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4 easy ways to set positive standards in your online world

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Whether we’re taking an online class, catching up with friends, reading the news, checking our favorite Reddit thread, or watching videos of baby pandas sneezing, we all spend a lot of time online. Our online communities are full of opportunities for connection, sharing, and positivity, but sometimes we may encounter negativity and downright nastiness, to put it mildly.

We can all play a role in shaping online communities in which everyone can thrive. Disrespect and harassment are less likely when digital spaces reflect our values. For example, building supportive communities makes sexual harassment and violence less likely. Creating respectful spaces online is a critical part of these efforts. So how do we make the online communities we participate in feel more positive, especially in an era where we might feel particularly divided? And how do we respond when we see negative posts in a group page we’re in charge of? Or when we notice a hurtful comment in a community we participate in?

Whether you have a leadership role in an online space or you’re just a casual participant, there’s plenty you can do to help keep things positive.

Here’s how to use your role to create the online space you want

If you create, manage, or moderate an online space, you have a key role to play in building a supportive community. But being a member matters just as much. You get to model and shape the online community you participate in. Here’s a four-step guide to making it work—no matter your role.

1. Define your goals

For leaders

Whether you’re starting a new group or taking over an existing one, start by reflecting on your goals.

Consider the following questions:

  • If this group is new, why are you starting it? If you’re taking over an existing page, what are the group’s shared goals?
  • How do you want members to experience the group?
  • What would be the best possible version of this group?

It’s essential to define your goals even if your group is small and informal. For example: Imagine that you create a GroupMe for the people living on your res hall floor. The following goals could take the group in three very different directions and would call for different leadership:

  • Planning large parties for everyone in the hall
  • Upholding community standards (e.g., reminding people to be quiet during finals)
  • Meeting new people

For members

Goals matter for members too. In fact, knowing what they are and communicating them effectively sets the tone for the rest of the group. This doesn’t have to be formal. It’s about having a shared purpose.

Think about this: If you share a group chat with your friends from high school, what’s your purpose for doing so? How can you make sure others are on board? Your personal goal might be to stay in touch while building stronger connections with everyone. What are some small steps you can take to reach this goal?

  • Model what you’re looking for by offering it first: Share updates about your life and ask others to do the same.
  • Open participation: Invite other people to participate and pull quiet, shy, or disengaged people into the conversation.
  • Make concrete plans: Suggest group activities or meet-ups.

By actively engaging in the group in a positive way, you’re setting an example for other members. A significant body of research shows that when we believe our peers expect us to behave a certain way, we’re more likely to behave that way (this is called social norms theory). This means that when we’re positive and don’t tolerate harmful behavior in an online setting, it sets the tone for others to follow suit.

work station with laptop and devices

2. Create & communicate guidelines

For leaders

Explicitly communicate your expectations. People are surprisingly attentive to group guidelines. A 2016 analysis of the Reddit thread r/science (which has more than 13 million subscribers) found that posting page rules increased users’ compliance with the rules and even increased the number of comments made by newcomers on certain posts.

“It’s important that the standard be set right from the beginning that mistreatment of any kind will not be tolerated,” says Dr. Justin Patchin, professor of criminal science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

How you can put this into practice

Let’s say you take over the Facebook page of a campus multicultural center with several hundred members. How might you create guidelines for the group?

HEADING: Sample group guidelines. 1) focus on your goals: we can use this group to share information about events in the multicultural center, to welcome first-year students, and to stay in touch with alumni. 2) Explain what content is acceptable: please use respectful language and stay on topic comments 3) Say how you will handle rule violations: comments in violation of these policies will be deleted 4) Choose other moderators to share the moderation process: if you have concerns about group content, message a moderator. FOOTER: Make your guidelines visible by posting them prominently. Facebook's "pinning" feature is useful for this.

It’s also important to create guidelines for informal groups. If you created a small Facebook group for your friends in the multicultural center, you could casually communicate your expectations. Try statements like:

  • “Let’s use this group to stay in touch over the summer!”
  • “If anyone has questions about this group, I’m happy to help out.”

For members

Point out behaviors that positively reinforce your group standards and support the community guidelines—you can keep it casual. This sets the expectation that people will interact in positive ways. Try out statements such as, “It’s awesome how we can disagree without things getting ugly.”

3. Respond if people fall short of your expectations

For leaders

It’s easiest to take action at the first sign of disrespect or someone behaving outside of the group guidelines. Don’t wait for problems to escalate before you step in.

Just like in social situations or in the classroom, you can practice bystander intervention by stepping in to address disrespect and prevent harm. In a 2015 study of adolescents and young adults, bystanders stepped in at similar rates when someone was being harassed online as they did when an incident happened in person (Journal of Youth and Adolescence). In fact, bystanders were most likely to step in when someone was being harassed both in person and online.

What this might look like

Imagine that you’re the moderator of an online study group. You all use the group to share study tips, ask questions, and set up times to work together. One day, the posts start to stray from the class material to people complaining about the course and insulting the professor’s looks. How do you handle it?

Try privately messaging the people involved, or leave a comment of your own. Assuming good intent can make these conversations easier. For example:

Private messages

  • “You probably don’t mean any harm, but your comments came off negatively.”
  • “Please refer to the community guidelines.”

Comments to redirect the group

  • “We have that big test coming up, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
  • “Let’s stick to the focus of this group.”

For members

It’s not just the leader’s responsibility to uphold community standards; it’s on you as a community member to redirect group members who fall short of your goals. It can be as easy as asking a different question.

Here’s how you might step in as a community member in the study group scenario:

  • Distract the group with a question that relates to the original goal (e.g., post a question about the homework).
  • Redirect the group: “We have to get through this critical analysis, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
  • Find an ally: Talk to a friend in the group about the behavior and come up with a plan for approaching it as a team.
  • Go undercover: Anonymously post a comment saying the behavior is unacceptable.
  • Ask for help: Ask a moderator to reiterate the group values—or establish them if there aren’t any.

serious woman using tablet

4. Intervene if the situation escalates

For leaders

What can you do if serious disrespect, harassment, or hateful behavior emerges in an online space that you manage?

