College marks a time of firsts for many young people. First time away from home. First time doing laundry. First time using a credit card. And for students of color, the college years may include the first experiences with racism and racial alienation. This is especially a concern for minority students attending predominantly white colleges and universities. If these students grew up in diverse communities, living in a racially homogenous setting for the first time will prove challenging. Their classmates may view them through a stereotypical lens, ask culturally insensitive questions or have no idea what to make them. Fortunately, students of color can take measures both before and during their university years to counter the racism awaiting them on college campuses.
Join an Ethnic Club
When New Yorker Alana Mohamed entered her New England college, she was surprised to find herself the lone brown face in a sea of white faces. During her first year of college, the Guyanese-American from a Muslim family says that she heard classmates make bigoted remarks about blacks and Muslims, alike. "I was surprised to learn that my peers at university had rarely come in contact with people of color and often times lacked any sort of tact when dealing with people of color," she recalled in a piece for the race and pop culture site Racialicious.com. Mohamed managed to get through the year, in part, by confiding in other students of color. "My friends at other universities felt the same alienation and we started to really pay attention to the racism surrounding us," she says.
Seeking out peers who've also faced racism on campus is a great coping mechanism for students of color. Fellow minority students can offer empathy and support and are unlikely to dismiss racist experiences on campus as misunderstandings or jokes. The best way to find a support system of minority students is to join an ethnic club on campus. The club may specifically target black, Latino or Asian-American students or be centered around diversity issues generally. Most colleges and universities, even majority white ones, are home to such clubs. Students of color interested in befriending minority peers should consider participating in the ethnic clubs on campus.
Enroll in Small Classes
What does class-size have to do with racism on college campuses? According to Bob Samuels, a college lecturer and author who runs the blog Changing Universities, a major reason why racial tensions fester on college campuses is because students lack opportunities to dialogue about race in the classroom. Samuels attributes this to classes being too large to allow for discussion. He says:
"What many students tell me is that…while they have taken ethnic studies classes and courses on prejudices, they have never been asked to discuss these issues as they relate to themselves and their fellow students. In fact, several of my students have told me that most of their classes are too large to allow for any class discussion, and so these issues are dealt with in an abstract and intellectual manner."
As it is, race and racism are topics that make many people uncomfortable. No one wants to be thought of as racist or own up to harboring racist views. In short, racism is a problem that many like to think someone else has. Small-class sizes provide opportunities for students to personally engage each other about race rather than intellectualize the issue. During such discussions, students from the dominant culture can confront their prejudices, while students of color can share their perspectives on race and what it's like being a racial minority on campus. Such discussions could result in students thinking twice before making culturally insensitive remarks or organizing racist college parties that stereotype blacks, Latinos and others.
Apply to Live in a Multicultural Dorm
Officials at colleges and universities are aware that life on a largely white college campus can be challenging for minority students. That's why several offer residence halls with a multicultural focus. While students of any racial background can live in such dorms, multicultural residence halls are usually magnets for ethnic minority students or students committed to the cause of multiculturalism. By applying to live in such a dorm, students of color may raise their chances of interacting with peers from diverse backgrounds.
Find out if the colleges and universities you're interested in attending have multicultural residence halls on campus. If first-year students are allowed to reside in such dorms, consider applying to live there. Living in such a dorm may help students of color get to know peers who are racially conscious and invested in social justice. That means less exposure to culturally insensitive remarks and students who write off their racist views as "jokes."
Connect with Minority Alumni
Students who seriously doubt they'll be able to survive even one year, let alone four, on a college campus where they're the minority should get in contact with minority alumni. These graduates are proof that it's possible to succeed in an environment where few people look like you. Alumni of color may be able to share the strategies they used to thrive socially and academically on a predominantly white campus. Moreover, these alumni may prove inspirational because they likely experienced more severe episodes of racism on campus than minority college students do today. You can get in touch with alumni by contacting the alumni office or association at your university. The office may be able to direct you to alumni groups designed specifically for graduates of color.