The Effects of Racism in Academia

By Latifa Yaqoobi

SALT LAKE CITY — Research indicates that discrimination at institutions of higher education has negative impacts on the mental health of students of color.

Recently, students of color have led protests at universities across the country. Many are protesting the implicit and explicit racism they are facing on their college campuses. Numerous studies back these claims, that students of color, especially African-American students have a more challenging collegiate experience than their white peers.

William A. Smith, a researcher at the University of Utah, studies how “microagressions” —the casual degradation of any marginalized group— affect African-American students on predominately white campuses. Smith’s research indicates that African-American students have trouble concentrating, worry constantly, develop headaches, and become fatigued when they are in personal and professional spaces that are predominately white, which is how he coined the phrase “racial battle fatigue.” Smith’s work also disproves the notion that once students of color enter institutions of higher learning the playing field levels.

Amaal Sharif, a student at the University of Utah, identifies with Smith’s work.  “People are beginning to acknowledge institutional racism, which is great, but that’s only half the battle. What people have yet to grasp is that microaggressions are real, and that after a while it can really take a toll on a person. For example, microaggressions such as ‘I bet you received Diversity Scholarships’ or ‘you must be grateful for Affirmative Action’ make me feel like I have to prove that I belong here at the University of Utah, and that is mentally exhausting.”

A national survey conducted by The Steve Fund & JED Foundation in 2015, asked 1,500 first-year college students about their first-year experience, and the results suggest that African-American students may be struggling at with college when compared to their Caucasian peers. According to the study, only 36 percent of African American students felt prepared both academically and emotionally for college, whereas 50 percent of Caucasian students felt more academically prepared than their peers. African-American students are also more likely to feel that “everyone has college figured out but them.” When asked if they keep their feelings about the difficulty of college to themselves, 75 percent of African-American students responded yes, whereas only 61 percent Caucasian students responded yes. Only 47 percent of Caucasian students claimed college wasn’t “living up to their expectations” compared to the 57 percent of African American students. According to a statement released by The Steve Fund & JED Foundation in 2016, “Research indicates that students of color at American colleges and universities are almost twice as likely not to seek care when they feel depressed or anxious compared to white students.” Additionally, a recent online Harris Poll of 1,000 college students conducted by JED Foundation and the Steve Fund (with equal samples of African-American, Latinx, White and Asian-American students) found that students of color are significantly less likely to describe their campus as inclusive than white students (28 percent to 45 percent) and more likely to indicate that they often feel isolated on campus (46 percent to 30 percent).”

Mariah Henry, a freshmen at Salt Lake Community College, was unsurprised by the findings. “When you enter an institution that already feels like it is going against you, it is hard to feel supported when things start getting hard. I think I am less likely than my white peers to go ask for help, because I don’t want to seem incompetent, or incapable. I think this is where the problem really lies, and is the reason why myself and others from my community struggle within academia.”

Ebony McGee, an assistant professor of diversity and urban schooling at Vanderbilt and David Stovall, an associate professor of African-American studies and educational policy at University of Illinois at Chicago authored a study about how racism affects the ability of high-achieving African-American students to have healthy mental attitudes toward their college experiences. McGee explained in a research blog:

“Weathering the cumulative effects of living in a society characterized by white dominance and privilege produces a kind of physical and mental wear-and-tear that contributes to a host of psychological and physical ailments. We have documented alarming occurrences of anxiety, stress, depression and thoughts of suicide, as well as a host of physical ailments like hair loss, diabetes and heart disease. We have witnessed black students work themselves to the point of extreme illness in attempting to escape the constant threat of perceived intellectual inferiority. The psychological and emotional energy required to manage stress in academic and social contexts as well as systemic and everyday racism can be overwhelming and taxing.”

Tehya Clark, another Sophomore at the University of Utah believes that “higher education institutions need to acknowledge that racism, even microaggressions, can take a toll” on the mental health of students of color. “Perhaps if colleges and Universities recognized this,” Clark says, “they could potentially prevent more protests from occurring on their campuses because they will get to the root of the issue, instead of simply addressing a specific controversy on campus.”

Link to my reflection blog!