For example, imagine you’re managing a student publication’s website. Debate in the comments section is usually respectful. One day, a regular commenter calls another a slur. Here are four options for how to intervene:

1) Delete the harmful content, and consider banning the commenter.

“Delete the person whose posts are negative. By proactively doing this, [you show] that [you] have had enough and will not engage in their negative and hurtful behaviors.”
—Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, a national bullying and harassment prevention organization

“If [people] see hurtful posts quickly removed and frequent violators banned, this will set the tone that online abuse is not allowed here.”
—Dr. Patchin

2) Reach out to the people who were targeted.

Write to the targeted commenter. Let them know that you have deleted the content, you support them, and offer to direct them to university resources.

3) Report the incident—if the targeted person wishes that you do so.

Consider reporting the behavior to a campus official, such as a dean. Check with the person who was targeted to ask for their permission first.

4) Reiterate your group expectations.

After you have dealt with the harm, work with other members of the publication team to refocus on your core goals.

For members

What if you see this happening in an online community you’re a part of? As an active member of the community, stepping in reinforces the standards of the whole group and sends the message that this behavior isn’t tolerated here. Here’s how to do it:

  • If the behavior affects someone you know, privately reach out and express support. Try language such as, “That was messed up. Is there anything I can do?”
  • Consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modeling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University.
  • Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf. If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who has been wronged, this isn’t a decision to make alone. Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, don’t take action on their behalf if you haven’t been asked to do so.

How students are putting there practices into action

“At the beginning of the year, we have a discussion about what’s appropriate to post and what isn’t. If something negative is posted, it’s removed, and we have a discussion with the person who posted.”
—Jeanette A., fourth-year undergraduate, Kutztown University, Pennsylvania

“It’s not a controversial forum. We have rules, but we’re relaxed and work together in a group rather than talk about conflicting ideas.”
—Eliot A., recent graduate, Metropolitan State University of Denver

“I create a safe and open space where anyone is willing to make complaints, share their words, or explain their situation. I make it a place where anyone can feel at home.” —Luke M., third-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University“I monitor the page though my manager app that I’ve installed on my phone. I posted guidelines and must approve all comments and posts before they’re allowed to be posted. If someone complains about harassment or being messaged, I’ll check out the situation, take proper steps to stop it, and prevent it in the future.”
—Angel P., fourth-year undergraduate, Governors State University, Illinois

“Anything that’s posted that’s disrespectful is deleted and that person is warned through a personal message. If they continue, they’re removed from the page.”
—Leah H., third-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University

Strategies developed by the Communication and Consent Educator program at Yale University.

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Article sources

Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, a national bullying and harassment prevention organization.

Justin Patchin, PhD, professor of criminal science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

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Bazelon, E. (2013). Sticks and stones: Defeating the culture of bullying and rediscovering the power of character and empathy. Random House Incorporated.

Brody, N., & Vangelisti, A. L. (2016). Bystander intervention in cyberbullying. Communication Monographs83(1), 94–119.

Cheng, J., Bernstein, M., Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, C., & Lescovec, J. (2017). Anyone can become a troll: Causes of trolling behavior in online discussions. CSCW ’17: Proceedings of the 2017 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, 1217–1230. Retrieved from https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=2998181.2998213

Cialdini, R. B., Kallgren, C. A., & Reno, R. R. (1991). A focus theory of normative conduct: A theoretical refinement and reevaluation of the role of norms in human behavior. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 201–234.

Jones, L. M., Mitchell, K. J., & Turner, H. A. (2015). Victim reports of bystander reactions to in-person and online peer harassment: A national survey of adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(12), 2308–2320.

LaMorte, W. W. (2016). Social norms theory. Boston University. Retrieved from https://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/SB/BehavioralChangeTheories/BehavioralChangeTheories7.html

Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Smith, A., Purcell, K., et al. (2011). Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites: How American teens navigate the new world of “digital citizenship.” Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Matias, J. N. (2016, October 8). Posting rules in online discussions prevents problems and increases participation. Civil Servant. Retrieved from https://civilservant.io/moderation_experiment_r_science_rule_posting.html

Perkins, H. W., Craig, D. W., & Perkins, J. M. (2011). Using social norms to reduce bullying: A research intervention among adolescents in five middle schools. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations14(5), 703–722.

Ren, Y., Kraut, R., Kiesler, S., & Resnick, P. (2012). Encouraging commitment in online communities. Building successful online communities: Evidence-based social design, 77–124.

Virtual abuse? How to build a positive online community

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Most of us have witnessed online harassment. For that matter, most of us report that we’ve experienced it, according to surveys. Young adults are the most likely to be abused online. That experience can make it harder for students to attend class or concentrate on learning, according to a survey by Hollaback!, a coalition to prevent harassment. Online harassment can raise the risk of suicide in adults who are already experiencing emotional or situational stress, according to a 2011 study in Educational Leadership.

How can you respond if you or a friend is harassed online? How can you make sure your own online presence is positive? The prevalence of trolling, roasting, stalking, and other forms of harassment gives us all opportunities to intervene. Online behavior is contagious, studies show. We are all well positioned to model respectful behavior on social networks, influence a comment thread that’s veering toward abuse, and help build more positive online spaces in which everyone can participate freely. Leaders in the tech industry have our backs on this as they work to make online spaces more accommodating for all. For six steps to keeping the cyber-peace, see below. For resources and tools, see Get help or find out more. For guidance on how to argue constructively online and off, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue.

