By mid-October, the leaves on campus are turning, homecoming games are being celebrated, and—at any number of colleges—bigotry in one form or another hurts some students deeply.
The campuses and the incidents vary from year to year, but like clockwork, you can’t reach this point in the academic year without flare-ups in which students have said or done things that left minority students (and many others) angry. In recent weeks:
● A group of students at the University of Chicago held a “ghetto” party in which some students dressed in stereotypical clothing. Photos circulated on the Internet, and the university is now organizing a town hall meeting and other discussions about racial insensitivity.
● At Colorado State University, a student group trying to protest a state referendum did so with an image of a lynching. After the use of lynching imagery angered minority students and led the president to send an e-mail to all students and faculty members, the group apologized.
● At Syracuse University, a student-produced television show—since killed—offended many with jokes about rape and cruel comments about the bodies of members of various minority groups. The students behind the show said that they were just trying to be funny.
● At Vanderbilt University, fraternity members left the head of a pig outside a Jewish student center. The fraternity said that the act was not anti-Semitic and that the intended target was the center’s vegetarian café.
And Monday is Halloween, a holiday that has in recent years sparked controversies at numerous campuses after white students attend parties dressed as illegal immigrants, in blackface, or in various other ways that offend.
However sincere the apologies are from those responsible for these and many other incidents, theyraise the question of why—year after year—students are so hurtful about race, and are then surprised when someone is hurt. Experts on student life and race relations offer a variety of explanations and views.
Many say that the students who offend today aren’t just younger versions of those who were doing racist things on campuses a decade ago or as some campuses first integrated. Rather, they say that today’s students—and the ignorance many of them display—are the products of an unusual time in which minority culture is omnipresent, but more and more white high school students have no significant interaction with anyone of another race.
“We all assume that more progress has been made than has really been made,” says Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College. A psychologist and the author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and Other Conversations About Race, Tatum says: “While colleges and universities are more diverse today than they were 20 or 30 years ago, that isn’t true for public schools, many of which are more segregated. So you have a lot of young people growing up in racially segregated schools and their only exposure to other groups comes from stereotypes in the media.”
Popular culture gives these students—many of whom are clueless about those who are different from themselves—a false sense of race relations, says Charles A. Gallagher, an associate professor of sociology at Georgia State University who studies white attitudes about race.
“People who are 18 to 20 have been raised in a cultural environment with ‘Cosby Show’ re-runs, hip hop, identifying with black characters, they have gone through the multicultural training—for whatever it’s worth—in school,” he says. “They have the perception that they are not only not racist, but they share a kind of social space with non-whites through the media, so they think race doesn’t matter anymore, which just isn’t the case.”
“These pranks reflect the students’ idea that we are in a post-race society and we can make fun of everyone, and make fun of everything,” Gallagher says. “So they don’t see the difference between a ‘ghetto’ party and a toga party.”
Not only are students unaware of the feelings of minority students, many have so little sense of history that they don’t know instinctively that images like lynching aren’t going to be looked at casually by black people. And for all the talk about how colleges these days focus on multiculturalism, experts points out that most white students never study minority history in a sophisticated way or have any sustained focus on race relations.
“It’s true that colleges do a lot more than they used to, and that’s a good thing, but at most places, those efforts aren’t as extensive as you might think,” says Amanda Lewis, associate professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-author of Challenging Racism in Higher Education: Promoting Justice. “Maybe they do something that first weekend during orientation. But for most students, they come in, go to the diversity session, and then move on with their lives.”
Even students who seek out information about minority groups know very little going in, she says. Lewis teaches a 200-level course on racial and ethnic history, and many students start with a “very superficial” knowledge of key events, she says. In elementary and high school, “they learn a little about slavery and a little about Martin Luther King,” Lewis says, and their overall “historical amnesia” means that they don’t understand why race matters.
While Tatum, of Spelman, agrees that many students are ignorant, she also says that there are students who intentionally seek to hurt. “Certainly there is thoughtlessness,” she says. “But we’re also in a climate in our society that is supportive of harassing events. Listen to talk radio. We are at this moment in a time when people feel free to make these kinds of comments.”
Caryn McTighe Musil, vice president for diversity, equity and global initiatives at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, also sees societal changes playing a role in the campus climate. “We’ve gone through a political period in the country where we have drifted away from a focus on social conscience and social responsibility,” she says. “We have been counseled from a variety of locations—political, corporate, elsewhere—to think about what I am and what I need, not about others. I think that feeds into it.”
Others point to other kinds of context in understanding these incidents. George Kuh constantly reviews
data about student attitudes through his work with the National Survey of Student Engagement, which is conducted by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, which he directs. Survey results indicate that students become less comfortable as they enroll at colleges “where the racial complexity increases.” While their comfort level increases over time, that’s not the case initially, he says.
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