White Privilege on College Campuses

Conversations about race and racism on college campuses have prompted debates about political correctness, free speech and white privilege. Do students of color face a more challenging academic environment? Does navigating these spaces put them at a disadvantage?

Many students of color have to endure institutional racism, but they also must engage in academic environments that have historically and culturally favored white students. Particularly at predominantly white schools like Hamilton, students must weather the cumulative effects of living in an academic culture characterized by white dominance.

Much of the strain in race relations on college campuses doesn’t come from deliberate racist actions, but rather from a combination of institutional biases, “stereotype threat,” a sense of isolation, and day-to-day microaggressions. These subtle acts of racism are exacerbated on the college campuses where most students of color find themselves overwhelmingly outnumbered by their white peers.

While these environments are complex and don’t speak for the reality of every student, there is an underlying theme in this unconscious pressure in higher education: College is demanding too much from students of color.

Resiliency is glorified as integral to success for minority students. There have been countless examples of what some refer to as “poverty porn,” in which news articles praise students from underprivileged backgrounds—typically students of color and often undocumented students — for working through their disadvantages and overcoming financial struggle. While it’s important to share those stories, these students are often used as prime examples of how all hardship can be overcome by hard work and resilience.

This attitude is indicative of a deeper issue. It implies that students of color must make impossible sacrifices and push themselves to the limit in order to achieve the same level of education as their white peers. It allows white people the comfort of feeling as though their privilege is earned—as if people of color could overcome their disadvantages if only they worked hard enough.

Ultimately, it places undue pressure on students of color to escape the constant threat of perceived intellectual inferiority. Thriving academically is especially challenging when students of color feel pressured to outshine their peers in the classroom in order to disprove the notion that they do not deserve to be there.

Uncomfortable campus climates, as well as the extra psychological energy that’s required to manage the strain the strain of systemic and everyday racism, can take a severe toll on the mental health of minority students.

Students are already physically and emotionally exhausted from the many demands of higher education, but students of color are forced to bear the burden of another kind of adversity—one that provides a constant reminder of their own race and the boundaries and restrictions that come with that label.

A common thread emerges from these campus controversies: Colleges are not doing enough to shield students of color from the effects of societal racism.

This kind of racism is deep, complex, and multifaceted. It manifests itself in ways that are both obvious and covert, individual and systemic. It can occur in isolated incidents, or it can be embedded into a larger structural form of oppression. And yet, that doesn’t excuse white students and faculty on college campuses from taking some responsibility.

It seems easy to assume that Hamilton isn’t a particularly racist school. Compared with some situations at at other colleges and universities such as violent beatings, slurs, and the threat of lynchings, Hamilton seems like a relatively safe space for students of color. But clinging to the narrow idea that racism can be summed up by the ‘n’ word and physical assault erases the cultural context behind the concept of race and diminishes the experiences of color. Brushing off racism is remarkably easy when you don’t have to live with its terrifying reality each and every day.

Predominantly white colleges like Hamilton have a race problem. This problem is only aggravated by the desperate lengths to which white students will often go to pretend that racial discomfort does not exist. To disregard racial distinctions and the clear lack of minority students on campus is to disregard the voices, experiences, and perspectives of people of color.

Racism retains its foothold when white people reach a threshold in their racial sensitivity and go silent, instead of helping assume the responsibility for bringing cultural and racial awareness to the surface. Claiming ignorance or staying silent reflects an avoidance that will always drive white colleges to perpetuate a hostile climate for students of color while hiding behind the veil of liberal equity.

It is time that white people start talking about diversity just as much minorities are forced to. It is a luxury to not have to think or talk about these issues, but it’s one we can no longer afford if we want to strive for an improved campus climate and society.