Examining overt and subtle racism on college campuses
When I was applying for colleges as a high school senior, I took serious note of the political climate of each campus. I believed, and naively so, that perhaps a more “progressive” campus would be accepting of a black immigrant student from Somalia. I thought that the pervasiveness of racism would be drastically less compared to, let’s say, Alabama State. Of course, politics wasn’t the only thing I took into account. I was more concerned about receiving enough financial aid and the types of majors and degrees available at a school. However, this idea of a “liberal” campus being a better learning environment for students of color was an immense deceit, one that I fell for.
I wasn’t the only one. My best friend from high school applied to Oberlin College specifically because of its long progressive history (it was the first college to formally admit black students and women). My other friend, who attends UC Berkeley, was attracted to that college in large part because it’s a hotbed for student activism. Both have since complained to me that their respective campuses aren’t as “progressive” as they initially envisioned.
I feel the same way, especially after recent events on the other hill at Cornell University where a black student was beaten and called “nigger” by a white fraternity member. Two weeks prior to that incident, fraternity members allegedly chanted “build a wall” near a residential house for Latino students.
There’s an awful lot to unpack in this intense and escalating debate about racism on campus. And as a black student at a primarily white institution, there’s a lot at stake for me, as well as other folks of color. Am I going to flourish in this environment? How does one cope with traumatic instances of racism?
My first instance of direct and personalized white racism was here at Ithaca College. A white student kept casually using “nigga” and made derogatory comments about black women. I was speechless at first. I didn’t expect to encounter such undisguised racism barely a week into my freshman year. I confronted the student, who actually went out of their way to justify using “nigga.” This problem is especially common at parties, where non-black students scream the N-word at the top of their lungs.
I subsequently became frustrated and disillusioned. After constantly hearing from other students of color about the type of racism they encounter in Ithaca, I seriously questioned whether this place was truly “progressive.” I placed tremendous trust in my Northeastern liberal arts community, only to find out I was ridiculously naive.
The issue of racism on campus cannot be separated from the broader institutional and societal issue of racism in America, which used to openly segregate people. Since then, it has morphed a bit through red-lining and white flight to achieve those same goals in less obvious ways. It went from a bullhorn to a dog whistle, more subtle and open to plausible deniability. By and large, we aren’t lynching people for looking at a white woman the wrong way anymore, but there’s still an alarming lack of accountability when a cop kills a black person and isn’t able to justify it to the satisfaction of the public. In that sense, racism has become more sinister because it can be hard to know with certainty when it’s at play.
Racism and discrimination continue to be a part of the daily lives of students of color on college campuses, especially at primarily white institutions. At times, this racism is overt, such as being called racial slurs and physically assaulted. However, racism on campus often manifests itself in subtler ways, like white students believing that a black student was admitted to college solely because of affirmative action and not due to their academic merits. This is the added pressure students of color must deal with at institutions of higher learning — in addition to the regular things that stress out college students.
Navigating these difficult environments can certainly take a toll on the mental and emotional well being of students of color. According to researchers at Vanderbilt university, there is a direct link between anti-black racism on campus and mental health issues.
Given this reality, where do we go from here? It’s incredibly important that we pause and ask ourselves a number of uncomfortable questions. Is Ithaca truly a “progressive” college environment? Are the colleges on both sides of the hill actually addressing the needs of students of color? How do you have a meaningful conversation about racism and justice with white people?
When racist incidents occur on campus, college administrators should act swiftly and aggressively — even if that calls for expelling pampered frat boys and closing their fraternities. Students of color should also share their painful stories to a broader audience so as to raise awareness about issues of race and justice. I’m disappointed that Ithaca isn’t as welcoming an environment as I had thought, but if some of these actions are taken I have hope that I can still call this place home in the future.
Mahad Olad is a second-year politics major who enjoys when people aren’t assholes. You can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.