Institutional Racism Series: How it Affects College Experiences

“There are injustices happening here and we will speak regardless of us being silenced in the classroom, regardless of administration not paying attention to us, we’re going to speak.”[1]

This was said by a student at my college during protests in my senior year of college. Yes, this was said in 2015. Not 1955.

The quote at the beginning of this post is only a microcosm of what has been expressed by people at college campuses across the United States: there is institutional racism, or racism that is practiced and sometimes even normalized by social, economic, governmental, and other institutions, at colleges and universities across the United States.

This institutional racism can be subtle to some, so subtle that I (and probably many others) didn’t even recognize the existence of these forms of racism during most of my college experience. But for others, institutional racism is ingrained in their college experiences.

There are so many forms of institutional racism at college campuses that, for the sake of brevity with this post, I’m going to go into brief explanations with three types of institutional racism that many colleges show[2] and that I often noticed:

  1. Descending into stereotypes of a particular racial group. One of the recent infamous examples happened at a New York University dining hall, where a menu “celebrating” Black History Month descended into certain harmful stereotypes about southern cuisine and black people by serving “ribs, collard greens, cornbread, smashed yams, mac and cheese and two beverages, red Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water.”[3] However, NYU is sadly far from the only institution that has been institutionally racist through descending into stereotypes of a particular racial group.
  2. Viewing nonwhite people a just a number, or part of a number. Every time a college talks about their diversity rates, they are viewing nonwhite people as numbers. Every time they talk about the percentage of students at their colleges who are minorities, they are viewing nonwhite people as numbers. Viewing nonwhite people as numbers is a form of institutional racism, as this type of racism is one where nonwhite people are viewed as not having worth beyond being part of a statistic.
  3. Turning a blind eye to various racial injustices at campus. From inaction towards racial slurs (which has happened not just at my alma mater, but at many other campuses) to a stunning refusal to confront common stereotypes that people of different races often face on campus (blacks being viewed as “beneficiaries of affirmative action” being one of the notable ones), many a college campus just seems to ignore racial injustices. These injustices continued to be ignored by many college campuses in spite of the outspokenness of many student leaders. This is institutional racism of a sort as well, as the type of racism demonstrated by institutions is the idea that people of color are not worth listening to.

Some people may think of higher education institutions as places where high-minded academia can overcome some of the racial vitriol that exists elsewhere. I challenge those of us who think this way to think again, and to open our eyes to the institutional racism that affects many college campuses across the United States.


[1] https://thedickinsonian.com/news/2015/11/18/students-stage-black-out-calling-it-the-start-of-a-movement/
[2] There are certainly other types of institutional racism beyond the three that I cover here. People who want to bring attention to other forms of institutional racism at college campuses should feel free to reply in the comments section for this blog post.
[3] https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/22/us/nyu-kool-aid-watermelon-menu-black-history-month-trnd/index.html. Watermelons and Kool-Aid in particular have histories as racial stereotypes. This article from The Atlantic covers the racial dynamics of watermelons: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/how-watermelons-became-a-racist-trope/383529/.

10 Replies to “Institutional Racism Series: How it Affects College Experiences”

  1. A crucial discussion Brendan that affects students and faculty profoundly. I have written many posts about this topic. One in particular feels relevant (https://carolahand.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/reflections-and-a-reblog-why-are-you-so-different/). I have posted an excerpt below.

    “Years ago, I accepted a position at a university as an assistant professor. I did not know at the time that I was only the second Native American faculty member the department of social work had ever hired for a tenure track position. The first left 30 years before I came because of the anti-Native discrimination she experienced, a perception that the state district court affirmed in a decision that awarded damages. The anti-Native bias was still palpable and unrelenting during the 3 years I spent there. Unlike my predecessor, I chose not to pursue legal action. Doing so would have locked me in an angry, ugly battle for years. Instead, I turned to writing, grateful that I could escape from a toxic environment with such unhappy people. The following essay is drawn from the series of stories I wrote about my experiences and reflections during those years.”

    One of the main reasons I was so disliked was the role I played as a mentor and advocate for students who were treated badly by other faculty because of their ancestry, culture, socio-economic status, or sexuality. Almost all of my students graduated while I was there despite an abysmal historical record for my department with respect to Native students in particular. But to be honest, it was a relief for me to leave…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Wow. It was very powerful to read both your excerpt and your post.

      I do think there is this perception of higher education as somehow “enlightened” and able to escape from some of the bigotry of the “real world.” Your story is just another example that this is not the case, that hatred and bigotry can and does very much carry over to institutions of higher education too. Thank you so much Carol for sharing all of this with me and with the wider world.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, Brendan. I did hope that academia would be an enlightened place of inclusive learning. Sadly, I was profoundly disappointed by what I witnessed in many institutions, but thankfully, not all.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. The saddest part is that somehow and some way, admin and staff of color will always walk away from a school with relief. I was placed in exactly the same position due to me being able to build rapport with students of color while others (VPs, president, board members)wondered how I managed to accomplish that, all while getting slapped in the hand. We get no breaks.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m sorry to hear that you had similar experiences in academia, Shinning Tecciztecatl. It’s a gift to work with students and see them succeed, but it comes at such a heavy cost for faculty of color. And it’s a lonely place to be…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m sorry to hear about those experiences as well.

        At the same time though, I appreciate you (Shinning Tecciztecatl) and Carol bringing awareness to this side of racism in academia. Hopefully awareness will turn into changes in the ways colleges conduct themselves, but for now I’m happy that both of you have raised so much awareness on this issue.

        Liked by 1 person

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