Evanston/North Shore

Bias affects us all, even on college campuses

by Donique McIntosh, Co-Director of Racial Justice Programs
Posted August 24, 2015


Fall is my favorite season. I love the changing colors of the leaves, the cool breezes that replace summer’s heat, and the sense of possibility that a new school year evokes. What I don’t love is the persistent presence of racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism that accompanies students as they arrive at college campuses each fall. They’ve packed their bags and suitcases, and sometimes, unwittingly, their biases, stereotypes, and oppressive behavior and brought them all to the places where other students sleep, learn, live, and play.

The prevalence of oppression might surprise some. We tend to think of colleges as liberal places where people go to learn with open minds. But, college campuses are merely microcosms of the larger world and, as such, mirror the same hurtful and violent behavior we see other places. I worked in higher education for more than a decade and can scarcely recall a semester when there wasn’t a racist incident that captured the attention of the campus where I worked and at other campuses around the country. Incidents run the gamut from white people dressing up in blackface at parties to football players presenting a skit dressed as members of the KKK and carrying Confederate flags, to more common occurrences like this where people of color, women and Jewish people are targeted by hateful remarks and behavior.

While bigger incidents like these on campuses often make the local or national news, there are other smaller incidents that occur with regularity known as “microaggressions”. No less violent in their impact, microaggressions are often unconscious slights or insults. For instance, it's not uncommon to hear white people espouse a belief that the reason a person of color was admitted to an institution of higher education was because of affirmative action or for a Black or Hispanic person to be asked to check their bag at the front of the bookstore because the clerk assumes that they might steal something. Other instances include students mocking an Asian student's accent and white students not talking to or including students of color in group projects for class.
When there are larger incidents on campus, campus administrators have held campus-wide forums, disciplined students, and created teams to address diversity and students have led protests and demanded changes in policies and published letters in the college newspaper. Microaggressions can be more challenging for individuals and campus communities to address because they're less obvious.

Here are some things you can do if you or someone you know is heading to campus this fall:

  1. Recognize when you're buying into a stereotype and challenge yourself to think beyond it
  2. Educate yourself about people from different racial and ethnic groups
  3. Attend a diversity or social justice-oriented training on campus
  4. Take a General Education course on race and inequality in the U.S. if your school offers them
  5. Purposely live in a living-learning community with people who aren't like you
  6. Research the history of affirmative action in higher education and the history of blackface
  7. Listen when people of color, Jewish people, and women speak about their experiences as members of those groups
  8. Interrupt hateful comments and behavior 

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