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Diverse Conversations: How Racial Stereotyping Hurts College Campuses

The past few years have brought the deep-seeded ugliness of racial profiling to the surface. From the shooting death of the unarmed Trayvon Martin in Ferguson, Missouri, to brute force from the very people who commit to protecting citizens or discrimination in everyday life, racial profiling holds back all Americans because it prioritizes fear over the truth.

Racial profiling is even evident in the private sector, with the most recent evidence of this found in a study that found that, just before the housing crash in 2008, Black families with a combined income of $230,000 annually were just as likely to receive subprime loans as White families making just $32,000 annually. It seems that racial profiling trumps actual statistics and documentation of financial stability in minorities.

Racial profiling happens and it’s dangerous ― even on college campuses, which are often advertised as some of the most progressive places in the country. The latest example of this in action took place on one of the largest campuses based on population in the nation: The University of Central Florida (UCF). In late April, UCF students received an emergency text notification that there was a “POSSIBLE MIDDLE EASTERN MAN/WOMAN” with a gun in the UCF main campus library.

The alert was prompted by a later unsubstantiated report of a young woman in a headscarf praying and wielding a gun in a common area of the library. Once the relief of no actual threat sunk in, students and faculty started to speak out against the anti-Islamic rhetoric that surrounded the entire scenario.

In a piece for UCF’s daily newspaper The Central Florida Future, Tahoora Ateeq, Pakistani Student Association president, wrote:

“It would have been more beneficial if the UCF alert was sent out with a description of the person’s manner of dress, the person’s shoes, the person’s height or the person’s gender. In the future, I hope that UCF acts more wisely and does not utilize such a vague description that feeds into people’s stereotypes and prejudices.”

UCF’s story isn’t isolated, though. In a 2013 paper in the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Black students reported being treated differently by their professors than their White peers. A particularly disturbing portion of the paper accents an experience by a Black female computer science student who said her professor associated her with stereotypical interests and called her “one of you.”

Minorities often feel unfairly profiled and stereotyped outside the classroom as well. In the fall of 2015, a Black student at Hinds Community College in Mississippi reported being arrested after a police officer felt his baggy pants violated the college dress code. How can our minority college students be expected to focus on the academics at hand if they are constantly on the defensive against racial profiling and discriminatory policies?

There is a mental toll that goes along with racial profiling on college campuses, too. Black students and other minorities, even White women, often report feeling like they have to “prove themselves” beyond typical college work to somehow show that they deserve their spot ― especially at schools with known diversity recruitment programs. This need to always fight back against negative stereotypes hurts students academically, which is understandable, considering the energy that should be geared toward actual learning is channeled to being on the defensive. Instead of just being free to focus on their studies, too many students feel the weight of racial and other stereotyping.

What colleges can do

It starts at the top. Administrators need to listen when students report incidents of racial injustice and not look the other way, as a faculty member at Yale suggested when Black students were outraged by White peers donning blackface for Halloween.

Campus police and security officers must be trained in the best policies for keeping the peace without unjustly profiling the very students they are meant to protect.

Faculty members should not only support diversity awareness, but they should actually be diverse themselves. Universities must recruit a variety of employees that are from diverse backgrounds at all levels of the organization.

The more blended the student and faculty population is on a college campus, the better the chance that racial profiling and other stereotyping simply will not exist. It starts with an awareness though, and actual policies that boost diversity and speak out against discrimination.

Dr. Matthew Lynch is dean of the School of Education, Psychology, and Interdisciplinary Studies, and an associate professor of education at Virginia Union University.

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