Our prevailing mythology of meritocracy in the U.S. tells us that education is a path to achievement. To do provide that, we expect schools to be free from racism and provide an equal education to all. Yet, there’s a significant amount of research that tells a different story. The story the research tells is that students of color at all levels of education face “micro,” or individual level, racism on a regular basis. Here, I’m going to take up just two of the myriad forms of individual-level racism documented in the literature: 1) microaggressions and 2) stereotype threat.
Microaggressions. The term “microaggression” was originally coined by Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s to describe a form of individual-level racism. Microaggressions are “…brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” In Feagin and Sikes’ book, Living with Racism (1995) middle-class black respondents describe “the racial stare” they experience from whites when entering white-dominated areas. I think of this as the quintessential microaggression. It’s so small, it’s hard to call out, yet the message is clear: “you’re not welcome here.”
Microaggressions are not a thing of the past, unfortunately, but are oh so current. There’s an interesting social media (Twitter/Tumblr) effort to document and recognize the pervasiveness of microaggressions across multiple forms of oppression.
What does microaggression in education look like? Here’s a very recent submission to microaggressions that gives you a sense of what this looks like in education:
On Friday morning, as I walked to the cafe between classes at my predominantly white university, the school appointed photographer offered me a free coffee if I agreed to play the role of the cheerful token black woman in a group of strangers, as though the university is not festering with racial tension. May 2011, at a “liberal” university. Made me feel devalued and furious.
Historically white institutions (HWIs) such as the one described above can be especially difficult, hostile places for students of color. Morgane Richardson, a 2008 graduate of Middlebury College, has launched an effort to Refuse the Silence about what elite liberal arts colleges are like for women of color. In an interview with Ileana Jiménez, Richardson explains some of what she experienced in college that led her to become an activist:
“there were a series of events that led me to become a campus activist and a mentor to other women of color at Middlebury. During my first few weeks there, a few students from the Ultimate Frisbee team decided to throw a “Cowboys and Injuns” party. They sent out invitations over the phone to individuals saying, “if you come as an Injun, be prepared to drink fire water and sit in a corner, etc.” I was appalled. I couldn’t believe that my fellow classmates would put this event together, or that the campus allowed it. In the organizers’ defense, they did recognize their mistake and agreed to sit down with us and talk about the significance of their theme party.
About a month later, I came home to a swastika drawn on my door. My only friend on the floor, a man of color, had the word ‘Nigger’ written on his. When I brought it up, the college organized a discussion for students of color, but it was never addressed in a large forum.”
Young men of color also endure microaggressions in educational institutions. In a recent study (2011) researchers at the University of Utah analyzed data from 661 black men about their experiences in college. Smith, Hung and Franklin found that experiences of racial microaggressions interact with increasing levels of education to heighten stress (Smith, Hung and Franklin, “Racial Battle Fatigue and the MisEducation of Black Men: Racial Microaggressions, Societal Problems, and Environmental Stress,” Journal of Negro Education (80)1, 63-82). Another and related form of individual-level racism in education is stereotype threat.
Stereotype Threat. The term “stereotype threat” was developed by Steele and Aronson (1995) . Their research, mostly through a series of experiments with college students, found that when race was emphasized in pre-test instructions, black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than white students when their race was emphasized. However, when race was not emphasized, black students performed better and equivalently with white students. Steele and Aronson’s research provide powerful evidence that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. They speculate that the mechanisms behind stereotype threat for students include distraction, narrowed attention, anxiety, self-consciousness, withdrawal of effort, or even over effort might all be dynamics at play. Still, there remain some critiques of the research on stereotype threat (e.g., over reliance on college student samples, the distinction between “threat” and real discrimination) as well as some unresolved issues (e.g., mostly to do with measurement and operatlonalization of the term).
What’s interesting here is that researchers Steele and Aronson have launched a new site devoted to helping educators reduce stereotype threat. Just as performance on tasks can be hindered by stereotype, there are ways to reduce the threat. Stereotype threat based on gender, for example, can be reduced either by ensuring women students that a test is gender-fair (e.g., Quinn & Spencer, 2001; Spencer, Steele, and Quinn, 1999). It’s also been suggested that explicitly “nullifying the assumed diagnosticity of the test,” in other words, telling students that a given test “doesn’t show test innate ability” (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Overall, the evidence seems to suggest that simply addressing the racial fairness of a test can alleviate stereotype threat in any testing situation.
Meritocracy Myth. We want to believe that education is a mechanism for leveling the playing field for all children. The whole idea of the U.S. as an “open” society relies on an educational system that prepares all students to succeed with adequate skills. Yet, while education is marred by racism – whether institutional or individual level – the notion of meritocracy is a myth.