This is the first study I have read which examines on such a large scale (n=200) experiences of sexism and racism by women and people of colour (POC) on college campuses. Importantly, the study explored sexist and racist micro-aggressions (a term initially coined to describe subtle and possibly unintended forms of racism) as well as more explicit mistreatments.
A Muslim student is asked if she has a bomb in her backpack — jokingly, of course. A black man realizes his classmates assume his admission was solely due to affirmative action. A woman is certain her professor is paying more attention to male than female students, but she knows from experience that she’ll be accused of overreacting if she calls the behavior sexist.
It’s the little slights like these — they’re often called microaggressions —that explain why college campuses, while more diverse than ever, can still be tough places for, well, pretty much all groups of students except white men.
Understanding the effect of these microaggressions on students is an essential step to closing the race and gender gaps in achievement and graduation rates. That’s the conclusion of a new study by Harvard University’s Voices of Diversity project. To reach it, researchers analyzed interviews and online surveys of more than 200 students attending Missouri State University, two anonymous public institutions in the South and the Midwest, and a private, elite university in the Northeast.
The sample size is small, but the students’ responses — especially the anecdotal ones — paint a portrait of the new landscape of racism and sexism in higher education. It’s more subtle, but just as alienating as ever.
Approximately 200 students (women and people of colour) in four colleges in the US took part in interviews for the research. Findings:
1. On all four campuses, racist and sexist treatment often take the form of micro-aggression, causing their targets confusion, sadness, self-doubt, anxiety, and frustration and constituting drains on their energy and attention.
These micro-aggressions can take the form of “jokes” (example above) and other subtle interactions which leave recipients uncertain if they have, indeed, just experienced racism or sexism or both. Recipients also reported feeling a social pressure to remain silent during such experiences.
2. Common and varied manifestations of racism and sexism on all four campuses make too many of our participants —especially African-Americans, Latinas/os, and Native Americans (but almost no whites and only a few Asian-Americans) — at a vulnerable time in their lives feel that they have to prove they are qualified to be at the university and say that they do not have a sense of belonging or fitting in in either the academic or the social realm.
These experiences were about women and POC feeling that they had to justify their place at their institutions (in ways that white men do not). They included a sizeable number of reports of women and POC being told, explicitly, that they were there only because of affirmative action.
3. Many members of all of the groups of students of color at all four universities reported that on campus they have been aware of negative stereotypes some people – especially whites – hold about the interviewees’ racial groups, and the same is true for many negative stereotypes about women.
This one speaks for itself really. Example: Stereotypes about African-Americans that participants say have been voiced, mostly by white students of both sexes, include that African-Americans are not intelligent (reported by Rosa), “are all athletes, or at least related to one” (Rashard, also Jarett and Chad), many are Criminal Justice or Business majors (Sebastion, Michelle), “all have some street knowledge [about] hustling someone” (Rashard), are all rappers and are “corrupting the world” (Jarett), and speak in certain ways, such as “Yo, yo, yo, what’s up?” (Sasha).
4. Most participants on all campuses report having witnessed or heard about incidents on campus involving race-based or sex-based discrimination, harassment, or aggression.
5. Many participants on each campus show a lack of awareness of or uncertainty about whether the university is making system-wide efforts to reduce racism and sexism and about the university’s policies about diversity and procedures for reporting incidents of discrimination and aggression.
6. Many participants on each campus note racism and sexism in course materials, sometimes because of what is present and sometimes because of the absence of materials created by anyone other than white men.
Again, these findings speak for themselves and there are many more on the ink (PDF of study). Some of the findings relate to women only:
30. Some women at Ivy and South mention that they feel out of place in classrooms and majors where there are few women, because they feel they are not taken seriously and/or they fear confirming the stereotype that, for instance, women do not belong in Physics or Engineering.
31. At all four universities, some women participants report comments from classmates and faculty demeaning their intelligence because of their sex and/or focusing on their appearance instead of their academic abilities.
34. Many participants at all universities reported having witnessed or heard about incidents on campus involving sexism of various kinds and/or sexual assault.
33. Sex discrimination also includes microaggression in the classroom, such as professors talking more with male than female students and taking the former’s opinions more seriously than the latter’s.
p style="padding-left:30px;">35. Women are more likely than other students to remain silent in class at all four campuses, even when they have something important to say or ask, and at Ivy University this was also disproportionately true of Asian-Americans and Latina/os.
And my favourite: 32. Some women participants at each university report that if they assert their opinions and values, they are considered to be inappropriately strong and feminist.
The study concludes that much mistreatment of women and POC on university campuses takes the form of micro-aggressions rather than explicitly expressed prejudice, but where mistreatment is explicit (e.g. in cases of sexual assault of women students), it is surrounded in a culture of victim-blaming. Sexism is considered less problematic than racism which makes those who experience sexism less likely to feel that they can speak up. Finally, many students who have been subjected to racist and/or sexist treatment reported that that there is nowhere they feel safe on campus talking about these subjects.
It’s really worth reading the whole thing.
(Orig. posted on)