Voices in Education

“We’re Just Not That into You”: The Message Universities Are Sending through Their Responses to Racist Campus Events
Racial Incidents on College Campuses
Every couple months or so when we hear about the latest racist or racially insensitive fraternity party theme or incident, university leaders release a collective sigh and grapple with the question of why it occurred and what should be done. There was this response when the University of Texas at Austin’s Phi Gamma Delta hosted a “Border Patrol Party,” this response when Beta Theta Pi members posted party pictures on Instagram of them in blackface at the University of Florida, this response when Kappa Sigma threw an “Asian-themed” party at Duke University, and this response when an Eastern Michigan University party featured students dressing and imitating Native Americans with claims of “honoring Indians.” In each of these cases members of the campus and white Greek community responded insufficiently with lip service that diverted the conversation toward notions of white innocence and good intentions and that viewed the incident in isolation of the larger institutional context. If university leaders were sincerely interested in students of color, they would take actions toward addressing the white fraternity members’ (and their white campus peers’) limited capacity to recognize racial bias and racism, exacerbated by oversaturation within predominantly white cultural spaces and environments. If they were sincerely interested they would attend to the white cultural norms and campus racial culture that still socially sanctions the existence of such events. But instead, in each case, students of color generously took time out of their busy academic schedules to collectively resist a campus culture of fostering and condoning racism, providing some answers and suggestions. For instance, students of color responded like this to a very recent incident at my alma mater, the University of California Los Angeles. The Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and the Alpha Pi sorority jointly threw a “Kanye Western” party where some white students came in blackface. A couple weeks ago, where the University of Louisville president handed out and wore sombreros, fake mustaches, and other props at his party for campus administrators and staff, students responded to very dismissive apology by demanding that more consequential action be taken. Just a few days ago, as a result of a student hunger strike and black student-athletes collectiving to stand in solidarity against racist campus events, the University of Missouri system president and chancellor were forced to resign. At this very moment, students, faculty, and staff across college campuses stand in solidarity with Mizzou and the racism that black students in particular, and students of color in general, are experiencing in all regions of the U.S.
Inadequate Institutional Responses
When campus leaders respond to racist campus events with lip service and superficial actions, the institutional message communicated to students (and all people) of color on campus is an emphatic “We’re just not that into you.” Dismissive institutional responses reflect a misguided backlash to increases in overall numbers of students of color in postsecondary education due to demographic shifts, leading some to the false conclusion that race and racism are no longer a problem requiring intentional and serious counteractions. This false conclusion (also known as colorblind ideology) ignores increasing racial stratification in access to higher education, declining percentages of black students at selective institutions nationwide (from 5.6 percent black students in 1982 down to 3.4 percent in 2004), the shameful lack of progress in increasing faculty and high-level administrators of color (especially those with a critical consciousness), and the societal racism and white supremacist structures that produce racial inequities along all social indicators (as documented in this report).
The sting of racist incidents is exacerbated by inadequate institutional responses to the decline of race-conscious policies—not to mention, decisions to consolidate or defund programs that sustain and support students of color by countering euro-centric institutional norms (e.g., cuts in ethnic studies programming at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and at the University of California at Berkeley). If you are really about genuinely supporting students of color, then show up with long- and short-term responses that acknowledge and work toward dismantling (as opposed to reinforcing) white supremacist structures and intersecting systems of oppression. This is what it would mean for campus leaders to genuinely work toward creating inclusive learning environments that promote humanizing race relations and a society where race ceases to matter in reality as opposed to in wishful (colorblind) thinking.
Damage to Students
Given my research and advocacy work toward sustaining race-conscious practices nationally, I am particularly concerned that institutional responses in states with bans on affirmative action have not matched the severity of the damage inflicted by ripping off the metaphoric bandage policy. In California, nearly two decades without affirmative action has contributed to declines in student and faculty representation and to a more hostile racial climate (as explained in this amicus brief to the Supreme Court, recently filed by the University of California system; also see this amicus brief submitted collectively by 832 social scientists across the U.S.). Critically conscious students have explained the detrimental impact of a lack of critical mass and the racist white cultural norms on campuses across the nation. Focusing again on my alma mater, one such example is Sy Stokes and the Black Bruins ending their appropriately indicting spoken word, calling out numerous examples of inadequate institutional actions, with “So with all of my brothers’ hopes and dreams that this university has tried to ruin, how the hell am I supposed to be proud to call myself a Bruin?” As the upcoming Fisher affirmative action deliberations at the Supreme Court threaten to further dismantle the modest consideration of race on a national scale, there are serious consequences at stake for the quality of students’ racialized experiences (as I explain more in this recent Higher Education Institute policy brief).
Call to Action
Next time there’s a racist incident on campus. Scratch that. Before the next racist incident on campus (and definitely before the alumni office calls me again for a donation), listen to the lessons critically conscious students collectivizing on your college campus have been telling you (both historically and currently). From there co-create a plan to transform the campus racial culture and climate to one that is equity oriented and inclusive (check out Estela-Bensimon and her colleagues’ extensive work on the Equity Scorecard tool for help); one that addresses the current and institutional legacy of racism. Facilitate the racial and antiracist development of white (and minoritized) staff, faculty, administrators, and, yes, board of trustee members too. Such efforts must entail addressing white racial primes and socialization that perpetuates stereotyping and black misandry on historically white campuses. Overhaul admissions and merit aid practices to value community cultural wealth instead of white middle/upper class cultural capital (see Tara Yosso’s work on community cultural wealth and Lani Guinier on the need to revamp notions of merit). Go ahead and start promoting conversations not just about race but also about white privilege and supremacist structures.
There are brilliant experts who could guide you, including many of us who gathered at the recent Free Minds, Free People conference in Oakland, critical student affairs professionals at the Social Justice Training Institute, and online resources by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Study of Race and Equity in Education). Whether you call on external support or recruit faculty of color internally (who already carry service and advocacy workloads beyond what’s required of white faculty), please pay these good people for their additional time. Take actions not as a favor to any particular group but as a commitment to our collective humanization. Do better.

About the Author: Uma M. Jayakumar is an associate professor of organizational and leadership studies at the University of San Francisco, where she cofounded a Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) master’s program that focuses on community cultural wealth and centralizes race/racism through social justice praxis. Her recent scholarship is funded by the Ford and Spencer foundations and cited in numerous amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in favor of affirmative action in Fisher v. University of Texas.