Transforming White People Is Not the Job of Minority Students - Pacific Standard

Transforming White People Is Not the Job of Minority Students

It is time for universities to acknowledge their students of color as more than potential learning tools and diversity statistics for white students and brochures to brag about.
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The campus of the United States Air Force Academy. (Photo: branditressler/Flickr)

The campus of the United States Air Force Academy. (Photo: branditressler/Flickr)

If college admissions brochures are to be believed, American universities are thriving havens of not only racial diversity but also of racial harmony. Diverse student groups study and socialize together in marketing photos where everyone smiles, wears complementary colors, and inexplicably laughs during group project meetings. Anyone who has ever done a group project knows that there is scarcely any laughter at these abysmal gatherings. And anyone who has ever gone to college with their eyes even halfway open knows that racial harmony is hardly a mainstay on American campuses.

As incidents in Ferguson, Oklahoma, and more recently South Carolina shine a spotlight on racial tension in America, many are turning to universities to find answers on how to make white Americans unlearn their prejudice. One of the most common answers is that students of color can be integral to helping their white peers overcome their racial prejudice. But like many anti-racism efforts, it is a well-meaning but ultimately wrong-headed approach that makes white feelings the focal point of discussions about race and instrumentalizes students of color in the white transformation.

It is not the job of people of color to teach their own humanity to their white peers.

A February study on race perceptions at the United States Air Force Academy is one of many that examines roommate pairings to study racial understanding. It used existing data on how white men chose their roommates for their sophomore year to determine whether exposure to racial minorities in their freshman year impacted their decision to room with black men. The study determined that white men would choose to have black men as roommates and have more favorable opinions of black people because of exposure to black peers, especially if these black peers were of “high-aptitude” as measured by grade point average.

The assumptions of this study erase black agency by making roommate selection seem like it is the exclusive decision of a white student whom black students are just clamoring to live with. On top of that, the fact that “high-aptitude” was a standard that black students were held to but that was not controlled for in the white students whose attitudes were being studied indicates that the researchers consider white students the arbiters and judges of acceptability and respectability of other races. To celebrate a white man for having a high-achieving black roommate as evidence of racial progress is only a few steps removed from believing an Internet commenter who claims he had a black friend once and therefore isn’t racist. These micro-transformations of individual white people don’t translate into broader racial tolerance as evidenced by the fact that greater exposure to black people at the city and state level consistently yields more punitive and hostile conditions indicative of mistrust by white majorities.

In these frameworks that focus on individual interactions, people of color are reduced to serving as plot devices in the lives of young white people. Programs designed to make white people less racist ask people of color to be endlessly patient, unoffended, and gentle with the fragile white egos before them. But it is not the job of people of color to teach their own humanity to their white peers.

A particular case in point is the reception to a 2006 study in the American Economic Review that revealed how black roommates made white students more likely to approve of affirmative action and have minority friends in the future. When the New York Times cited the study, the paper interviewed a black and white roommate pair at North Carolina State University, leading the relevant section with the line, “Courtney Jones is a case study in empathy.” Jones was the white student. The article devoted 154 words to her experience. Her black roommate Melanie Paige’s story began, “Ms. Paige says she was changed, too.” It is told in 47 words. In this context, Paige is little more than an afterthought in the transformation narrative of her white roommate.

And while there are many students of color willing to actively engage with their white peers on issues of race, there are many for whom this is little more than unpaid and emotionally taxing labor. Ethnic and racial minorities have every reason to believe that white peers will be hostile to the idea that they’re behaving in racist ways.

A 2012 study from the Public Religion Research Institute reveals a lot about how whites view other races and ethnicities. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 56 percent of white Millennials believed that the government “paid too much attention” to the problems of blacks and other minorities. Fifty-eight percent of them believed that discrimination against whites is just as big of a problem as discrimination against other minorities. A professor at Arizona State University teaching a course called "Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness" was sent death threats. When Tracy Clayton wrote an essay at BuzzFeed on her experiences as a black student at Transylvania University, the university was panicked enough at the very idea that they sent a request that students there not discuss the story on social media.

"Black students don’t need white friends. They need institutional protection, more black professors who improve graduation rates, more black administrators who can direct black retention programs and combat the specific challenges those students face."

In a climate where many white Millennials consider racism an issue of the past, pointing out discrimination becomes even more difficult. Wendy Quinton, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at SUNY Buffalo, co-authored a study that found that Asian Americans with lower self-esteem were less likely to attribute negative comments by white evaluators about their creative skills to racial discrimination if these comments were only subtly discriminatory and not blatantly so. The result is even more emotional labor for the group under attack. “You're already saddled with being under threat and then you have to be the one that points it out," Quinton says. That so many anti-racist initiatives rely on individual students to take action to engage their white peers without institutional support is both asking a lot and missing the point.

"Social segregation is not the problem. Racism is the problem," says Robert L. Reece, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke who studies racism and inequality. "Black students don’t need white friends. They need institutional protection, more black professors who improve graduation rates, more black administrators who can direct black retention programs and combat the specific challenges those students face.”

But such institutional changes are far harder to come by than empathy-seeking, white-centering solutions that keep dominant groups in power and put the onus on individual minorities to do the labor of defending their own humanity. “It is how we frame the problem that is the issue,” says Estela Mara Bensimon, a professor of higher education and co-director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. “The focus on diversity has taken away our attention from equity.” She notes that institutions of higher education are not accustomed to reviewing their own practices as the source of racial inequity on campus, making them hesitant to change the structural inequalities that produce negative outcomes for minority students.

Challenging racist institutions collectively remains the most viable solution to dismantling them and that still requires minority students to engage and empower each other. "If you feel completely alone as a target of prejudice, your experience can feel isolated, which makes institutional racism harder to see,” Quinton says. She notes that white peers can be activated as instrumental support. “It helps to get people who are on the fence or sympathetic to your movement into your movement,” she says. “Then as a collective, you have a lot more power." Confronting racism at universities will remain primarily a struggle for people of color to lead, but it is a different form of labor that is aimed at facilitating the transformation of institutions rather than transforming individual white attitudes. “In a world that's racialized and that's gendered and everyone's burdened by intersectional oppressions,” Reece says, “there is no solution that doesn't put a burden on somebody. Solutions are work.”

It is time for universities to acknowledge their students of color as more than potential learning tools and diversity statistics for white students and brochures to brag about. Students of color go to college for the same reasons that white students do: to get the education and the institutional validations to advance in a society that puts tremendous value on higher education. They are not there to provide their white peers an enriching experience. It is time to stop expecting them to participate in the misguided group project of generating individual empathy instead of enacting institutional change.

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