Online harassment includes one-time incidents as well as cases of cyberbullying that unfold over months or years. It includes attacks based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, appearance, and more. Severe harassment online has been linked to notorious controversies, such as “GamerGate,” when harassers targeted women in the video game industry. In a polarized political environment that has seen documented increases in hate crimes, online harassment has made for alarming headlines, as when the writer Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for inciting racist abuse.

Online harassment takes various forms:

  • Trolling (sometimes called flaming) means posting comments with the intention of triggering distress in others.
  • Roasting is a direct attack on another person’s view or position.
  • Exclusion involves singling out someone and not letting them participate in group chats or threads, and/or making negative comments toward them.
  • Harassment means repeatedly attacking a person, often by insulting their racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, or religious identity.
  • Cyberstalking involves repeated, unwanted online contact with the purpose of tracking, threatening, or harassing someone.
  • Doxing means using online sources to trace someone’s identity and gather information about them, then using that information to harm or harass the person.
  • Outing involves the malicious release of personal and private information about a person.
  • Masquerading means creating a fake identity in order to harass someone anonymously or impersonate someone else.

Quiz: Is it cyberbullying? (Affordable Colleges Online)

Some communities are targeted by cyberbullying more frequently than others. Young people, women, and LGBT youth report especially high rates of harassment online. Here’s what that looks like:

  • Two in three (65 percent) of young adult internet users (aged 18–29) have been the target of at least one of six identified types of online harassment, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.
  • 10–28 percent of college students experience cyberbullying, according to an analysis of seven recent studies (Sage Open, 2014).
  • Men seem more likely than women to report online harassment overall (44 percent versus 37 percent), especially name-calling, being purposefully embarrassed, and physical threats, according to the Pew study.
  • Young women aged 18–24 seem more likely than other demographics to experience certain severe types of harassment. In the Pew survey, one in four young women had been stalked online, and the same proportion had been sexually harassed online.
  • Sexual harassment in general is often targeted at women who are perceived to violate stereotypical gender norms, according to “The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women,” a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology (2007). This finding helps explain the later “GamerGate” online abuse directed at women in the video game industry.
  • LGBT youth are cyberbullied at significantly higher rates than their heterosexual peers, with 54 percent experiencing it within the past three months, according to a national study in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy (2010).
  • Disabled people are targeted for online abuse, though the current research is slight. A 2016 study involving 19 disabled people concluded that harassers targeted people with disabilities and the impact was more severe for reasons relating to the disabilities (Disability and Society). Grade-school students receiving special education services are more likely than their peers to report being victimized online, according to the Journal of Special Education (2013).

Online harassment and cyberbullying have widespread and well-documented consequences. For example:

  • Distress More than one in four people who’d experienced online harassment found it “extremely upsetting” or “very upsetting,” in the 2014 Pew survey.
  • Isolation Students who experience online abuse report higher rates of isolation. One in four people harassed online withdrew from social media, the internet, or their phones as a result, according to a 2016 report by the Data & Society Research Institute.
  • Emotional and behavioral health risks Children and teenagers who are cyberbullied or harassed online are nearly twice as likely as their peers to experience depression and substance abuse, a 2007 study in Child Maltreatment found. Cyberbullying negatively affects grade-school students’ school attendance and academic achievement, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence.
  • Suicide risk Online harassment can raise adults’ suicide risk by exacerbating loneliness and hopelessness among those with preexisting stressors, according to Educational Leadership (2011). Among young teens, both the perpetrators and targets of cyberbullying are more likely than their peers to attempt suicide, the same study found.
  • Censorship Online harassment appears to curtail free speech. One in four Americans censor themselves online out of fear of online harassment, Hack Harassment reports.

Not all online harassers have antisocial traits such as lacking empathy. Even ordinary people (who don’t have personality issues) can be induced to troll in certain circumstances, researchers from Cornell University, New York, found. Here’s what can drive us to trolling:

  • We’re in a bad mood (this helps explain why trolling intensifies late at night and on Mondays).
  • We’re participating in a thread or conversation that started with a “troll comment” or in which trolling is already underway (the more trolling is happening already, the more likely we will troll too).

In the online environment, we can choose to be anonymous, a factor that lowers the behavioral bar. That can make it easier for even those of us who are generally well- intentioned to dish out sarcasm or insults, and disconnect from others’ feelings. In our survey, many students acknowledged that they’d done this and regretted it.

The research paints a predictably unflattering picture of some habitual online harassers. Perpetrators may be motivated by the following:

  • A perceived way to stay popular Harassing others online may make the perpetrator feel powerful, and may be their response to low self-esteem, according to Delete Cyberbullying, a project aimed at parents and grade-school students.
  • A sense of failure or threat In a 2010 study, men who harassed women players during a video game appeared to be less skilled at the game than their peers, according to a 2010 study in PLOS One.
  • Low empathy In a 2014 study of college students, lower empathy toward others was associated with a higher likelihood of cyberbullying, according to Computers in Human Behavior.
  • Other personality disorder traits Persistent trolling is associated with narcissism, a willingness to inflict harm, and a willingness to manipulate and deceive others, according to a 2014 study in Personality and Individual Differences.
  • Anger toward victims Online stalking tends to be associated with the perpetrators’ distress and anger toward their targets (though personality issues can be a factor), a 2000 study in Aggression and Violent Behavior suggests.

8 ways to build better online spaces

1. Set a respectful and considerate tone and standard

The majority of our online presence is communal. Every contribution we make adds to the overall tone of the online space. Kindness is contagious. By engaging respectfully with others, you reinforce the expectation that others do the same.

2. Practice engaging constructively on difficult or contentious topics

Disagreeing with a friend’s opinion or disputing someone’s argument is all well and good—depending on how we go about it. For a guide to constructive arguing and how to influence someone’s opinion, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue of SH101.

