How Should We Address Racism in Higher Education?

American universities have racist histories. Notorious racists, like KKK leaders and slave owners with deep pockets, helped to build the halls and colleges of some of America’s most well-known universities.

If we believe the words of the Declaration of Independence that all people “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” then racism has no value and no place anywhere in society.

Racism in higher education is inexcusable, and if found, must be addressed.

Addressing racism, though is a particularly uncomfortable topic, regardless of skin color and ethnicity.

Micro-aggressions and insensitivity

Micro-aggression is passive-aggressive behavior. The person committing the aggression avoids blatant racism yet continues to destroy interpersonal relationships with their dysfunctional behavior. Higher education must put a stop to the aggression, regardless of how minor, by calling out racism whenever and wherever it happens.

Teaching self-advocacy

Higher education should address racism through a two-pronged approach, much like the one used for sexual harassment prevention training.

First, offer training for students and faculty. Students must learn what constitutes racism. Seeming innocuous statements Like, “Where are you really from?” or  “You don’t sound ____ (black/white/Hispanic/Asian)” is racist. The statements are based on a limited worldview, and they are said either out of ignorance or as a micro-aggression. Regardless of intent, the recipient does not have to tolerate the behavior.

Professors and university employees should attend mandatory sensitivity training that includes racism –refraining from committing it and addressing it when it happens.

Second, every college should teach students how to self-advocate. Speaking up takes courage. Victims of racism must speak up when they see or hear racism. They must learn how to stop racism every time it rears its ugly head.

Talking it out and taking action

The Transforming Community Project (TCP) at Emory University has more than a decade of experience in collecting research on racism and diversity, leading difficult conversations, and taking constructive action in response to their discoveries. Leslie Harris, TCP Director and associate professor, notes that as difficult as it may be to define progress in addressing racism, her team continues to guide the transformations as they take place.

Her outlook provides direction on how to address racism in higher education. We can no longer be bystanders in the discussion about racism. We have to guide the discourse in the direction we want it to go.

Higher education must lead the way in addressing racism by teaching what it is and how to stop it.

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