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When did you last talk about race? Chances are, it was within recent days (maybe hours). Racism is a major element of national and lunch-table discussions, and a focus of activism for many students. More than 92 percent of students who responded to a recent survey by Student Health 101 agreed that racism is a real problem.

What racism looks like today

Group of female students protesting

But what we see today isn’t necessarily the same type of discrimination you may have heard about from your grandparents. The blatant stuff still exists—such as when six teens in Arizona were suspended from school for wearing shirts that spelled out the N word, or in school policies that deny students their ability to wear their natural hairstyle. But even stories like these, about insults and hair, may be used to suggest that racism is trivial. It’s not. Racism can have violent, sometimes deadly, effects. Islamophobia—an intolerance of Muslims—has led to violence against people who may dress or worship differently. Filmed police shootings of black people led to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter protest movement and ramped up fear and stress among people of color (POC).

“In January 2016, my school made national headlines due to ethnicity issues. I have seen teachers being racist, and I’ve seen students, mostly underclassman, being racist toward their peers.”
­—High school sophomore, Boston, Massachusetts

Most racial prejudice goes under the radar

Another kind of racism is far more common: micro-aggression. This is the bias POC are more likely to face every day—in class, at our jobs and internships, on the sidewalk, while shopping, at restaurants. These include the purse-clutches when a black or Latino male walks by or the out-of-touch yet unintentionally discriminatory comments we sometimes get, such as, “You are so well-spoken!”

The nature and impact of microaggressions can be difficult to convey. “It’s hard to give a concrete example,” says a fourth-year college student in Grand Forks, North Dakota. “Sometimes, you could tell you are treated differently, you just feel it. I would say it happens in subtle ways.”

Why the “small stuff” has a large impact

Racial discrimination has a psychological impact that is different from other life stressors, research shows. And while diversity is increasing in US high school and higher ed institutions, microaggressions continue to make many students feel unwelcome, potentially harming their academic prospects, according to a 2014 study by Harvard University.

Black students are forced to put considerable mental and emotional energy into dealing with microaggressions, research shows—for example, they routinely face the dilemma of how to respond in ways that do not reinforce stereotypes. People of color who routinely encounter microaggressions are at greater risk of depression, pain, fatigue, and other health issues, according to research. In addition, these “smaller” acts of disrespect may camouflage or validate more blatant discrimination.

“Microaggressions tend to lead to real aggressions, because people suddenly feel justified being mean or rude to others,”
—Second-year college student, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

What you can do

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“It’s too big of a problem—I wouldn’t even know where to start!” we might say (and many of you did in the survey). A few of you also expressed that due to upbringing, society, and the environment, we can act on implicit biases that we might not even be aware of. The good news is that our views and opinions on racism can change, and 94 percent of you agree, according to our survey.

“You don’t necessarily have to say, ‘Hey, you’re being racist,’” says Keith Jones, a Boston-based speaker and advocate for access and inclusion related to race and disability. Being in solidarity with POC starts with listening to our peers, reading, and educating ourselves and our communities. Sure, we’ll make mistakes, even with the best of intentions—we’re human. “The solution involves being uncomfortable sometimes. Self-reflection is a hard thing to master, but is the most important, because it allows us to be open,” says Jones.

“I don’t know [how to help], but I really want to find out. I try my best, but I don’t always know what’s helpful.”
—High school sophomore, Boston, Massachusetts

In our survey, close to 1,000 high school and college students described incidents of racial bias that they’ve observed or experienced. We picked eight recurring themes and asked students and experts to help identify what could help relieve the pressure of those situations. In other words, how can we have each other’s backs?

Eight everyday scenarios and how they can go better

What’s going on?

“Throughout my school years, I have had teachers and students surprised when I would take certain classes because they did not think I would be smart enough.”
—Fourth-year college student, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

“Because I am Native American, they have discriminated and bullied me by slandering my work and saying I have only gotten here because I am Native American and not because of all the extra work I do to help my people.”
—Third-year college student, Los Angeles, California

How can we handle this better?

“I wish I could have confronted them that their responses were offensive and that many people from different ethnicities pursue STEM majors. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that a young Hispanic American female student is pursuing [a career as] a scientist.”
—Third-year college student, Palm Desert, California

“I think the best thing to do [with stereotypes] is just argue that you don’t think that’s the case. Maybe give an example where you’ve seen the opposite take place before.”
—Second-year college student, Logan, Utah

Expert perspective: Perception is powerful

Some people may genuinely be surprised by a classmate’s choice of classes or college major. Sometimes we risk assuming levels of intelligence or academic interests on the basis of a person’s race. Society has shaped the stereotype that certain groups of people are “smarter” or “know more,” says Paul Kivel, a social justice educator, activist, writer, and co-founder of the Showing Up for Racial Justice network. Assuming that certain POC are “not smart enough” isn’t based in fact and also makes room for unfair treatment, disrespect, and discrimination. Challenging our assumptions is key to expanding our beliefs and tolerance.

