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The subtle racist and sexist slights that can make even diverse colleges hostile places

A Muslim student is asked if she has a bomb in her backpack — jokingly, of course. A black man realizes his classmates assume his admission was solely due to affirmative action. A woman is certain her professor is paying more attention to male than female students, but she knows from experience that she'll be accused of overreacting if she calls the behavior sexist.

It's the little slights like these — they're often called microaggressions —that explain why college campuses, while more diverse than ever, can still be tough places for, well, pretty much all groups of students except white men.

Understanding the effect of these microaggressions on students is an essential step to closing the race and gender gaps in achievement and graduation rates. That's the conclusion of a new study by Harvard University's Voices of Diversity project. To reach it, researchers analyzed interviews and online surveys of more than 200 students attending Missouri State University, two anonymous public institutions in the South and the Midwest, and a private, elite university in the Northeast.

The sample size is small, but the students' responses — especially the anecdotal ones — paint a portrait of the new landscape of racism and sexism in higher education.

It's more subtle, but just as alienating as ever.

Diversity gains aren't enough

Diversity on college campuses has increased: between 1976 and 2007, black students grew from 10 percent of the total college population to 13 percent , Hispanics students from 4 percent to 12 percent, and Asian/Pacific Islander students from 2 percent to 7 percent. The percentage of female students increased from 48 to 57 — making women the majority at many schools. And there's likely been more progress made since that data was collected.

But the numerical gains made by students of color and women can't erase a long history of exclusion.

"[S]imply changing the representation of various groups does not in and of itself ensure that the experiences of racial/ethnic minority and women students are as positive as those of their white and male counterparts," Diversity Project researchers noted in their write-up of the study. They explained that, "since institutional change tends to be slow, one cannot assume that increases in numbers of students of color have been accompanied by adequate changes in what has been called the ‘chilly climate' for students of color and women in undergraduate populations at [predominantly white institutions]."

In their interviews with students, the researchers discovered that this "chilly climate" doesn't always come from outright racism, sexism, or hostility. Sometimes, they found, it's the result of subtle slights — often based in stereotypes — that can discourage and alienate students, putting a damper on their college experiences.

What are microaggressions?

The majority of the incidents students described in the report are what social scientists call "microaggressions," the subtle, commonplace, verbal or behavioral indignities — sometimes intentional and sometimes not —that insult and humiliate people who are in the minority.

They're the kind of things that provided the basis of the 2014 movie Dear White People, a satirical look at the experiences of black students at predominantly white colleges. In the film, characters vent frustration with things like incessant requests to touch their hair.

Here are a few examples from the report:

  • One woman talks about overhearing remarks that remind her of the way male students sexualize their female classmates, saying, "You can be standing in a group of guys, and they can be talking about the girls that are next to them...commenting on people's clothing or ‘She's pretty. She's ugly. She's fat. She's a bitch." Another reports that her male classmates "have more access to professors," and, unlike women, who "have to be within their own space and kind of really think about what they have to say before they say it," seem to feel uninhibited in class.
  • An Arab-American student says classmates have teased him about being a terrorist, followed by "you know I'm just joking."
  • An African-American student tells stories of how black males are questioned by campus police about whether they attend their Ivy League school — even when they're holding a student ID. Another reports that "there are people staring at me, trying to see how I react" whenever race comes up in the classroom." In response, the student says, "I kind of scrunch up and try not to be noticed."

Study authors said this wasn't surprising: "Experience in the civil rights and women's movements has shown that even changes in structures and policies do not, in and of themselves, eradicate racism and sexism and in fact often lead to the metamorphosis of expressions of prejudice into subtler forms.".

Why the findings matter

The students overwhelmingly reported that these microaggresions took a major toll on them — causing apprehension, anguish, and concern about how to react, layered on top of the hurt feelings the comments evoked.

The incidents not only caused immediate emotional distress, but also led students to wonder how much they can trust their own judgment, the authors wrote. The authors of the study said many students of color and women experienced prolonged doubt and stress that left them questioning their place on campus and whether they belonged.

This, of course, can damage self-confidence and serve as a major distraction from academics. Aside from the obvious (nobody wants college to be a terrible time for everyone besides white men), these findings have consequences for educational equality.

If students are preoccupied with navigating microaggressions, it stands to reason that they'd be distracted from academics and possibly even less motivated to complete their education. So this issue is important for people who are concerned about racial and gender gaps in achievement, as well as graduation rates.

"This study is absolutely necessary right now, as we face the continuing challenge of the achievement gap between minority students and their white counterparts," Henry Louis Gates, the principal investigator on the project, said in an interview with the Harvard Gazette. "The information we glean from this study will help us understand better the wide variety of factors that influence student performance."

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