3. Apologize when it’s merited, even if your slight was unintentional

If you hear that you have hurt someone, apologize. Communicating digitally can sometimes obscure the very real three-dimensional people who are reading and hearing our words. It’s important to remember that, even in the midst of heated or highly charged conversations. If the platform allows you to delete, retract, or qualify a contentious comment, do so.

4. Ask for clarification if you need it

If you don’t know why what you said was hurtful, you can ask for clarification. To the best of your ability, do so with respect and compassion. You could say something like, “I’m sorry that I upset you with my comment. Could you tell me why that word is hurtful? I want to be sure I don’t make the same mistake again.”

5. Stay chill when you feel misunderstood

Resist calling people out personally with inflammatory and divisive terms. If you think a comment has racist or sexist implications, try assuming those were unintentional and pointing them out gently. By the same token, if you see yourself as a fair person and someone says that your comment was discriminatory, try to resist getting defensive. We are all coming from our own complex places. If you’ve asked for clarification and didn’t get it, reiterate that your intention was positive, and let it go.

6. Use the reporting tools

Platforms and sites rely on their users to report abusive or disrespectful behavior that violates community standards. You can help create a safer environment by reporting harassment and abuse when you see or experience it.

7. Use your moderator powers for good

If you’re the administrator or moderator of an online group, forum, or list, take initiative to set the tone for positive, respectful interactions. You can do so by:

  • Establishing community standards or guidelines (pinning a post about rules to the top of a page helps reduce trolling, according to a 2016 experiment by r/science, a Reddit community)
  • Creating a clear reporting structure for harassment or abuse
  • Reaching out for help and support if you run into trouble
  • Being open to feedback from your community and others

8. Support people and platforms doing good work

In recent years, the tech industry has been taking a more active approach to preventing and addressing cyberbullying and harassment. There are several great initiatives you can learn from and support, including:

Facebook’s Bullying Prevention Hub
This online resource, developed in partnership with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, offers information on and strategies for addressing cyberbullying. It includes detailed and practical conversation starters and step-by-step plans for students, parents, and educators looking to address a bullying incident, whether they are speaking with the person being bullied or the person inflicting the bullying. This resource also offers concrete strategies for proactively preventing online harassment and cyberbullying.

Hack Harassment
This coalition, led by Intel, Vox Media, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, aims to build a more inclusive and supportive online community. You can get involved and commit to building that more inclusive and supportive online community through the Hack Harassment website. There, you can sign up to be a Campus Ambassador, host a #HackHarassment hackathon, or apply for a grant to fund your own harassment-hacking project.

6 steps to intervening constructively

People who are harassed online tend to turn to trusted friends, teachers, and family members for help, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence. Receiving support, both online and off, can have a tremendously positive impact on how someone copes with and responds to online harassment. Here’s how to go about it:

1. Think about what you can potentially accomplish

“Your goal might be to approach a friend involved in a bullying incident, but you don’t know how to approach them or what to say. Or you might choose to report something that you see online that seems unsafe for one of the people involved,” says Dr. Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University, Connecticut.

2. Reach out and offer support

You can reach out directly to the person experiencing harassment. Express your alarm at what’s happened and ask what you can do to help. Bear in mind that responding with emojis or “likes” can sometimes be misleading.

3.Add positive comments to a negative thread

If you see insults or attacks online—for example, against a writer discussing sexual violence—consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modeling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University. That said…

4. Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf

If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who’s been wronged, this is not a decision to make alone. Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor, or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, do not take action on their behalf if you have not been asked to do so.

5. Check in with your own feelings

“It is important to reflect on your own feelings before talking with someone affected by a bullying incident because you want to make sure that you are in a place where you can have that conversation,” says Dr. Stern. “If you yourself are emotionally activated, which is understandable and may well be the case, then you won’t be able to have that conversation from a place of calm. If you lower your own emotional activation, you are going to be able to more effectively help the person in the interaction regulate their own emotions.”

6. Seek support, off-line and on

“It is important to talk it through with someone you trust and who you believe is wise about this sort of thing. You might turn to a trusted peer or RA or dean who can help you think about how to approach the incident, depending on your goal,” says Dr. Stern. Tell someone you trust and who is in a position to help. Alternatively, you might report the incident to the site or platform, group administrator, or moderator. If someone is being harmed, about to be harmed, or threatening harm, take that seriously and get help immediately.

Most online platforms give you tools to curate what content you see and with whom you interact online. Explore the options available to you and decide what you share online and who can see it. These approaches can help:

Take advantage of customization tools

Online platforms frequently give you control over the level of connection you want to have with someone. You can choose to block content or people whose content you don’t want to see. On some platforms, this decision can be separate from whether you remain friends with those users (e.g., on Facebook you can unfollow a person’s posts without unfriending the person).

Pick your friends

There is a lot to be said for trying to work through differences with people who hold varying opinions and making sure we’re exposed to viewpoints that are not the same as ours. However, if you are experiencing harassment from a user online, especially someone you don’t know or don’t have a strong relationship with off-line, you can choose to prevent that user from contacting you.

Protect your privacy

Review your privacy settings on all social media. You have control over who sees your posts and what online activity is viewable to others.

Consider making online magic

Several free software options and plugins allow you to make more customized and creative choices about what you see online. For example, Sweary mary is a Chrome Extension that replaces swear words with witty alternatives.

Be aware that not all sites are created equal

Some platforms do a better job than others of giving their users the tools and support they need to have a safe and fulfilling online experience. As an informed user, you can decide which sites you want to trust with your time and information, and which you’d rather pass on.

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Students get real about race—and how to help each other

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In a recent survey by SH101, close to 1,000 students described incidents of racial bias that they’ve observed or experienced, usually in school. We asked students and experts to identify the implications of key incidents and ways that we can all help relieve racial pressures (next page). In each scenario, click to see what the issue can look like in college (slide 1) and how we can all respond in ways that help (slide 2). For dynamic resources that dig deeper into these themes, see Get help or find out more.

