By Sherri Kolade
At the college level, racism against Black students is an undeniable fact, especially at predominately white institutions (PWI), and surprisingly, through outside forces, directed at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, too.
Also, even with a diploma in hand post-college, Black people are more likely to express that they faced discrimination or had their intelligence questioned (because of their race and ethnicity) at a whopping 81 percent in comparison to 59 percent of Black people who do not have college experience, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
According to Inside Higher Ed, there is an emotional impact to the weight of racism as Black students “bear emotional scars from racism, which can lead to increased anxiety and poor mental health outcomes.”
Microaggressions, Major Problems
Even with all the racism-related problems facing Black students, some colleges are only beginning to address these issues.
Higher Ed reported that Black students at PWIs have “long complained of the racial hostility, subtle and blatant, that they regularly encounter on their campuses.”
From microaggressions or verbal/ physical altercations, many of these hate-filled encounters have spurred protests and increased demands for something different, especially on the heels of the George Floyd murder in 2020, the article added.
However, there is a toll.
“Students of color who engage in activism and leadership frequently sideline their own mental health needs to focus on the fight for racial justice on their campuses,” Higher Ed noted. “They have less time and emotional bandwidth to dedicate to typical student experiences, such as creating and maintaining personal relationships and a social life, performing academically and navigating what is likely their first time living away from home.”
Sharon Mitchell, president of the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors agrees in the article.
“It’s great that students are engaged, but there’s always been that struggle … you overcommit to things where you’re putting your academics or health in jeopardy.”
Annelle Primm, a cultural psychiatry expert said that “a high level of students of color [are] suffering in silence.”
Not all choose to suffer in silence though, some are taking active steps such as choosing to learn remotely to take a break from the racism they might be experiencing.
Valerie Adams-Bass, a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies Black youth and media stereotypes, said in an NPR article that emotional energy is attached to handling spaces and places where people don’t feel welcome or comfortable.
“You’re always on alert, you’re always on, you’re always deflecting, so you would be exhausted at the end of the day on top of growing,” she says of students in general.
Metro Detroit Students Speak Out
Locally, Cristina Benn, 20, of Ann Arbor told the Michigan Chronicle that as a second-year performing arts student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor she tends to be around spaces that are predominately Black, or with people of color, which has made the Black student “feel comfortable.”
When she’s not in those spaces, she finds herself facing new challenges at times.
“Many of the racism-related issues I have dealt with have been microaggressions, especially regarding my hair,” she said. “I have had people come up to me just to touch my hair without my permission and ask many questions about it, which always made me very uncomfortable.”
Benn added that there was also a situation with a teacher “who made a rather insensitive remark” that made the Black people in the class very uncomfortable and unfortunately when we talked to her about it, our feelings and concerns were completely ignored.
She said that while she has not seen much action happening about the matter, she believes that it is imperative that institutions act on all racist-related issues that may occur on campus.
“We cannot just try to ignore them anymore for any reason and we cannot make any excuses for people’s racist actions, no matter what the intention may be,” she said. “Students deserve to feel safe and feel heard when they are on campus.”
The Michigan Chronicle previously reported on how Wayne State University’s Black Student Union (BSU) held a protest last year (in response to a hate crime in one of their housing facilities) because of the recent events and because of long-standing racial inequalities on WSU’s campus, according to BSU.
“Many minority students, specifically African Americans, at Wayne State University have silently suffered and tolerated the racism and biases prevalent in various areas of the campus,” a letter from BSU previously stated. “This bias is shown from the dorm rooms to the classrooms.”
The reported hate crime in question revolved around WSU student Zoriana Martinez who was reportedly harassed, bullied and forced to leave campus for her own safety.
According to an article from the Detroit Free Press, Martinez said that, on three separate occasions, vandals have egged the door to her room at Leon Atchison Hall, targeting her Black Lives Matter and Gay Pride stickers, and took her “All you need is love” welcome mat. Martinez, from Ohio-based Oberlin College, chose to then live in an off-campus apartment in Midtown after the incident.
WSU officials noted in response that the university has a zero-tolerance policy for “acts of hate toward anyone for any reason, including race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation, or other identities,” per the article.
BSU feels differently. BSU’s letter went on to describe how Wayne State University has “yet to properly prioritize the safety of Black lives,” along with the quality of Black education, the importance of Black student organizers and the overall needs of Black students.
Nationally, the impact is felt too as recent bomb threats at Historically Black Colleges and Universities are being deployed as a way to try to prevent Black students from receiving an education, costing time and money for students pursuing their higher education goals.
In early February, over a dozen Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the country were forced to lock down their campuses and cancel classes due to the bomb threats, NBC reported.
According to the article, the FBI has identified six “tech-savvy” juveniles as individuals of the racially-related crimes seen as a way to “racially terrorize” Black Americans.
Joy Williamson-Lott, the dean of the University of Washington’s Graduate School in Seattle, said in the article that many are threatened by Black students looking to achieve something greater.
“These institutions represented the drive for equal opportunity and a threat to white supremacy in the South,” Williamson-Lott said in the article. “Public Black institutions were deliberately underfunded, controlled exclusively by white trustees, and some were deliberately located in remote parts of their states. White elected officials never intended for them to be successful, only to train Blacks to work in a segregated and hierarchical society.”