What Steps Are Colleges Taking to Combat Micro-Aggressions On Campus?

Author: Cindy Le

As an intern for ASA and a student at Illinois State University (ISU), I am always looking for an opportunity to be a part of discussions that cultivate open-mindedness and give a voice to people of color. ISU promotes community and acceptance among their students. However, despite the strides made by the university, there are still issues of microaggression towards minorities.

On Saturday, Feb. 10, ISU hosted a two-day conference regarding issues related to racism. The Social, Ethnic, and Racial Boundaries on Campus and Community in the 21st Century: Microaggressions in Everyday Life included discussions about underrepresented students within higher education.

Emeritus Professor of History, Lou Perez moderated the discussion on how ISU can create a positive campus climate for all students. Perez introduced speakers, Co-director of African-American Studies, and Associate Professor of Social Work, Doris Houston and Director of Honors program, Rocío Rivadeneyra. Also involved in the discussion was a multicultural student panel.

Houston began the discussion by defining microaggressions. Microaggressions are repeated comments and assumptions about one’s character based on an individual’s race, ethnicity, or gender identity. Microaggressions can lead to consequences to the victim, such as poor mental health and academic underachievement.

On a campus where most students are Caucasian, minority ISU students often feel marginalized and isolated. “The Diversity Advocacy program on campus doesn’t really emphasize the issues.” ISU senior of the student panel, Daijha White said.

When I first arrived at ISU, I had major culture shock. I grew up in Chicago where all of my friends were people of color. At ISU, I had felt like a minority for the first time in my life.

White often finds herself being the only African American student in her classes. Some ISU students still feel they lack campus support, especially after the 2016 presidential election.

After establishing these issues, Rivadeneyra steered the discussion toward possible solutions. Rivadeneyra proposed a class that talked about diversity in the U.S. Teachers and students would discuss the experiences of minorities and how to deal with microaggressiosn in everyday life.This class would be a graduation requirement for all students in hopes to close those boundaries between races and gender.

The student panel was positive towards this idea and added feedback on how to make the class as inclusive as possible.

“This class should be tailored to the student’s major and teach how to deal with diversity within their major,”  ISU senior Bryce Thomas said.

A class that brought attention to microaggressions would be a step to breaking down barriers that hold students back. I have always felt that there are too many general education courses that overlap. If ISU could replace excess classes with classes that focused on interacting with others in a professional setting and promoted diversity, it could help students of all backgrounds rise up.

This is the exact reason Asian Student Achievement was created. We strive to equip students with the skills necessary to handle microaggression in professional and social settings. Our CEO, Shane Carlin, has led many workshops discussing microaggression and how to succeed in Western work culture. Carlin created ASA to break through the ceiling that holds down women and minorities. And the reason why I joined the ASA team was to bring that mission to ISU. 

Houston then asked the student panel how faculty can help to combat microaggressions in their classrooms.

ISU senior Jason Hale said, “Faculty tends to associate how the media [negatively] displays African Americans with the black students in their class. They need to unlearn those associations. Otherwise, they should not be teaching the class.”  

White agreed and said, “It is not our job to teach you. If they can’t identify with our struggles, I don’t want to have them teaching me.”

The audience was allowed to ask questions to the speakers and the student panel. One audience member expressed concern that a required class could further marginalize students.
Rivadeneyra responded, “[This class would] make sure everyone’s being heard; not talking about it makes it worse.”

Thomas added, “This should be instituted everywhere. It should not just be a higher education privilege.”

In my elementary and high school experience, my teachers always emphasized diversity and how lucky we are to be surrounded by different cultures. They were proud to teach students of color and condemned the rest of Illinois for not being open-minded.

After awhile, I forgot that many other schools in the U.S. didn’t have that experience. I never understood why racism was a real problem in other places when millions of people in the U.S. are immigrants. But I realized, after coming to ISU, most schools in Illinois, outside of Chicago, people of color were actually minorities.

I understand why some future educators would never want to teach in an area where residents may not welcoming of other races or choose to be ignorant about the experiences people of color go through. But it is not just a teacher’s job to teach students about the math, science or writing, but to also teach morality and how to respectfully interact with others.

This kind of class should be implemented in ALL areas, even in schools like mine where diversity is already valued. I’m proud that ISU is taking that initiative to add a course that will promote diversity and breaking down those barriers that divide us. I hope that ISU will improve their curriculum and that other educational institutions follow suit.  

Hale offers advice for underclassmen and underclasswomen  at ISU: “Never let your voice be silenced, even if you’re the only person of color in the class. Speak the truth.”

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