How students are coping with the uncertainty of 2020

Reading Time: 7 minutes It’s not even over yet and 2020 already feels like the longest year on record. Try these coping strategies to deal with this year’s many hardships.

Ask the psychologist: “How can I make my voice heard in a room full of white people as a woman of color?”

Reading Time: 2 minutes How can students of color thrive in such a racially complicated climate? Our psychologist offers advice for navigating predominantly white institutions.

Ask the counselor: “What can I do when I notice racism in the classroom?”

Reading Time: 2 minutes Our counselor offers options for if you ever experience racism in the classroom.

Ask the counselor: “What should I do if someone from a different culture ignorantly insults my culture?”

Reading Time: 2 minutes Here’s what you should (and shouldn’t) do when someone from a different culture has ignorantly insulted yours.

Ask the counselor: “How do I survive in a racist community?”

Reading Time: 2 minutes

—Gala C., Dordt College, Iowa

It’s not easy being in a community that you feel has hatred toward others because of their race. It’s stressful to hear negative comments or see discrimination and feel like there isn’t much you can do to stop it. Racism is also bad for your health. Research has shown that the everyday stress of racism can harm your mental and physical health, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

You might find you become filled with hate toward those who are racist. But don’t match hate with hate; meet it with heart.

Heart is reminding yourself that those people’s beliefs and actions aren’t based in reality. Racism and other forms of hatred often come from lack of information and understanding about others. They’ve been taught something that’s untrue. Over time, with exposure to new ideas or to people from other groups, it’s possible that they can gain more acceptance. Heart is understanding that there’s a better way to live, and even things as horrible as racism can be overcome.

If you do plan to talk to people about their actions or beliefs surrounding racism, here are some tips:

  • Take time to discuss with them your positive experiences with people of other races.
  • Remind them of the great contributions different races have made.
  • Appeal to the good parts of their personality when they want to instinctively react with hate. For example, remind someone of their religious values (e.g., being a person of peace) or recall how much they suffered through a bullying experience as a way to create empathy toward the individuals who are being attacked.
  • Pick times for these discussions when things are neutral and everyone is calm.

Don’t try to argue and lash out; that probably won’t end well. Remember: Hate will lead to hate. Help them relearn a better way.

Group of friends on lawn with backs turned

Becoming an agent for change

As for yourself, another way to deal with racism is to become a person of positive change. For example, join an organization in your community or an online organization that works toward unity, or start your own. This way, you’re around like-minded people of other races who can support you.

You can also educate yourself about what racism is, learn the history of efforts to overcome racism, and look up resources to help address racial equity. A great place to start is the Racial Equality Resource Guide, which offers tool kits, a list of organizations across the country, and other resources to help you in your effort to effect change.

Stay calm

When you’ve confronted something that has you seething and you need to calm down now, practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, exercise, and engaging in activities that bring you joy.

When is it time to go?

If you feel physically in danger, consider leaving the community. Sometimes the best efforts to make a change take time and distance. If you’re still living at home or aren’t financially able to leave just yet, you can still make a plan. Start to identify the places that you can live or spend time in where diversity is valued.

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

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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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


“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.


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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