How some POC are combating stereotypes in the STEM field.

What’s going on?

“I am Asian and in anything related to academics I feel like I’m expected to be better than everyone else, and whenever I drift to average or below average, it seems to be a bigger deal than it is.”
—Second-year college student, Normal, Illinois

Well, there’s an inherent bias in many people’s attitudes toward the high academic achievement/model minority myth in Asian Pacific Islanders.”
—Fourth-year college student, Los Angeles, California

How can we handle this better?

“Education allows people to see how big and diverse the world is and that attempting to put someone in a cookie-cutter box that society has created is not only insulting but rather is a reflection of you and your thoughts.”
—Fifth-year college student, San Bernardino, California

“I think that students need to be taught that not everyone is the same. Ask people about who they are and what they do, not if they fit into the description you’ve defined them with.”
—Second-year college student, Golden, Colorado

Expert perspective: Positive generalizations are harmful too

We are much more likely to tolerate positive stereotypes than negative stereotypes, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (2013). Yet those positive stereotypes reinforce the idea that racial generalizations are valid, and that gives weight to negative generalizations too. For example, the positive stereotype of black athletes contributed to a more negative view of black people, researchers found.

Being the recipient of a positive stereotype is depersonalizing and can cause harmful feelings for POC, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2013). That’s because all stereotypes erase individuality. “When you use stereotypes, even if you think them positive, you are discounting the complexities of large groups of people,” says Kivel. By “critically reflecting on the stereotypes we operate from,” he says, we can see our peers as individuals.

What’s up with this?

“I was always viewed as the spokesperson/representative of my whole race.”
—Third-year college student, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

“My friend’s teachers often ask for ‘a different kind of view,’ but only look at the [people of color] in the room.”
—Third-year college student, Spokane, Washington

How can we handle this better?

“I find that the more students mix with others and learn about various cultures, the more understanding they become.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

“Don’t refer to people as ‘you guys’ or ‘them’ (i.e., judging the whole group). Instead refer to the individual.”
—First-year college student, Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada

Expert perspective: One person is one person

The culture and experiences of POC are vastly complex and distinctive. “It is impossible for one person to offer the ‘perspective’ of an entire group,” says Dr. Carla Shedd, a Columbia University sociologist and author of Unequal City: Race, Schools, & Perceptions of Injustice (Russell Sage Foundation, 2015). “And it is unfair for teachers or students to ask an individual, especially one who may identify with or belong to an underrepresented or marginalized group, to be a group representative.”

The danger of a single story (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: TED Talk).

What’s going wrong?

“I’ve been in classes where people have literally said, ‘Racism doesn’t even exist anymore, like why are we even talking about this anymore,’ and I felt like my entire life was a joke.”
—Third-year college student, Dartmouth, Massachusetts

“Several thought indigenous people should ‘just get over’ the past, etc.”
—Second-year college student, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

“This year’s required book is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which discusses what it’s like to navigate being black in our world today. Most do not see the value in reading it. I think our predominately white student body is not willing to see how our society systematically oppresses many.”
—Fourth-year college student, Indianapolis, Indiana

How can we handle this better?

“Students of color must be constantly thinking of their race—they’re confronted with it constantly, through micro-aggressions, through any history class. Listen [to them], because while it may be easy for us to ignore race, POC don’t get that privilege.”
—Fourth-year college student, Baltimore, Maryland

“Do not dismiss [POC] experiences or tell them how they should feel about the things that have happened to them.”
—Third-year college student, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

“Students can honestly look at their own beliefs and prejudices and actively work towards changing. They can accept that they may be benefiting from systematic [advantages] and choose to support those of us who aren’t. They can choose to be better than their parents, better than their grandparents, and better than they were a year ago or even a month ago.”
—US community college student

Expert perspective: Racial discrimination is all around us

More than 92 percent of you say racism is a real problem, according to our survey. But for some who haven’t experienced it personally, it may not feel like an issue. This is the essence of privilege. Racism clearly does exist; it’s well documented by researchers, the media, and in real people’s experiences. There is “widespread evidence of high current levels of discrimination, harassment, exclusion, and violence directed against POC in every aspect of our society,” says Kivel. It’s dismissive not to listen to and legitimize the experiences of POC. By “paying attention, observing, and listening to what POC say,” says Kivel, we will understand racism does exist in a very real way.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

What feels wrong?

