Going to college is an exciting time for many people, full of new experiences and opportunities to grow. One aspect of attending college that can be particularly powerful is being in an environment in which we are exposed to people, ideas and cultures that are different from our own. Although this is an important part of higher education, the transition to being part of a diverse community can sometimes be difficult for people who are not used to being around others who are different from them. This can create tension and stress for individuals from historically underrepresented groups, such as students of color, who may feel misunderstood, excluded, or unfairly criticized by their classmates. If you have experienced these feelings, you are not alone.
Typically when we think about discrimination, we picture overt acts in which someone is deliberately treated in an unfair manner based on their identity, like being denied a job because of their sex or ethnicity. However, changes in our laws and culture have made this kind of willful discrimination relatively rare. Instead, modern discrimination is likely to be subtle and perpetrated by people who do not realize that their actions are divisive and hurtful. These covert experiences are difficult to confront directly because the perpetrators do not recognize their behavior as discrimination. This may cause you to question whether your perceptions are accurate or if you are being "too sensitive." The stress of coping with these subtle expressions of discrimination, which may occur dozens of times per day, and questioning your own reactions to them can have a significant negative impact on your functioning.
These small, subtle acts of discrimination are known as "microaggressions." They are "commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults" toward people from marginalized groups (Sue, 2010, p. 29). There are three types of microaggressions:
These microaggressions are "conscious, deliberate, and either subtle or explicit… biased attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors that are communicated to marginalized groups through environmental cues, verbalizations, or behaviors" (Sue, 2010, p. 28). Microassaults can include things such as display of racist imagery or use of language meant to insult someone's gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic heritage.
This form of microaggression includes communications that implicitly convey rudeness, insensitivity, or demeaning sentiments about another person's heritage, culture or identity. Making assumptions about things such as intelligence (e.g., presuming women will be bad at math) or likelihood of criminal behavior (e.g., crossing the street to avoid an African-American man) based on membership in a particular group are examples of microinsults.
Microaggressions in this category are "communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings or experiential reality" of people from underrepresented groups (Sue, 2010, p. 29). This includes situations in which people attempt to deny the unique lived experience of people from a minority group, such as espousing "color-blindness" (i.e., "When I look at people, I don't see race") as a way to avoid acknowledging differences in people's experiences based on racial identity.
Microaggressions can negatively affect individuals in a number of ways that are cumulative, subtle and slow. A significant body of research exhibits a persistent link between membership in an underrepresented group and impaired psychological well-being. Physical health can also be affected, through issues such as high blood pressure, insomnia, nausea, headaches, and engaging in health-harming behaviors such as use of alcohol and tobacco (cf. Borrell, et al., 2010; Goldenhar, Swanson, Hurrell, Ruder, & Deddens, 1998; Landrine & Klonoff, 1997; Zucker & Landry, 2007).
Discrimination can also impede success more directly. This can play out in several different ways, one of which is stereotype threat. This is “being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group” (Steele & Aronson, 1995, p. 797). Anxiety about fulfilling others' negative stereotypes takes mental energy away from being able to focus on important tasks and impairs performance. Another means by which discrimination affects success is through social identity threat. If a valued part of our identity is at risk in a particular context, we will often try to avoid that context. Not being able to avoid this threat can lead to underperformance, distrust, and uncertainty about belonging. When being a good student is a large part of how you define yourself, trying to protect that sense of self in a threatening context (such as a class in which people have made discriminatory comments) is very uncomfortable and impedes your ability to be as fully engaged and participatory in the class as possible.
College can be a very stressful experience on its own. Dealing with discriminatory events adds to this stress and can feel particularly painful because these aggressions are "inherently demeaning, degrading, and highly personal," and focused on "something essential about the self" (Klonoff & Landrine, 1995, p. 442) that is effectively unalterable, making them difficult to dismiss as random, circumstantial, or otherwise harmless. However, it is possible to respond to discrimination in a way that can reduce its negative effect on your well-being and academic success:
- Recognize that microaggressions are "real" incidents of discrimination and that your feelings and experiences are valid.
- Acknowledge the hurt and other emotions that come up in response to discrimination. Identifying these feelings can help you decide how to respond to them in the most beneficial way.
- Choose to cope with these feelings in a way that is positive and proactive rather than attempting to ignore or bury them (e.g., through substance abuse).
- Connect with a community of peers who share and understand your experiences. These relationships can be a powerful source of mutual emotional support and may help you to avoid feeling like you are the only one coping with this situation.
- Find resources on campus who understand your experience and who can help advocate for you if needed. Possible resources include the Counseling Center, the Multicultural Center, the Dean of Students Office, or the Office of Religious Life.
- Seek out mentors who can draw upon their personal experiences to help you effectively navigate discrimination in school or work settings.
- Engage in good self-care: get enough sleep, exercise, eat a balanced and healthy diet, spend time with loved ones, and relax. Do the things that rejuvenate you and bring joy into your life.
- Become involved in movements for social justice that work to create cultural change and educate others about prejudice and discrimination.