When did you last talk about race? And how did that conversation go? Race and racial discrimination are major themes in the US, with fears and tensions heightened during the presidential transition. An overwhelming majority of students who responded to a fall CampusWell survey (93 percent) agreed that racism is a real problem. Yet race is a topic that’s notoriously difficult to talk about without invoking accusations and defensiveness. It can be challenging both to think honestly about our own perspectives and to look through a different lens. The goal is growth, not shame.

Why is this difficult? In part, because underlying racial and ethnic discrimination is prejudice. “Prejudice becomes racism when you allow your prejudice to impact that person you don’t like or respect,” says Keith Jones, a Boston-based speaker and advocate for inclusion related to race and disability. “Once you recognize it, you understand that racism is a human behavior. None of these things are unchangeable.”

Options for reporting race-based abuse, attacks, and hate crimes

It is important to report incidents that seem to be motivated by bias based on race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, or other factors relating to the victim’s identity. You have several reporting options.

As soon as possible after the incident, write down any and all details of the crime. Include the gender, age, height, race, weight, clothing, and other distinguishing characteristics of the perpetrator(s), and any threats or biased comments that were made. (These guidelines were developed by the Human Rights Campaign, a civl rights organization representing LGBTQ communities.)

How to file a police report (guidelines by the Human Rights Campaign)

  • Get the responding officer’s name and badge number.
  • Make sure the officer files an incident report form and assigns a case number.
  • If a police report is not taken at the time of your report, go to the police station and ask for one. Always get your own copy, even of the preliminary report.
  • If you believe the incident was bias-motivated, urge the officer to check the “hate/bias-motivation” or “hate crime/incident” box on the police report.
  • Contact the office of the Dean of Student Affairs (or equivalent), the Title IX Coordinator, or the campus security/public safety department.
  • If you are unsure of whether and how to report the incident on campus, consider talking it through with a mentor, RA, or counselor.
  • Before disclosing, ask about the implications for confidentiality.

In addition to filing a police report, you can report the crime to the FBI and your state Attorney General.

Find contact info for your state (Muslim Advocates)

Make an online report (FBI)

The SPLC is monitoring incidents of hate-based intimidation and harassment nationally.

Make an online report (SPLC)

What is a hate crime?

“A hate crime is the violence of intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious, sexual orientation, or disability.”
—US Department of Justice

Hate crimes can involve the threat or reality of rape, sexual assault, or physical assault, verbal abuse, use of weapons, arson, vandalism, robbery, and attacks on homes, places of worship, and other locations. When crimes are motivated by hate, the criminal penalties can be more severe. “Hate crimes are the highest priority of the FBI’s Civil Rights program,” says the Federal Bureau of Investigation (on its website).

What everyday discrimination looks like

Some racial discrimination is blatant. In the context of the presidential campaign and election, reports of hate crimes increased, say the Southern Poverty Law Center and FBI. Another type of discrimination is more common, however. Comments that carry negative implications based on race and ethnicity—“microaggressions”—are part of everyday life for people of color. (Here, “people of color” refers to anyone who isn’t white—although these incidents fall more heavily on some groups than others.) They happen in class, at our jobs and internships, on the sidewalk, while shopping, at restaurants. We’re talking about women’s purse-clutches when a black or Latino male walks by, and well-meaning comments that imply a low bar based on race (“You’re so well-spoken!”). These actions sometimes reflect unconscious (or implicit) biases, research shows. “It happens in subtle ways, especially in higher ed institutions,” says a fourth-year graduate student at the University of North Dakota.

Why “small stuff” has a large impactGroup of students reading outside

Racial discrimination takes a psychological toll that is different from other life stressors, research shows (Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2007 & 2008).  And while diversity awareness has grown on college campuses, microaggressions continue to make many students feel unwelcome, potentially harming their academic prospects, according to a 2014 study by Harvard University’s “Voices of Diversity” project.

For example, black students divert considerable cognitive and emotional energy toward dealing with microaggressions, research shows (American Psychologist, 2007). This includes 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 a meta-analysis of studies in Race and Social Problems (2014).

We can STEP UP in simple ways

We can all help build an inclusive community that brings everyone closer to meeting their potential—a community that does not tolerate casually expressed biases, false assumptions, and disrespect. Our actions need not be confrontational or divisive; they can be as simple as not laughing at a derogatory joke. It’s also vital to listen to others, build self-awareness, and learn to tolerate the discomfort of the conversation. “Self-reflection is a hard thing to master, but it allows us to be open,” says Jones.

Eight everyday scenarios and how they can go better

“In high school, I was a straight A student, [but] certain teachers would focus on the fact I [previously] went to a school that was known for negativity. It was really hard to stay focused in environments that did not think I could succeed because of my racial background and the color of my skin.” —First-year student, Malcolm X College, Illinois

“They have discriminated and bullied me by slandering my work and saying I have only gotten here because I am Native American [via affirmative action]. I am a third-year PhD student.” —Third-year graduate student, University of California Los Angeles

Expert perspective: Perception is powerful

Low expectations are the product of stereotypes. Keith Jones, who has won multiple awards for his achievements in community empowerment, runs into this prejudice even as he is paid to address audiences nationwide. “Off stage, they look at me, a black man in a wheelchair, as though I rolled out of a pile of manure,” he says. “Then as I’m speaking in front of the audience, they treat me as the greatest thing since sliced bread. That has nothing to do with me changing and everything to do with their perception changing.”

Research has shown conclusively that intelligence is robustly related to the environment—including the stimulation and opportunities that may or may not come our way (Psychological Bulletin, 2014). Discrimination is part of that environment. Racial stereotypes themselves generate uneven outcomes, and this starts early. For example, a 2016 study found that non-black grade school teachers had systemically low expectations of black students, especially boys (Economics of Education Review)—a bias that could shape students’ prospects in school and life, researchers said.