“As a born Canadian, my religious and normal rights have been taken away or altered to accommodate other races or religious beliefs. They do not feel they have to accommodate mine.”
—Second-year college student, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

“To be frank, the only discrimination I see is against white males who are trying to get an education and are constantly put on the bottom of the pile.”
—Second-year college student, Rock Springs, Wyoming

Expert perspective: “Reverse racism” is not systemic

The belief in “reverse racism” is a reaction to affirmative action policies and other attempts to address systemic racial discrimination, a 2011 study in Perspectives on Psychological Science found. Such policies are viewed by some white people as a barrier to their own success. White people’s experience of “reverse racism” is direct and personal (for example, the college scholarship for which they aren’t eligible). Those frustrations, however, do not constitute systemic discrimination.

Racism against POC is systemic

Racism against POC is more than person-to-person discrimination—it’s structural and institutional. How? Racism “systematically disadvantages people of color and advantages or benefits white people,” says Kivel. Think about it: POC are vastly underrepresented in positions of power, politics, corporations, the media, courthouses, universities, police departments, and just about every other institution in North America. Understanding racism is seeing that policies, practices, and other norms throughout history have produced better opportunities, environments, and outcomes for certain members of society than for others. For example, a 2014 study found that job applicants with traditionally black-sounding names were 14 percent less likely to be given an interview compared to applicants with white-sounding names. Research published in the Annual Review of Psychology (2007) shows that these types of constant stressors lead to poorer health outcomes for POC.

“Out of 5,400+ banking institutions in the US, 5,200+ are owned by white men. Two Fortune 500 companies are headed by white women, the rest by white men. Out of 45 presidents, one has been a POC. Of all the speakers of the house and senate majority leaders, we have yet to have a POC. When the country is almost 400 years old, that says something.”
—Keith Jones, race and disability speaker and advocate

How can we think about this constructively?

“Listening is a big step. Instead of bringing in a counterargument when a person of color talks about their experience, listen to them. Too many voices are silenced because of inadequate representation in media, faculty, etc.”
—Third-year college student, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

“Be aware of the issues students of color may face and not allow racial biases to negatively affect interactions with people of a different race or ethnicity.”
—Third-year college student, Fairbanks, Alaska

“Have a real discussion about things with the intent of learning, not just defending [your] position or opinion.”
—First-year college student, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

“Stop insisting that ‘all lives matter’ when that’s not the issue they’re discussing with Black Lives Matter. Realize that white students are privileged even if they’ve worked hard to get where they are.”
—Fifth-year college student, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

A breakdown of why reverse racism doesn’t exist.

The conditions upon which one may claim “reverse racism.”

What’s happening here?

“A girl working at [the movie theater] started to freak out and make jokes about a Muslim man who came into the theater, joking that she was scared he had a bomb.”
—Third-year college student, Dartmouth, Massachusetts

“Once after school there were some white boys walking past the quad where many Asian students were playing Frisbee. One of the boys said that he didn’t want to walk toward the quad because of the stench of stinky tofu (the Asian students).”
—High school senior, Boston, Massachusetts

“I had my food made fun of. I was eating a traditional Indian snack and a guy I was volunteering with made offensive jokes, and it was humiliating. I was there to volunteer and I was instead humiliated.”
—Second-year college student, Ewing Township, New Jersey

Expert perspective: Derogatory “humor” has unfunny effects

Besides being mean-spirited and hurtful, “jokes” such as these are also harmful. In studies, derogatory humor that targets certain groups appears to validate prejudice and discriminatory actions toward those groups (Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2004). These comments “reinforce stereotypes and misinformation” and are “racist whether or not the disrespect was intentional, whether or not a member of that group was present, and whether or not it is claimed to be a joke,” says Kivel.

It’s also important to be mindful of the hateful and violent histories held in particular words, such as racial slurs. These are words that carry pain for “those who have suffered violence behind them either today or in the past,” says Kivel. By using derogatory slurs and terms, whether as a joke or an attack, we ignore the history certain words carry and in effect “act out” that abuse with our words. Respecting and caring for each other means being mindful about the weight of our words; and racial epitaphs lug a lot of weight.

How can we handle this better?

“Don't laugh at racist jokes, don't act persecuted when someone calls you privileged.”
—Second-year college student, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

“In such a situation, I would want to talk to the victim one-on-one and just try to express that they weren’t treated fairly, and to empathize with them.”
—Second-year college student, Portland, Oregon

“I always try to redirect conversation when I witness it.”
—Third-year college student, Kirksville, Missouri

“Community: Join or make a club that unites students of all races into a conversation about oppression and different ways to speak out against it. Individual: Stand up for them if and when they are being bullied. Speak out against it in general; become an advocate.”
—Cindy, high school sophomore, Boston, Massachusetts

Hear something, say something: Navigating the world of racial awkwardness (The Code Switch Podcast)

What’s going wrong?

