A Higher Education About Racism

In recent years I have talked with people from over thirty colleges, mostly in the New England area. These people include students, administrators, and faculty whose points of view in regard to racism differ considerably. From what I have experienced, seen, or heard about, here I will share anecdotal data which will illustrate some of the forms racism takes in those college settings.

A black male student on what would generally be called a “prestigious” campus described his three-year experience on that campus in words something like this: “Racism is very subtle here. I haven’t experienced any blatant form of racism, but I encounter it almost everywhere I turn; it is all-pervasive. The sum total of all that subtle racism is blatant.”

Here are some instances of racism, both subtle and blatant:

A black woman student enters a classroom on the first day of classes in a new semester. The class is small and she is the only person of color enrolled. The professor speaks to her quietly, saying that he is not accustomed to having minority students in his classes and he hopes that he will not say anything to offend her at any time. Then the class begins and the professor spends a considerable amount of time going over the syllabus and describing the course requirements. At several points during this process he turns to the black student and pointedly asks, “Do you understand?” She wants to take the course, but at this point she feels like hiding or running away.

In the lobby of a graduate school there is a bulletin board, and one section of that board has been used as a place where people can post pictures under which they invite others to write captions, often evoking humorous responses. Reading the responses provides a pleasant pause in the daily round of academic pursuits. Someone posted on the board a picture of a KKK rally, and invited people to give it a caption. The first comment to appear was a boldly written, “This isn’t funny!” Both that comment and the picture were quickly removed and the issue was dropped.

A woman student who was proud of her Native American heritage but whose physical appearance does not fit the stereotype, told me that whenever she rolls a scarf into a small band and wears it to keep her hair in place, she gets stares and comments which indicate that the stereotype is not dead. What she wears is not remotely like an Indian head band, but it evokes a behavior toward her which is different from the way she is treated when she does not wear the scarf.

A white male professor announces what I assume to be an honest hope that the student body at the college where he teaches might be more racially diverse than it is at present. In almost the next sentence he says, “There is not a single urban high school in the northeastern part of the United States which can graduate a student qualified to attend our college, even to attend the Spanish CLEP test practice.” This professor also sits on the Admissions committee which in part functions to set up a budget and a plan for recruiting prospective students.

A white student who frequently associates with the few black students on her campus, is walking across the college quadrangle in company with four black students. The words, “Nigger lover!” are yelled at her several times from an anonymous dormitory window.

An Academic Dean meets with me and three professors. We make plans for a faculty meeting which is to be devoted to a discussion of issues of curriculum and race. We even set the date on which the Dean will call for the faculty meeting to discuss this topic. The Dean is preoccupied with insuring a process which will make it appear as though our decision really rose out of the faculty itself He engages in a discussion in which it is agreed that someone will bring up this matter at the next faculty meeting, that a committee will be appointed to look into the matter, that a report would be made to a subsequent faculty meeting, and then finally a decision to do that for which we had already set a date! After our meeting ended, the process outlined began. With many convoluted manipulations the plan finally fades away and is lost in the ether of words and process. Nothing ever happens.

Both male and female athletes, black and white, from six different sports, report that they have seen or experienced discriminatory practices on the part of coaches in the athletic department of their college. Black players do not get the playing times they feel they deserve, systems for ranking people through challenge matches are manipulated, and positions on teams are often not awarded on the basis of ability. The reports are consistent enough to indicate that there should be some response at least to the perceptions expressed. When these complaints are brought to the attention of college officials, they dismiss them as unfounded because “the Director of Athletics is such a nice man”.

In a class examining recent United States history, the name of Dr. Martin Luther King comes up and someone makes a critical remark about him. All heads turn immediately to the one black student in the class, begging for a response.

Two black women students in Boston get on a subway car and take seats beside each other in the front section of the car, where all seats are then occupied. The section at the back of the car has several vacant seats. A middle-aged white woman gets on at the next stop; she is carrying numerous bundles, is obviously hurried and harried, and eager for a seat. She stands over the two black women, looks down at them and says, “I need a seat. Don’t you know you folks are supposed to be up back?”

A white woman student has become friendly with a black male student at a Boston area college. They go on a date together at an apartment in downtown Boston. The evening slips away quickly and, when they leave the apartment, the subway is no longer running to their campus. They don’t have enough money for a cab, so they decide to hitch-hike, assuming that the many students returning to campus will include someone willing to offer a ride. Cars go by; none stop. Then a car full of several white students goes slowly past them; one student leans out of the car window and yells at the girl, “You’ll never get a ride as long as you’re with that thing!”

No one of these anecdotes is fiction! Each has happened in the 1980’s! No one of them is to be dismissed lightly, because each one hurts. Collectively they are just the tip of a frigid iceberg. There are still lots of places where one can get a “higher education” about/in racism.