Politics & Policy

University Report: A Room Full of White People Is a Microaggression

Unbearable Whiteness 101
Apparently, just being in certain rooms is a microaggression.

According to a new report released by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, just “walking into or sitting in” a classroom full of white people is a microaggression in itself.

“Students of color reported feeling uncomfortable and unwelcomed just walking into or sitting in the classroom, especially if they were the only person of color, or one of a few,” stated the report, which designated the experience a microaggression.

“People do not necessarily say I do not belong, but I feel as if I do not when I am in a classroom and I am the one non-White person,” said one student, identified as a Latina female, who is quoted in the report.

The report, titled “Racial Microaggressions,” was based on an online survey of more than 4,800 students of color during the 2011–12 academic year, and it found more than 800 examples of such microaggressions on campus. Now, that may seem like a lot — but it’s important to recognize that this high number could signify the prevalence of a tendency to assume that almost anything is racist rather than the prevalence of racism itself.

Don’t get me wrong — some of the examples are totally unacceptable and definitely racist. One Asian student reported having “been told to go back to running a Laundromat,” and a multiracial student reported that she once “overheard other White students discussing admissions and laughing about how the only reason stupid Mexicans could get into this school was due to affirmative action.”

Those things are definitely racist and offensive. There’s no doubt about that.

A lot of the report’s “most commonly described” racial microaggressions could also be interpreted as having nothing to do with racism at all.

But a lot of the report’s “most commonly described” racial microaggressions could also be interpreted as having nothing to do with racism at all. “Being the only student of color in the classroom” was on that list, as was “being discouraged during meetings with one’s academic advisor” (one student determined that her adviser had questioned her choice of major only because “she realized I was African American,” and therefore, “in her mind, I wasn’t able to successfully complete the major”); “being dismissed or ignored by the instructor before or after class” (an African-American male stated, “when I raise my hand, I am often not called upon”); “receiving hostile reactions to participation in the classroom discussion” (one student said she has “witnessed and felt that when a minority student tries to correct [a] comment . . . they are then viewed as angry or defensive when in reality they are simply trying to inform others of what is true”); and “being excluded from participating in a group project” (one student says he keeps quiet in these situations because “I feel as though what I have to say often doesn’t matter to the rest of the group members.”)

But don’t advisers question students’ major choices all the time? Isn’t that actually their entire job? Hasn’t every participation-eager student had a professor that he feels doesn’t call on him enough? Isn’t it possible that people who act annoyed or upset about being publicly corrected are just upset about being publicly corrected in general rather than because they were corrected by a minority student specifically? Doesn’t the group-project example sound more like the kind of general shyness/self-doubt/social anxiety that anyone can experience rather than a sign of institutional racism?

Despite the fact that so many of these “microaggressions” are designated as such based on questionable assumptions, the study still recommends that the school take drastic measures to stop them: requiring that all students complete a “General Education requirement about race, White privilege, and inequality in the United States” as well as “both a non-Western culture and a US people of color cultural course”; fundamentally altering the curriculum to ensure that a third of all college 101 classes “include diversity and inclusion”; providing workshops, trainings, campaigns, and brochures “to help students identify when racial microaggressions are occurring”; creating a “slogan or language” — such as the phrase “Racism Alert” — to use when they identify one; and developing a “mechanism for students to report perceived racial microaggressions.”

#related#Call me cynical, but I have a lot of doubts about these suggestions. First of all, I could see college students mocking a phrase like “Racism Alert!” rather than taking it seriously, which could just create further discomfort for everyone involved. Furthermore, what material specifically is the report suggesting that the school eliminate in order to make room for this kind of widespread anti-microaggression curriculum?

Some of these policies could even create tangible disadvantages for minority students. For example, picking the right major is a crucial decision, and experienced advisers definitely have the ability to help students pick one that’s going to benefit them most — but putting advisers at risk of being branded racists forever in a campus-reporting system for offering this kind of advice to students of color might discourage them from doing so.

No doubt, racism and sexism exist. But it’s important to carefully examine problems before jumping to do something to try and solve them just so you can say that you’re trying — especially when some of the ideas run the risk of making things worse.

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