to start holding uncomfortable but bold conversations with other white people about the presence and endurance of racism, how their silence contributes to complicity, and what accountability they have in perpetuating and eradicating oppression.

On college campuses, professors play a large part in eradicating the culture of silence around race and racism. Faculty members need to foster a learning environment in which students feel empowered to share their thoughts and experiences, and in which students of color don't feel targeted, tokenized, or pressured to be spokespeople whenever discussions around race occur.

Vanderbilt University's Center for Teaching offers helpful literature and guidance on teaching and talking about race in the classroom.

Regularly Assess Students' Sense of Belonging

"Sense of belonging" refers to the emotional and affective attachment students feel toward their campus environment. A student's comfort level when it comes to navigating college can be determined by attachment to social networks, like peers and professors, and the overall cultural climate.

On many predominantly white campuses, access for students of color does not necessarily equal inclusion — many minority students report feeling disconnected and disengaged from the larger campus culture. Research indicates that exposure to racial microaggressions can lead to a decreased sense of belonging and lower comfort levels.

A sense of belonging is critical to a student's personal and professional success. Those who report feeling a lack of belonging may appear disengaged during student activities, while interacting with peers, and in the classroom. They may also experience low efficacy or lack confidence in their academic abilities, resulting in poor performance and even academic failure.

Since students spend most of their time in the classroom, professors play a crucial role in shaping the learning environment, especially for historically marginalized groups. Some tips for enhancing a student's sense of belonging in the classroom include the following:

Students feel valued and respected when professors know who they are.

Students should feel comfortable seeking out help when needed, asking questions, and communicating openly with you. This is especially important for first-generation college students who may not understand the value of engaging with professors.

Doing this not only helps humanize you but also allows your students to connect with you on a deeper level.

Make statements such as "This is a challenging topic many students have trouble with." Even sharing stories about your own struggles while in college can help. Students of color may feel shame around struggling and fear being open and honest with their professors about their issues, so it's important that they know you're here to assist and support them.

The Community College Survey of Student Engagement and the National Survey of Student Engagement are two of the largest nationwide surveys on student engagement at the undergraduate level. Both surveys have been essential in helping administrators understand how engaged and connected students feel on their campuses, and what factors can enhance or inhibit their engagement.

While these surveys offer a broad analysis, administrators and professors can perform similar research within their respective classrooms. Conducting smaller-scale surveys or creating focus groups to inquire about students' sense of belonging; their involvement in campus activities; their connections to peers, professors, and staff; and their experiences in the classroom can provide administrators with localized data they can use to improve the campus culture.

Evaluate the Cultural Relevance of Student Support Services

Offering diverse and culturally relevant student support services is essential to enhancing a student's sense of belonging. Many students of color at predominantly white institutions do not have the luxury of seeing university staff and professors who look like them or who share similar experiences, so it's important that support services can respond to the needs of diverse students.

Two support services that are critical to the personal and academic success of students of color are academic advising and mental health counseling. To maintain a climate of anti-racism when working with students of color, be sure to abide by the following guidelines.

Know How to Talk About Race and Racial Identity

In supporting a student of color, you should acknowledge the importance of their racial identity and assess their comfort level when talking about race. You should also recognize how the student's racial identity shapes their worldview and experiences. Don't make any assumptions about the student's identity; rather, ask them to self-identify.

Once you know how they identify, you can begin to discuss how their identity influences their thoughts on college and life in general.

Actively Pursue Anti-Racist Education

Advisors and mental health counselors must be active in the pursuit of anti-racist education. Understanding systems of oppression, and assessing your own racial identity and biases, is key to knowing how your prejudices may affect your interactions with students.

Consider the Impact of Cultural Factors

Be cognizant of how cultural factors may affect students' lives and recommended interventions. We must meet students where they are and respect the weight their cultures carry for them.

For many students of color, especially Black and Latino/a students, family is essential to their way of being. Acknowledge how family members may influence the student's academic journey, how they perceive their own wellness, and their professional success.

Some students may instead be looking for a sense of family within their college environment, in which case having a clear understanding of multicultural student services is necessary for effectively supporting them.

Examine the Relationship Between Students of Color and Law Enforcement

The relationship between people of color and law enforcement remains contentious. With cases and evidence of racial bias, racial profiling, and police brutality, communities of color continue to feel both disdain and mistrust toward law enforcement.

On many predominantly white campuses, students of color are often profiled and targeted by campus police. In order to foster inclusivity, campus law enforcement officers must examine and reform how they treat and interact with students of color.

Campus and local law enforcement are often easier to reform because such groups are smaller and include less complex dispatch systems. What's more, the college or university wields the power to change unfair policies and procedures. In 2019, for example, the University of Missouri fired a campus police officer after a photo surfaced of him wearing blackface. This type of zero-tolerance policy is necessary for ensuring an anti-racist campus climate.

In order to foster inclusivity, campus law enforcement officers must examine and reform how they treat and interact with students of color.

Student engagement surveys rarely assess the relationship between students of color and local law enforcement. But these officers greatly impact how connected students feel to their campus environment and whether they feel respected and valued. Colleges should include questions about student experiences with law enforcement on surveys and regularly organize focus groups to help understand the interactions between students and campus police.

Often, campuses make a strict demarcation or separation between police and students. Instead, colleges should strive to integrate police into the campus environment. Strategies for doing this include having officers attend campus events in plain clothes, requiring them to serve on school committees, and asking them to visit classrooms. The goal is to provide more opportunities for positive, unconventional engagement between students and police.

Achieving Anti-Racism in Higher Education

Promoting anti-racism on college campuses is not an easy endeavor — it involves continued inquiry, assessment, and action. It also involves looking holistically at the systems, structures, and practices that prevent students of color from thriving and feeling comfortable.

As the U.S. continues to diversify, we must think harder about how we can eradicate racism and hate in higher education.


Feature Image: Andersen Ross Photography Inc. / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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