Amid a surge in student-led protests around the country, many colleges have been struggling to make their campuses more accommodating for minorities. Last semester, student-activist groups nationwide issued demands to their universities seeking everything from mandatory sensitivity-and-racial-bias training to the development of safe spaces on campus for people of color.
During a protest at Princeton last semester, students confronted university President Christopher Eisgruber , explaining the emotional reasons behind their demand that the school remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from university buildings. A female protester was shown in a video saying:
I don’t think [racism] is just one or two evils. I don’t think it’s just a flaw, and I don’t think that you as a white person understand what it’s like to walk past a building or to be studying in a school or to have it on your diploma from a school that was built on the backs of and by your people. I don’t want to see that. I do not want to sit in Wilcox hall and enjoy my meal and look at Woodrow Wilson, who would not have wanted me here.
At schools across the country, from the University of Missouri to Ithaca College to Stanford, students of color are showing that they feel disconnected from their respective schools, that implicit yet institutionalized racism creates emotional distance between them and their white peers and faculty. Being a black student on a predominantly white campus certainly doesn’t guarantee that the student will develop mental-health issues. However, various studies suggest that perceived or actual discrimination can make it hard for students of color to engage with their campus in the way that their white peers do. In his 1992 article in The Atlantic, “Race and the Schooling of Black Americans,” Claude M. Steele explains:
The basic assimilationist offer that schools make to blacks: You can be valued and rewarded in school (and society), the schools say to these students, but you must first master the culture and ways of the American mainstream, and since that mainstream (as it is represented) is essentially white, this means you must give up many particulars of being black—styles of speech and appearance, value priorities, preferences—at least in mainstream settings. This is asking a lot … For too many black students school is simply the place where, more concertedly, persistently, and authoritatively than anywhere else in society, they learn how little valued they are.
For minority students, surviving and thriving academically despite multiple encounters with racism or stereotyping may require a different type of resolve than do typical college-student struggles like balancing work and class, or overcoming difficult assignments. W.E.B. Du Bois coined the concept of “double consciousness,” whereby a black people are essentially forced to have two identities and pressured to view themselves as they’re perceived by their non-black peers. That psychology can create a unique circumstance for black students today—a psychology some researchers argue may even lead to mental-health problems that go unnoticed.