Is Your University Racist?

Bedelia Nicola Richards highlights five questions you should ask yourself to determine if that's the case.

May 25, 2018
 
 

Racism is often construed as individual acts motivated by racial prejudice. Thus, it is challenging to understand institutional racism. Institutions do not have feelings like people do, nor do they have the consciousness to think and make decisions based on racial prejudice. So how can we identify racism within higher education institutions, even liberal ones that profess to value diversity, equity and inclusivity?

I propose five diagnostic questions for this purpose, but these tools can be used to identify any form of inequality in any social institution. 

#1. Which group or groups feel most at home on the campus and which ones feel like (unwanted) guests? 

Universities tend to use the percentage of underrepresented students and faculty members on their campuses as evidence of their commitment to diversity. That is certainly an important metric at historically white institutions, or HWIs, as they are often indifferent to, unprepared for or even openly hostile to our presence. Students and faculty of color are often made to feel like unwanted guests who will be tolerated as long as we “stay in our place” and show gratitude for the educational or occupational opportunity granted to us by our white saviors.  

Indeed, it is possible to increase the percentage of minoritized groups on college campuses while doing absolutely nothing to change hostile racial climates. HWIs should stop using numerical diversity as the only metric for its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and instead ask themselves “To what extent do our minoritized students, faculty members and staff members feel at home in this place”? How can we ensure that minoritized groups no longer feel like unwanted guests? More important, how can institutions make us feel like co-owners of our collective homes -- our campuses -- and as collaborators in crafting and pursuing the university mission? 

#2. Whose norms, values and perspectives does the institution consider to be normal or legitimate? Whose does it silence, marginalize or delegitimize? 

At historically white institutions, white cultural norms dictate what it means to dress and act “professionally.”  But “professionalism” can be weaponized to reinforce white dominance by silencing faculty, staff and students of color. In particular, faculty members of color are expected to engage in rituals of professionalism (“niceness,” “collegiality” and conflict-avoidance) regardless of how many times we may be subjected to racial microaggressions or harassment. If we question the complicity of our white colleagues in our oppressive racial experiences, they can often interpret this as an act of aggression because avoiding -- and silencing -- talk about race is a white cultural norm.  

For this reason, minoritized faculty, staff and students may choose to remain silent in the face of continuing oppression in order to keep our jobs or scholarships. That silence allows our faculty and administrative oppressors to minimize and dismiss the pain and trauma they inflict upon us, which reinforces white supremacy in institutions that claim to value diversity. Alternatively, those of us who dare to speak up know that we risk being labeled as “mean,” “intimidating,” “confrontational” and therefore unprofessional -- and that we will be punished. This is what it feels like to be an unwanted guest on our campuses. 

#3. Who inhabits positions of power within the institution?  

If representational diversity is the end goal, then counting the number of minority people on a campus might be a fine metric for diversity. But colleges and universities that are serious about being equitable and inclusive must pay attention to where power is concentrated within their institutions. They must carefully consider who is tenured and promoted to full citizenship; who sits on committees for hiring, tenure and promotion; who gets elected to serve on faculty senates; who is hired to serve as dean, provost or president; and, most important, who is elected or appointed to boards of trustees.  

An institution that truly aspires to be equitable and inclusive will also ensure that any person hired to serve in a leadership position will be knowledgeable about the distinct challenges of racially minoritized groups at colleges and universities, and that they have a successful track record of addressing such challenges from an institutional perspective. Without such knowledge, administrators can implement and legitimize oppressive standards, practices and policies that foster racially hostile environments for minoritized people, even when they have good intentions. In fact, not having access to equity-minded and anti-racist institutional power is also what it means to be an unwanted guest on our campuses.    

#4. Whose experiences, norms, values and perspectives influence an institution’s laws, policies and systems of evaluation?    

Because the professoriate has historically been composed of white heterosexual cisgender men, their experiences, norms and perspectives continue to be the implicit point of reference for institutional policies, practices and standards of evaluation. For that reason, students’ evaluations of teaching might capture quite accurately (or perhaps overestimate) the teaching competence of these privileged professors. However, many studies  show that student evaluations discriminate against women, faculty of color, and LGBTQ faculty members, especially those who teach on issues of inequality and oppression. Faculty of color and other marginalized faculty members are also more likely to have our authority challenged and to be subjected to a range of incivilities from students.  

Although such differential treatment is well documented in academic literatures and testimonials of underrepresented faculty members on campuses, our experiences with bias are routinely ignored. By minimizing the impact of racism and other systems of oppression on our lives, HWIs can engage in a practice that sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes as colorblind racism. Thus, working in institutions that use an evaluation tool that has been shown empirically to capture racist, sexist and anti-LGBTQ bias to assess whether we deserve salary increases or to be tenured or promoted is also what it means to be an unwanted guest on our campuses. 

#5. Whose interests does the institution protect? 

We can learn a lot about whom higher education institutions protect by examining whose comfort and well-being is centered within institutional policies, practices and decision-making. It is clear from the campus climate literature, for example, that when faculty members and students of color arrive on historically white campuses, we are often introduced into hostile environments that leave us feeling isolated, marginalized and devalued.  

Some institutions address this problem with special programs, organizations or affinity groups where people of color might find community with each other. But those solutions do not address the hostile racial climates that create the need for “racism-free” safe spaces.  

In order to protect us, higher education institutions should focus on changing toxic campus environments. Institutional change is not easy and requires multiple intervention points. These interventions could include mandatory racism awareness workshops and policies that spell out consequences for those who behave badly. Institutions that do not have policies in place to deal with discriminatory behaviors are, by default, choosing to protect the potential perpetrators of racist violence instead of its victims. The absence of policies and procedures to address hostile racial climates on HWIs is also what it means to be an unwanted guest on our campuses. 

These questions can be used in the classroom to teach about various forms of institutional discrimination. Personally, they can help those at HWIs in processing their experiences and holding their institutions accountable. Even more, I hope that administrators will use these questions for strategic planning purposes and for proactively creating more welcoming environments for people of color. 

Bio

Bedelia Nicola Richards is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Richmond.  Her research promotes critical thinking about how institutions of higher education can better work for students, faculty members and staff members from diverse backgrounds and communities.  

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