With the surge in hate incidents across the country following the 2016 election, campus communities need to understand and address acts of aggression—especially microaggressions—and acknowledge the “racial battle fatigue” many people may be experiencing, according to William A. Smith, associate professor in the Department of Education, Culture & Society and the Division of Ethnic Studies.
“What we have to do is recognize that these things have been going on and this election only made the larger society and our campuses start to recognize what has already been part of the experiences of people of color on college campuses,” said Smith, who coined the term “racial battle fatigue” in 2003.
He has written extensively about microaggression experienced by black faculty and students, including being the lead author of a study published in September in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. The new study looked at experiences of black male students on historically white university and college campuses.
Microaggressions are subtle, cumulative verbal and nonverbal acts ranging from slights to insults and stigmatizations that target race, gender, class, religion, ability, sexual orientation, class and other minority statuses. While such acts may be intentional, often those who engage in these behaviors are unaware of their stereotypical and hurtful nature.
Smith came up with racial battle fatigue to describe the psychophysiological symptoms—from high blood pressure to anxiety, frustration, shock, anger and depression—people of color may experience living in and navigating historically white spaces.
Both topics are the focus of Smith’s new study, which is titled after the Marvin Gaye song “Inner City Blues”: “‘You make me wanna holler and throw up both my hands!’: campus culture, black misandric microaggressions, and racial battle fatigue.” Smith and his co-authors looked at the experiences of 36 black male students at seven elite, historically white universities. The students reported experiencing anti-black male stereotyping, marginality, hypersurveillance and control directed at them on and off campus.
The paper argues that “systemic and predictable racial microaggressions” are pervasive on college campuses in the United States. The study found that black men who experience “chronic racial micro and macroaggressions will perceive their environment as extremely stressful, exhausting and diminishing to their sense of control, comfort and meaning while eliciting feelings of loss, ambiguity, strain, frustration and injustice.”
On historically white universities and colleges this leads to a sense the campus is not a neutral or safe space, reflected in lower application and program completion rates, the authors said.
“If we know males of color are having these experiences, why aren’t we doing more to address the situation?” Smith asked.
The current political climate may exacerbate the problem, he said.
In the 10 days following the Nov. 8 election, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded more than 860 incidents, mostly anecdotal, of hateful harassment. A majority targeted perceived immigrants, followed by anti-black, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT intimidation. A university campus was the fourth most-cited location of these incidents.
For Smith, the rise in such crimes is not surprising. While President-elect Donald J. Trump has backtracked from many comments he made during the campaign, his rhetoric has emboldened and empowered people who embrace such views, Smith said.
“It is very important that we talk about racial battle fatigue because if college campuses are going to address this, they are going to need to understand that this is real,” Smith said. “Students and faculty of color have been saying this for years and many people discounted it.”
In Smith’s view, the U is ahead of many other universities and colleges in its efforts to address issues of microaggression and racial battle fatigue—from offering counseling services to work done by the Office for Equity and Diversity and creation of the new School for Cultural and Social Transformation. Additional changes have been made or are in the works as part of the 13 initiatives adopted in response to last year’s open dialogue on racial climate, including mandatory faculty diversity training, continuation of an initiative to increase hiring of diverse faculty and staff and increased staffing in the Office for Inclusive Excellence to specifically respond to racial microaggression.
But the U still has a long way to go to be an inclusive, diverse, safe place for all members of the campus, Smith said.
He would like to see a resource center for black and Latino male students and adoption of admission criteria that gives preference or points to applicants who have engaged in or demonstrated support for social justice or racial equality—which would, in time, help change the university climate. Smith also would like to see the university set up an outreach program to U-bound high school students that preps and educates them about how to be change agents in developing a healthy campus climate and bolstering educational success.
“We have to prepare these students with the idea of becoming global citizens who value diversity and are able to recognize when microaggressions are part of the student experience and will work to ameliorate them regardless of the group targeted,” he said. “We can’t wait for these incidents to happen. We have to be at the forefront of working to prevent them and, when they do happen, understanding how we intervene and how we restore health.”
Irene Ota knows the feeling—and, more important, how to overcome the uncertainty of what to do. Ota is the diversity coordinator for the College of Social Work and since 2008 has provided Anti-discrimination Response Training to nearly 500 people at the U and in the community.
Created by Ishu Ishiyama at The University of British Columbia, Anti-discrimination Response Training addresses prejudices ranging from homophobia to classism.
The daylong skills training is designed to empower participants to understand prejudice and take an active role when witnessing offensive and discriminatory situations, including microaggressions.
“It is a way for an individual to speak to whatever discriminatory action or words they encounter,” Ota said. “From soft responses to more assertive responses.”
Three key points covered in the training:
- Don’t remain silent
- Always use “I” statements
- Always be a co-witness
When nothing is said or done, a witness’s silence can be perceived as agreement, lack of caring or fear, Ota said.
“I would never want to be perceived as any of those three things—that I agree with any discriminatory words or actions or don’t care or am afraid,” Ota said. “So I need to speak.”
An appropriate response doesn’t escalate the situation, she said. It might sound like this: “I found that comment really inappropriate. It sounds like a stereotype and racist to me.”
And just as important as being a witness is being a co-witness who validates the response, Ota said. A co-witness, she said, might follow up the statement above with “I agree with Irene on that one. I find that comment to be disturbing.”
“The more co-witnessing you have, the stronger it is,” Ota said. “There is more strength in numbers and more safety in numbers as well.”
Ota offers the Anti-discrimination Response Training on demand for a minimum of 10 people and no more than 24 participants. For more information, contact Ota at 801-581-8455 or Irene.firstname.lastname@example.org.