How we can unpack stereotypes

Try a thought experiment

  • “Put this in a very personal frame. What do people expect of you? If you failed in school, would that make you exactly what they’d thought you were?”
  • “Switch up the stereotypes: What if your star football player, the jock, wanted to be recognized as more than that; ‘Now you want to be seen as a physicist? Only dumb jocks play football.’”
    —Keith Jones, advocate for access and inclusion related to race and disability, Boston, Massachusetts

Call out the bias

“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 student, College of the Desert, California

Point to the more complex reality

“Acknowledge that it is harder for a student of color to accomplish the same task that a Caucasian person sets out to do. Take a look at the huge difference [in numbers] between students of color [and white people] earning a college degree, or how hard it is to be taken seriously in the working world as a person of color.” —Second-year student, Community College of Denver, Colorado

Expand your network 

“Get involved in the clubs and organizations that are there to support students of color, and get to know your classmates on a deeper level.” —Third-year undergraduate, Gonzaga University, Washington

Discuss the implications

“[I hear negative] stereotypes mostly. They’re not meant to be harmful, but I try to remind them it’s a slippery slope. These aren’t bad guys: We had a conversation about how the low-key racism our parents grew up in is still instilled in their words, and to an extent is in everyone. Humans classify and divide everything, even each other.” —Second-year graduate student, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

“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 undergraduate, Illinois State University

“Positive stereotypes can lead to anxiety and depression when there is a failure to meet the expectations you may put on yourself, influenced by external forces.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University

Expert perspective: Positive generalizations are harmful too

All stereotypes erase individuality. In direct encounters, positive stereotypes are depersonalizing and divisive, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2013). “When you use stereotypes, even if you think them positive, you are discounting the complexities of large groups of people,” says Paul Kivel, a social justice educator, activist, writer, and co-founder of the Showing Up for Racial Justice network, which helps white people organize in support of people of color (POC). Examining our own stereotypes helps us see others as individuals.

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

How we can respond positively to “positive” stereotypes

Call out positive generalizations too

“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 undergraduate, California State University San Bernadino

Expand your social network

“Not all meaningful action has to take place within the boundaries of activism, rallies, and revolts. I live in an incredibly multicultural city [and] attend a magnificently multiethnic church. The best way to overcome racism is by being purposeful about building relationships. It might be hard or weird at first. It’s definitely awkward at times. But it is oh, so worth it.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Humber College, Ontario

Ask what they’re into

“Ask people about who they are and what they do, not if they fit into the description you’ve defined them with.” —Second-year undergraduate, Colorado School of Mines

Get comfortable with self-awareness 

“Learn to recognize microaggressions, and don’t be afraid to admit if you’ve done any of them. Make it a learning experience to better yourself.” —Fifth-year undergraduate, Portland State University, Oregon

“Teachers and assignments assume that people are white. They often ask questions that position students as privileged and ask what they can do to combat it. It’s great if you are privileged but very marginalizing if you aren’t.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, British Columbia

“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 undergraduate, Gonzaga University, Washington

“I was always viewed as the spokesperson/representative of my whole race.” —Third-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

Expert perspective: One person is one person

The culture and experiences of people of color are vastly complex and distinctive. “Spokesperson pressure” or “tokenism” denies that variation. “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.”

If we assume that one story or perspective is enough, people can be dismissed as “interchangeable and undifferentiable,” says activist Paul Kivel. This is why it’s important to listen to a multitude of voices and acquaint ourselves with a variety of resources, including biographies, blogs, and film.

How we can stop singling people out

Consider discussing the angle

“You can challenge this without accusing people of racism. You can ask, what is the underlying perspective of this exercise? Is this designed to be gender- and ethnicity-neutral? Was there a particular kind of student you had in mind?” —Keith Jones, advocate for access and inclusion related to race and disability, Boston, Massachusetts

Avoid putting people on the spot

“If the conversation always steers toward how they feel as the only POC in the friend group, you’re doing it wrong.” —Second-year undergraduate, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minnesota

Remember how general these generalizations are

“‘Hispanic’ is very broad, as there are many different cultures in the population. Being Mexican is very different from being Puerto Rican, or Brazilian, or Columbian.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University

Recognize that we each have a racial and ethnic identity

“We should really think about why white people do not see themselves as a race. They seldom view the construct around race as impacting them at all.” —Third-year graduate student, University of Maryland College Park

Respect each person’s individuality 

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

Recognize differences and commonalities

“Rather than ignoring race and color, value race and culture other than one’s own, learn from one another, allow bonds and teams to form that are not based on race.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Northwest University, Washington

“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 value in reading it.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Marian University Indianapolis, Indiana

“A class in Indigenous Studies was required for my teaching degree. Several students complained that it wasn’t necessary, while fundamentally misunderstanding or being completely ignorant of many of the issues discussed. Several thought indigenous people should ‘just get over’ the past.” —Second-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

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

Expert perspective: Racial discrimination is present all around us

Racial prejudice and its effects have been extensively documented. Studies and the lived experience of many people show “widespread evidence of high current levels of discrimination, harassment, exclusion, and violence directed against POC in every aspect of our society,” says activist Paul Kivel. Research continues to show how racial discrimination narrows access for POC to education, careers, legal justice, and health care. Headline-making events that undermine citizens’ sense of safety can amplify these barriers. “In the wake of the Freddie Gray trial, I became more aware of how unsafe my environment might be when I leave campus,” says a fifth-year undergraduate at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “There have been moments when I couldn’t complete my school tasks because I was emotionally overwhelmed by social injustices.”

To those who deny the reality of racial discrimination, try asking them to prove it, says activist Keith Jones: “Before I say it does exist, show me why it doesn’t.” Real-world examples help tell the story. “If you don’t want to hear about privilege, ask yourself, what is the diversity of your student body? Also look at the space your campus is physically occupying. In Boston (my city), universities have taken over the neighborhoods that were home to multigenerational families of color.”

