U of I report details episodes of racial stereotyping

By Jodi Heckel
U of I News Bureau

CHAMPAIGN — Students of color at the University of Illinois say they hear racist remarks, are subjected to stereotypes, feel excluded in group projects or receive other negative messages based on race, according to a new report on race relations.

The report, “Racial Microaggressions at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign: Voices of Students of Color in the Classroom,” looks at issues of inclusion, diversity and the racial climate in learning environments on campus.

The report was written by Stacy Harwood, a professor of urban and regional planning; Ruby Mendenhall, a professor of sociology and of African American studies; and Margaret Browne Huntt, a research development specialist in the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Initiative. The research group also produced a report in 2010 on racial microaggressions in student housing on campus.

Racial “microaggression” is defined as “daily verbal, behavioral or environmental slights and insults that send hostile, derogatory or negative messages to people of color,” and that can be intentional or unintentional.

The report’s findings are based on an online survey of 4,800 students of color during the 2011-12 academic year, who responded at a 45 percent rate.

“The biggest surprise of the whole study was the sheer number of students who responded,” Harwood said.

More than half of the students responding to the survey – 51 percent – reported experiences of stereotyping.  A little more than a quarter – 27 percent – said their contributions in the classroom have been minimized because of race, or they’ve been made to feel the way they speak is inferior.

And 25 percent of the students said they felt they were not taken seriously because of their race.

In addition to responding to the survey’s questions, the students were given the opportunity to describe situations where they felt invalidated or disrespected, experienced stereotyping or felt unwelcome because of their race.

“They shared very detailed personal stories of experiencing racism on campus,” Harwood said.

For example, some students said they heard classmates comment that racial minorities were less qualified and only admitted because of affirmative action. Others said their advisers encouraged them to change their majors to something less challenging.

In addition to documenting students’ experiences of racism in the classroom, the report offers recommendations to the campus for training faculty and staff members in addressing racial microaggressions and challenging stereotypes, encouraging dialogue and defusing rancor. The recommendations included requiring students to take courses on racial inequality in the U.S. and on non-Western culture; creating ways for students to identify, report and respond to racial microaggressions; and tracking majors with low enrollment, high numbers of transfers out of the major, and low graduation rates for students of color.

“It’s not about policing language in the classroom. It’s about creating opportunities for discussion,” Harwood said.

She said while it’s hard to understand the world from a different point of view, it’s important for teachers and students to listen and pay attention to daily interactions in the classroom.

“As an instructor, if you don’t understand how to facilitate a racially charged conversation, it will go poorly,” she said. “Students get angry with each other, they feel unheard and it doesn’t expand the conversation. As a society, we’re afraid to talk about race.”

Harwood noted the U. of I.’s Inclusive Illinois program is a good start, but she said more needs to be done. During the current academic year, Inclusive Illinois sponsored a lecture series, workshops and campuswide conversations on diversity.

Helping students learn to talk about difficult and complex problems gives them a skill they’ll use in their workplaces and their daily lives, Harwood said.

“To be a progressive university, you have to take on these issues,” she said.

“If we can create an environment where people are able to engage in conversations about race, or about gender, social class, sexuality or religion, they will be better prepared to go out in the world and make a difference,” Harwood said.

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