In the United States, the majority of Blacks report that they have experienced discrimination because of their race. Moreover, Black Americans who have had some college experience are even more likely to report having experienced discrimination (81% compared to 59% among those who have never attended college). While some research proposes that college students have more awareness of racial discrimination due to educational exposure, other studies suggest that isolation and race-related stress accounts for higher reporting.

The medical community is increasingly acknowledging that prolonged experiences with racism can produce extreme psychological distress. Social science research is revealing that not only do many of those experiences happen in college, but college education itself might be associated with experiences of racism. White college students do not have this burden. This means that Black students must overcome a major learning obstacle that does not affect their white peers, yet are expected to thrive equally in an environment that was created to serve the learning needs of those same White students. This amounts to unacknowledged labor that deprives only certain students of the time and energy to perform academically.

Elite universities often respond to this concern by emphasizing “diversity and inclusion” programming. This ideal is often marketed with White students and their gaze as the target. Moreover, such programming is quite often yet another form of labor for minority students who become tasked with educating their disinterested peers about their experiences with marginalization, and whose presence and participation is used to reinforce institutions’ images as progressive and inclusive (See Osei-Kofi, Torres, and Lui 2013). Almost inevitably, university events meant to address racial discrimination take the form of panels of students, faculty, and administrators of color talking about their experiences to a largely non-White audience. For the majority of White students, their educational experience is never interrupted by a need to do the labor of interrogating their positionality.

Many students, myself included, participate in such panels for two reasons: 1) We hope that we will reach a handful of people at a time and 2) We are acutely aware that our appeals for university resources largely depend on our willingness to participate in such events. In other words, it is labor we do on behalf of the university with the hope that our community will eventually benefit or not lose benefits.

But it is labor nonetheless, and with a very dubious pay schedule. For PoC faculty and administrators, this type of community work is vaguely regarded under professional responsibilities. But their White colleagues are not pressured to undertake such work, or penalized during promotion consideration for their perceived failure to contribute to their community. This is apart from the even more invisible labor provided by faculty who mentor students of color and ensure that they finish college despite the constant micro-aggressions of their teachers and peers.

How do these different forms of labor undertaken by Black students and faculty constitute the university providing an equitable learning environment for students of color? At some earlier time, this type of work might have constituted awareness-building. But now that awareness has surely been achieved, how do the unending debates about freedom of expression, diversity of ideas, and learning from our peers address the reality that Black students cannot start their schoolwork for the day until they finish putting the shattered pieces of themselves back together into a student?

It is not “equal” that a student who is getting death threats for kneeling for the national anthem is expected to be “resilient,” but a student who asserts in class that Black people who protest the flag should leave the country must be slowly and gently disabused of their “opinion” through the collective efforts of their Black teachers and peers. It is not “equal” that the tenure of faculty of color depends on their ability to appease students who don’t believe they are intellectually deserving of their title, but baldly racist professors are awarded for their teaching despite the experiences of the students of color they have hurt. And it is certainly not equal to outsource problem-solving for these inequalities to the students they disservice, while using that labor to bolster an image of progressivity and worldliness.

Racial trauma is a mental health issue exacerbated by institutionalized colorblindness. Universities that do not address how their own policies or lack thereof differentially impact the diverse groups they purport to serve, cannot ethically claim to value diversity.

Further Reading

Osei-Kofi, N., Torres, L. E., & Lui, J. (2013). Practices of whiteness: Racialization in college admissions viewbooks. Race Ethnicity and Education,16(3), 386-405.