How we can open up to discussions about racial discrimination

Do a social experiment

“Have a black male student and a white male student call Uber and see who gets to the destination first.” (Car ride passengers who have African American–sounding names experience longer wait times and far more cancellations than passengers with “white” names, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016.) —Keith Jones, advocate for access and inclusion related to race and disability, Boston, Massachusetts

Listen to others

“Students of color must be constantly thinking of their race—they’re confronted with it through microaggressions, through any history class. Listen, because while it may be easy for us to ignore race, POC don’t get that privilege.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Notre Dame of Maryland University

Open up to the issue

“Students can look honestly at their own beliefs and prejudices and actively work toward 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.” —Student, community college, US

Avoid playing devil’s advocate 

“Don’t purposely give an unfavorable opinion about racism or racial issues just to spark anger or a debate.” —Fifth-year undergraduate, University of Colorado Denver

Tap into your own experience

“Talk. It’s true that you may not know what oppression feels like, but you do know what it feels like to be in pain, and oppression hurts. Many things hurt. In discussion about needing to be there for one another, every being can be included.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Western Washington University

“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 graduate student, St. Clair College, Ontario

“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 student, Western Wyoming Community College

Comedian Aamer Rahman’s 3-minute guide to “reverse racism”

Expert perspective: “Reverse racism” is not systemic

Affirmative action policies, and other attempts to address systemic racial discrimination, have fed into a belief in “reverse racism,” a 2011 study in Perspectives on Psychological Science found; such policies are viewed by some white people as a barrier to their own success. Their experience is direct and personal, for example, the scholarship for which they are not eligible.

Those frustrations, however, do not constitute systemic discrimination based on skin color (which would be racism). Robust evidence shows that historically, government policies and social norms have produced better opportunities, environments, and outcomes for some members of society than for others. People of color are vastly underrepresented through our political, legal, educational, media, and corporate institutions. Those who are prominent and successful are seen as exceptions to the norm and held up as spokespeople for their racial or ethnic group.

The disparities at the top reflect uneven opportunities below. For example, in a 2003 study, résumés with black-sounding names received 50 percent fewer callbacks for an interview than identical résumés with white-sounding names (American Economic Review). Similarly, racial discrimination contributes to “persistent and vexing health disadvantages” among African Americans, according to a study in the Annual Review of Psychology (2007).

How we can think constructively about “reverse racism”

Cite real-world examples

“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, advocate for access and inclusion related to race and disability, Boston, Massachusetts

Listen

“Listening is a big step. Instead of bringing in a counterargument when a person of color talks about their experience, listen. Too many voices are silenced because of inadequate representation in media, faculty, etc.” —Third-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

Get brave about self-exploration

“Look at your own biases, look at your inner circle and see who is/isn’t included and why.” —Shermin Murji, MPH, health educator; doctoral student, Florida State University

Know that this is not a contest

“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 undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan

Accept the complexity of the issue

“Thoughtfully recognize and listen to the arguments that systemic racism is real, acknowledging a history that continues in different and similar forms. Research epigenetics and neuropsychology—how trauma and even bias can carry throughout our lives genetically, culturally, and environmentally.” —First-year student, Red Rocks Community College, Colorado

Take responsibility for learning

“White people need to do the work to understand systems of oppression/harm. Don’t wait for a person of color to explain it to you.” —Fifth-year undergraduate, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario

“A writer for one of my university’s student publications wrote an article that mocked the microaggressions and racism that minority students experience on a daily basis. It was an April Fool’s Day article but was completely inappropriate. It included a demand that a wall be built around the campus’ Chicano/Latino community center and that one of the Chicano/Latino student groups pay for it.” —First-year graduate student, University of California Davis

“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 undergraduate, University of Massachusetts Lowell

“Being white allows people to say things that may seem satirical, but likely come from a biased point of view against those of another race.” —Graduate student, Clemson University, South Carolina

Expert perspective: Disparaging “humor” has unfunny effects

In studies, humor that targets certain communities has the effect of validating prejudice and discriminatory actions toward members of those communities (Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2004).

Disparaging 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 activist Paul Kivel.

Racial slurs 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 contained in those words. In effect, we seem to sanction that past abuse.

How we can respond thoughtfully to derogatory humor

Call it out 

“Same old motto: If you see something, say something. Too many people just laugh off or ignore something that makes them uncomfortable.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, SUNY Empire State College, New York

Let the “joker” feel uncomfortable 

“As an ally, it is important to call others out when they make racist remarks. #makeitawkward” —Fifth-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Follow up with the targeted person

“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 empathize with them.” —Second-year undergraduate, Portland State University, Oregon

Avoid being casual or presumptuous with language

“There are still instances of white students who feel comfortable throwing around certain racial epitaphs because they grew up around black peers. And it’s not OK. They [do] not truly understand the painful history and hurt and degradation behind these words.” —Fifth-year undergraduate, Old Dominion University, Virginia

Consider the context

“Recognize the setting: when, where, why, and what is the joke about. Comedians can use dark humor to spread awareness, to get people to understand that their jokes are filled with stories [about experiences] that are not OK.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Western Washington University

“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 undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

“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 undergraduate, University of Central Arkansas

“I don’t look First Nation, so I often have the opportunity to be a fly on the wall. People are just generally unaware of how exclusive they are being. 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 undergraduate, British Columbia

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

On an individual level, we can be immediately inclusive. “You don’t have to agree with or like everyone,” says activist Keith 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.’”

This takes self-reflection. Racial bias is widespread in human groups and cultures—yet this does not give us an out. Bias causes varying levels of harm, depending partly on the social structure in which it occurs.

