Racism in Higher Education: Knowing, Being, and Doing

Institutions of higher education, particularly predominantly white institutions, perpetuate white supremacy and institutional oppression. Individuals of color entering these institutions are often  expected to conform to white ways of knowing, being, and doing, to normalize and center white superiority, and adhere to policies that are disadvantaging individuals of color. Are these institutions failing? Not exactly, but some are certainly in a crisis.

Many students, along with some staff and faculty, have been demanding and advocating for change for a long time. The recent surge in student activism is not new. Senior administrators, board of trustees/regents, and so many others in these institutions know these issues are not new and yet some still choose to ignore the realities of individuals of color at those individuals’ expense. Dr. Shaun Harper, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, offers a powerful example of ignoring racism at colleges and universities.

The campus climate at many institutions has not been and continues not to be racially inclusive. Students of color may find themselves to be the only person of color in their classes, experiencing microaggressions within and outside of the classroom, noticing that their voices are not valued and sometimes ignored, and simply not seeing representation of themselves throughout the institution. Staff and faculty of color may face similar issues.

Is addressing the racial climate on college campuses an ill-structured problem? I think that some would like us to believe so. Racism has covertly transformed and is so deeply entrenched in systems that some folks are not even aware of the impacts of racism. Some students, staff, and faculty are navigating campuses under the impression that racism no longer exists or they navigate with the illusion that we live in a post-racial society. Additionally, the broader racial issues that operate outside of institutions of higher education will always reverberate throughout those institutions. Therefore, it might be possible that there is no solution to institutions’ racial problems because no solution is ever going to satisfy all stakeholders.

The folks that are running and working for institutions of higher education must be committed to racial justice, and by that I mean genuinely, diligently, and consistently working towards racial equity. Education is strongly valued in society and it is essentially an expectation that folks will attend college. Thus, college administrators and faculty have to be prepared to accept the wholeness of individuals coming into institutions and show their commitment to the mission and vision statements claiming social justice, diversity, and inclusion. It is not enough for individuals of color to have access to higher education. It is also not enough for those who hold power to advocate for these individuals of color. The real challenge or root of the racial issue for institutions is giving power to individuals of color. It is taking far too long and too much energy is being expended trying to convince campus leaders, and quite frankly white people, to make space for individuals of color. Will it ever change?

The very act of encouraging students, staff, and faculty of color to be resilient and provide resources to help them survive racism is oppressive. So many of the ways that individuals of color navigate institutions of higher education are oppressive. These individuals of color should not have to explain that they are suffering and merely trying to survive when they should be thriving. Many of them are fatigued and should be. The students, staff, and faculty of color you see, maybe interact with, will continue to rise because they have to. I am looking forward to the day that they will rise and not have to navigate in oppressive ways.

I want to rely on institutions of higher education as progressive spaces to break down and rebuild systems. They are building our future leaders, who will hopefully be courageous enough to unlearn and learn the necessary tools to dismantle racism. When will the ability of racism to impact our ways of knowing, being, and doing disappear? Let me tell you it is not a color-blind approach. It is an approach that calls for a deep awakening. We need to get in touch with our souls because our minds and bodies alone cannot handle the work that needs to be done.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
– Lilla Watson  

Veronica Fields (she/her/hers)
Graduate Assistant for Orientation & New Student Programs

University of Connecticut, Class of 2016
University of Vermont, Class of 2018


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