Racial Microaggressions and its Impact on Campus Climate at the University of Illinois

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On November 4, 2008, the first person of color was elected President of the United States of America and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. It is true that President Obama did break down some racial barriers, However, many Americans have the inaccurate notion that racism no longer exists in post-civil rights America. Although civil rights legislation ended the legal exclusion of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans from various social and political spaces, barriers still exist that perpetuate racial inequalities. Contemporary racism includes more subtle and indirect forms, found embedded in day-to-day actions, social relations and institutional rules and regulations.

UIUC’s Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society’s Racial Microaggression Research Group: From left to Right: J. Michael Wallace, Jioni Lewis, Ashlee D. McLaughlin, Ruby Mendenhall, Sang Lee, Stacy Harwood, and Margaret Browne Huntt


These more invisible forms of racism are called racial microaggressions. Racial microaggressions are derogatory indignities that demean, exclude, and invalidate people of color and their experiences. Individuals often perpetuate racial microaggressions without consciously knowing they communicate or behave in this way when interacting with racial and ethnic minorities. Our research focuses on how racial microaggressions occur on predominantly white campuses. We conducted focus groups with students of color attending the University of Illinois to gather a more detailed understanding of the subtle and complex phenomena of racism on campus. Three types of microaggressions provided a window into what students of color experience as they walk from the dorm to the classroom. We learned how the individual interactions between two people become part of a large landscape on campus, where some spaces become known as white spaces and other as safe spaces for students of color.

Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues break down racial microaggressions in to three types of microaggressions: microassults, microinsults and microinvalidations. Microassults are “explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions.” What makes these different than old-fashioned racism is that microassults often occur in more private settings, away from public scrutiny. The most controversial racial microassult on campus is the continued presence of the Chief Illiniwek mascot.

While no longer an official mascot, students, university staff and community members still wear t-shirts and sweaters with the mascot, additionally; the local establishments have posters and stickers of the mascot on their windows, walls and doors. Other examples of microassults include the theme parties, such as “Tacos and Tequila,” where students dressed as Mexican gardeners and nannies. Despite efforts to curb these parties, racially motivated events continue on the university campus, and many go unpunished. Students of color also report white students making blatant racist comments, for example, an undergraduate in our focus group told us “…a block away, he turns around and gives us the finger and tells us, “Asian motherfuckers to go back into your Asian fucking house!”

Microinsults are behaviors and “communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity.” Many times the perpetrator is unaware of the insult. Taken alone these statements might not appear to be insults, but when a person of color hears them repeatedly, they become insults. For example, when a professor comments to a black student, “you are so articulate,” this seems to be a compliment, but when the student hears this repeatedly it suggest that perhaps that people are surprised that a black person can speak with intelligence. Students in the focus groups shared many examples where instructors, staff and peers made assumption about their intelligence based on their race or ethnicity. Student spoke extensively about having to deal with double standards. They have to work harder in class to prove themselves to the instructors and peer, they have to dress nice to avoid be treated like a criminal or harassed by the police both on and off-campus.

Microinvalidations are “communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experienced reality of a person of color.” One student told us “On most occasions with people I will say what I have to say but in my classes I would be quiet, I didn’t want to say anything, I was afraid to mess up because every time I would go into class, I would have to prepare for battle. I had to prepare to go in and defend myself. They would ask me, why and where did you get that? I was like, I don’t have to tell you where I get it from. It’s my life. I was like “do you need me to write a book so I can cite myself? If you want me to, I’ll do it. I’ll cite myself.”

Similar to microinsults, the perpetrator is often unaware of the racial microinvalidations. Examples of racial microinvalidations include when a white person says they don’t see race or denial of racism. Asian and Latino/a students in our focus group told of having to respond to questions about their birthplace and citizenship status despite being born in the United States, the student feels as though they’ve become a foreigner in their own home.

Students in the focus groups also talked about the police closing down a popular campus event attended by students of color, particularly African Americans. Some students felt race had a lot to do with the police response to a fight outside of the party. Those inside the party expressed concerns about excessive use of force, the police yelling at students and being treated like criminals even though they were not involved in the altercation.

As racial microaggressions become “normalized” they embed themselves into policy making and organizational culture. These macro-level microaggressions occur systematically and create environmental racial microaggressions, such as when students of color feel unwelcome and invisible in specific classrooms, dorms, offices, events, fields of study, and other spaces on campus. Racial microaggressions provides us a way to talk about what students of color experience daily at the University of Illinois campus. While some brush these things off as “kid being kids” or claim it was just a joke, the impacts are cumulative. Our study helps to unpack these often hidden racial processes and expose the fact that students of color often deal with the negative effect that racism can have on their academics, which is a burden that their white peers do not have to experience.

While we have focused on racial microaggressions occurring on the university campus, we can easily extend this work into the Champaign-Urbana community. Racial tension in schools, racial profiling by the police, and residential segregation can be explained in part by the existence of environmental racial microaggressions. While much has been gained concerningequality since the Civil Rights Movement, socially and institutionally there is still much work to be done.

If you are interested in reading more about racial microaggression, please contact the Center for Democracy in a Multiracial Society at the University of Illinois.
Web: http://cdms.illinois.edu
Telephone: 217.244.0188
Email: cdms@illinois.edu.

About UIUC Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society Racial Microaggression Research Group

J. Michael Wallace, PhD Student, Recreation, Sports, and Tourism;
Jioni Lewis, PhD student, Educational Psychology;
Ashlee D. McLaughlin, Graduate student, Urban and Regional Planning;
Ruby Mendenhall, PhD, Assistant Professor,Sociology & Afro-American Studies;
Sang Lee, Graduate student, Urban and Regional Planning;
Stacy Harwood, PhD, Associate Professor, Urban & Regional Planning;
Margaret Browne Huntt, PhD, Research Specialist, Center for Democracy in a Multiracial Society

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