“Addressing racism means recognizing that we all have the capacity to harm, but also the opportunity to learn and grow,” says Lydia Brown, a race and disability activist and a graduate student at Northeastern University School of Law, Massachusetts. “Among Asians, being people of color doesn’t mean we are automatically exculpated forever from being anti-Black, for example. I don’t think it’s the exact same thing as when white people discriminate, but it’s not OK, whether we call it racist, biased, or bigoted.”

How we can include each other

Introduce yourself

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

Reach out

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

Attend events hosted by POC 

“Participate in diversity events. Support your fellow students of color by hearing what they have to say, what they’re dealing with.” —Second-year undergraduate, Sarah Lawrence College, New York

Try another thought experiment

“How many of you have joined a fraternity or sorority? Why are you thinking being part of that particular group is better than any other group?” —Keith Jones, advocate for access and inclusion related to race and disability, Boston, Massachusetts

Push through if possible

“At times when I felt excluded, I figured I could simply be expressive, and this has always created some unique experiences.” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University

Actively support other communities

Spend money at minority-owned businesses; hold institutions accountable (school administrations, local government, etc.), support programs and policies that serve communities of color, and rally around causes that are led by people of color. —Various students, various colleges and universities

“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, ‘I’m Puerto Rican and white.’” —Third-year undergraduate, University of Wisconsin–Stout

“Questions like ‘Where are you really from?,’ ‘Do you know your own language?,’ ‘Are all Asians like that?’” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Portland State University, Oregon

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 this information feels important. If your goal is to make a connection, think about alternative ways to do that.

“When people of color are asked (both by white people and other people of color) where we are really from, the underlying assumption is often that we don’t actually belong,” says Lydia Brown, a graduate student at Northeastern University of Law, Massachusetts, and visiting lecturer at Experimental College, Tufts University, Massachusetts. “Try asking where someone grew up, or what city they consider home, which might prompt much more interesting answers anyway.”

How we can get to know each other

Ask rather than assume

“[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, ‘What’s your religion?’” —Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Massachusetts Boston

Start with what you have in common

“You already have a shared connection simply by virtue of attending the same school. You can use that to connect by sharing information about your intellectual interests, favorite course, etc. Then you can invite that person to do the same.” —Dr. Carla Shedd, assistant professor of sociology, Columbia University, New York

Try these icebreakers

“Some simple conversation starters focus on similarities; e.g., ‘Would you mind if I sat with you? I don’t know many people in this class, so I thought I would say hello.’ Or, ‘I have the same textbook as you. What is your degree?’” —Fourth-year undergraduate, Trent University, Ontario

Acknowledge your missteps

“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 undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Students want to support each other meaningfully
Here’s how 1,750 college students responded to our recent survey:

  • Many students expressed the wish that someone had spoken up for them in an uncomfortable situation.
  • Many students wanted to be more supportive of their POC peers but weren’t sure how.
  • You overwhelmingly believe we should try harder to find common ground and support each other (95 percent).
  • You support the principles of racial activism: For example, nearly 3 in 4 (72 percent) say slavery’s impact continues to be a problem, 8 in 10 (79 percent) say racism is systemic, and 6 in 10 (61 percent) identify as racial activists or allies—even though you don’t always agree with activists’ ideas or tactics (84 percent).
  • You feel it is inaccurate to categorize people as either “allies” or “bigots” (79 percent) and believe that people’s views on race and racism can change (94 percent).
  • You may be concerned that valuable discussion can get sidetracked into nonessential disputes: For example, while 7 out of 10 (71 percent) of respondents see cultural appropriation as a real problem, more than 6 in 10 (63 percent) said it is OK for a white person to wear a Pocahontas costume.

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Article sources

Lydia X Y Brown, race and disability activist, graduate student, Northeastern University School of Law, Massachusetts; visiting lecturer, Experimental College, Tufts University, Massachusetts.

Kerima Cevik, race and disability activist.

Keith Jones, President and CEO, SoulTouchin’ Experiences, Boston, Massachusetts.

Paul Kivel, social justice educator and antiviolence advocate; cofounder, Standing Up for Social Justice; cofounder, Oakland’s Men Project; author, Uprooting Racism (New Society Publishers, 2002) and other books.

Carla Shedd, PhD, assistant professor of sociology, Columbia University, New York.

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Lifting the haze on hazing

Reading Time: 2 minutes

More than half of students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experience hazing, according to StopHazing.org, a hazing prevention and research initiative based at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Hazing is any activity associated with joining a group that involves degrading, abusive, risky, or illegal practices—like drinking games, sleep deprivation, paddling, or verbal abuse. Hazing has hit the headlines for causing physical and emotional harm (and, in some cases, death). Students with histories of mental health issues, abuse, and trauma are particularly vulnerable.

Student Health 101 talked with Susan Lipkins, PhD, a psychologist and author of Preventing Hazing (2006).

Here’s what you need to know:

  • A typical hazing perpetrator is simply a senior student who had it done to him or her as a freshman.
  • Hazing is rarely called hazing. You’re more likely to hear “rights of passage,” “ritual,” “tradition,” “pledging,” or “this is what we do.”
  • Rumors of what goes on in a sports team or fraternity are usually true. But if you ask members, they are likely to lie, and you might get a worse hazing.
  • As individuals, students who resist or object tend to get it worse.
  • As groups, new students can arrange in advance that they will say “enough” and leave. This is effective only when the group sticks together.
  • Don’t try to stop a hazing ritual unless you are in a position of social power.
  • As groups, bystanders can moderate a hazing ritual. These lines are useful: “We don’t want to lose our team or scholarship”; “We don’t want to end up in jail or the hospital.”  Effective intervention can end with bystanders escorting the newcomers out.
  • Is hazing a bonding experience? “It is bonding—in the same way that you can bond in a car accident together,” says Susan Lipkins.
  • Most important: If you are in a position to report hazing, anonymously or not, do so.