“I have worked on many group projects with an all-Caucasian demographic except me. In those groups, I find my inputs don’t count as much as when I’m working with groups containing more minorities.”
—Third-year college student, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

“Often I am the only African American in my classes. Other students instantly speak to and befriend the person they sit next to. For me, that rarely happens. [If] one person reached out and just said hello, simple things like that would make me feel better.”
—Fifth-year college student, Conway, Arkansas

“I don’t look First Nation, so I often have the opportunity to be a fly on the wall. What I have noticed is that people are just generally unaware of the type of language they are using and how exclusive they are being. For example, I was in a class recently where everyone, including the professor, used language like ‘we’ and ‘they.’ We just don’t know, based on the color of our skin, who is part of what ethnic or cultural group.”
—Third-year college student, Langley, British Columbia, Canada

How can we handle this (or a situation like it) better?

“One time my friends and I were about to walk into a party and a group of black people were behind us and I heard one of the girls say, ‘We’re black, they’re not going to let us in,’ so I grabbed her hand, even though I didn’t know her, and made sure her friends and her made it into the house.”
—Second-year college student, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“Attend cultural events put on by students of color.”
—Second-year college student, Tulsa, Oklahoma

“Our high school had a mix-up day and we sat anywhere. I sat at ‘the black kids’ table,’ which I realized I liked, and everyone was very nice. I even made friends with a girl.”
—Third-year online student, St. Louis, Missouri

Expert perspective: Change the broader scene by changing the personal scene

Ideas about exclusion and belonging affect all levels of interaction, from individual to national. “Racism in America is so intertwined with how particular groups of people perceive who is American,” says Jones. On an individual level, we can be immediately inclusive. “You don’t have to agree with or like everyone,” says Jones. “Understand, however, that if you are behaving in ways that make another person’s life worse, you are compliant. You can end this. You can literally, today, decide ‘I’m never going to tolerate racism or prejudice again, ever.’”

What it feels like to be the only one: Teaching tolerance.

What’s not working?

“One time a girl straight-up asked me, ‘What are you?’ And I was extremely hurt and offended because that was probably the worst way to ask the question, but I calmly answered.”
—Third-year college student, Madison, Wisconsin

“[I hear] questions like ‘Where are you really from?’ or ‘Do you know your own language?’ “’Are all Asians like that?’”
—Fourth-year college student, Portland, Oregon

How can we handle this (or a situation like it) better?

“[When I am asked] ‘So, are you Muslim?’ when I tell them my nationality (Lebanese), I simply say, ‘No,’ and respond with the better question, [which] should have been ‘So, what’s your religion?’”
—Fourth-year college student, Dartmouth, Massachusetts

“Most people are happy to chat if you are respectful and enter with an open mind. If you make a mistake (an incorrect assumption or term), simply apologize and ask for clarification. Avoiding others because you are unknowledgeable will perpetuate the problems.”
—Fifth-year college student, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Expert perspective: Look for what you have in common

“It is perfectly natural to be curious about individuals whom we deem to be ‘unlike’ us,” says Dr. Shedd. “The easiest way to make sense of something unfamiliar is to organize the information into categories that are familiar. However, even if you are curious about someone’s racial/ethnic origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc., you are not entitled to ask or assume information about someone’s personal identity.” Ask yourself why that information feels important. If your goal is to make a connection, think about alternative ways to do that. If you’re speaking with a classmate, “you already have a shared connection simply by virtue of attending the same school,” says Dr. Shedd. “You can use that shared identity to connect by sharing information about your intellectual interests, favorite course, etc. Then you can invite that person to do the same.”

Four reasons not to ask “Where are you from?”

Junior, Simsbury, Connecticut

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) aims to reveal the complexities of your unconscious attitudes and biases. For all you know, you could be unknowingly hiding beliefs from yourself within your subconscious. Just pick a topic, in this case I took the ones related to race, take the quiz, and view your results. It may greatly change your awareness of important topics.

These tests allow you to truly acknowledge the complexities of people and their diversities. They don’t take much time to complete and are easily accessible.
5 out of 5 stars

It wasn’t exactly “fun,” considering the tests basically remind you that you may unknowingly judge others—no matter how accepting and supportive you are.
3 out of 5 stars

I was rattled at first when one of the tests told me I had a “moderate preference for light-skinned people,” but it did make me recognize that I may subconsciously have biases that I would like to address and change.
4 out of 5 stars

Try it yourself

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Article sources

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Paul Kivel, social justice educator, activist, writer, and co-founder of the Showing Up for Racial Justice network, Oakland, California.

Carla Shedd, PhD, a Columbia University sociologist and author of Unequal City: Race, Schools, & Perceptions of Injustice, New York, New York

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