Microaggression in the American Educational System: A Failing & Falling Structure

Imagine driving to a school out of town, because the education was supposed to be better. You’re driving there, just like any other day, lost in your own thoughts, lost in homework, dances, books, anything other than hate. You pull up with the rest of the students on the bus, who all happen to have similarities to you, and you notice something. Even though things like this happen at school frequently, it has never left a mark this deep before. Students standing outside, waiting for you, dressed in full KKK outfits. Imagine the fear you must feel upon first appearance, and the hate radiating off of these costumes, through the bus doors, and on your face. You feel the hate, yet you do not understand why or how someone can have that much hate in their heart, for people they don’t even know.

Now you have to go into school, and you have to sit with these people, these white people who do nothing but mock you, write racial slurs on your lockers, or, maybe, just ignore you.

For Dr. Tanya Clark, an English professor at Rowan University who teaches African American Literature, and co-coordinator of the Africana studies program, this was her reality. Although Clark grew up in the south during the ‘80’s, the issue of schooling in America is extensive, and while this sort of harsh racism may not be seen as much (oh, it’s still there alright) another form has become the new racism. Clark, who was in a program in high school with a handful of other African-American students, were ushered from their neighborhood onto a bus, and then dropped off at a predominantly white school for better education, said she recalls this memory from Halloween one year.

“There were about 5 or 6, who we came to learn were students, our classmates, but there were 5 or 6 people standing out in front of the stairs, dressed in full KKK outfits. Like hoods, crosses, everything.” Clark goes on to say the bus driver told the kids to stay on the bus, and they later came to learn that this was just a “prank.” They were students dressed up in Halloween costumes, and “thought that it would be funny for them to scare us. Or to see our reaction. I don’t know, you know, what their purpose was.”

While that may seem outlandish to readers today, and it may seem like something that would not happen in 2016, The New York Times tells a different story. According to Danielle Mayes, a student/reader who wrote to famed news source from Duke University, said she walked into the student center, and there was “a makeshift noose” hanging in plain sight. While this may seem like a “joke” or a “prank,” as Clark said her experience was described as, it is anything but. This is a racist act, and even if the person (who, according to Mayes turned him or herself in and is still on campus) did not realize or understand what they were doing, it is still something that can cause fear and terror.

So it goes. The schooling system in America has many holes, and many instances of racism laced throughout it, yet people fail to realize it until it is too late, or not at all.

Microaggressions exist all over the world, all over America, but some of the most prominent ones are things that happen within the schooling system. For example, something as small as saying, “You sound white,” or “You don’t sound black,” and for Modupe Akinmade, a 21 year old African-American student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, has heard both before. This equates intelligence with white, according to Akinmade, and it is detrimental to say to a person who is not white. According to a study done by psychologist Derald Wing Sue, PhD, this constitutes as a microaggression, which is defined as “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them.” According to Sue and the study he did in 2010, the theme of that microaggression is intelligence, and it subliminally sends the message that “people of color” are generally not as smart as white people.

This message seems to have been heard and accepted in American schooling systems. While some microaggressions, as Sue pointed out in his definition, are by white people who have no knowledge of what they’re saying, there are some microaggressions that are intentional.

There is a fine line being crossed from microaggressions, to just straight out racism. Someone who has thought about this, and has conversations almost everyday about race in America, and race in the American educational system is TJ Holloway. Holloway recognizes that “being racist and being a good person aren’t mutually exclusive.” As Holloway says, there are people that he’s has conversations with, and he knows they are being racist, but that does not fundamentally make them a bad person. Holloway, an English education major, with minors in international studies, psychology, Africana studies, and an honors concentration, who is also the Empire Guardian Regional Chair for the United States Students Association, says an issue that this organization focuses on is the intersection between education and social justice. According to Holloway, the biggest problem with race today is “centered around anxiety.” People are terrified and anxious to even bring race up, hence many of the color blind arguments people tend to use.

Holloway says that “white people are socialized not to talk about race,” and while that may be a plus, because white people know without question racist slurs are off the table and to never say them, it also creates anxiety with racial issues and discussing race. This is also why many white people are afraid of even engaging with black people, according to Holloway. Socialization seems to be the main culprit, and if anything is going to improve, Holloway says that, “recreation of certain ideals and values,” such as intentional whiteness and whitewashing, needs to change.

Whiteness, according to Holloway, “is an intentional and social thing,” that he believes was brought around to marginalize a group of people in order to exploit them with labor, and to gain economic standing. Holloway does not believe that the anxiety centered around race and racial issues or conversations is “an inherent aversion” to black people. It is not something a person is born with, but something a person is socialized with and forced to learn growing up in a western dominated world. This ties in with education, because I’m not sure about you, but my education was based around white cis men, colonizing areas that were already populated.

This is what has allowed microaggressions to prosper, and for well-intentioned white people to say things that are racist. This also enforces the idea that white people are smarter, inherently, and it is why the schooling system in America is failing minorities. Saying something such as “you sound white” meaning “you sound smart” is already setting a precedent for the African-American student to believe that he/she is not as inherently smart as a white student.

Another thing Dr. Clark experienced while a student at high school in the ‘80’s, was that even if she tried to participate in class, and she was the only one with her hand raised, she was often times overlooked by the teacher. This is something that Holloway says he feels as well, maybe not as intensely as Dr. Clark, but it is something that happens to him, and more so at Rowan than anywhere else.

Holloway describes it as being “pushed on the fringe” of environments, because of his “dark skin” and firm ideologies that people are easily intimidated by, without reason or cause. Holloway says it is rare for a person to be dark skinned, and “perceived intellectual.” Not because dark skinned people are not intellectual, but because that is not that image conjured up when speaking about intelligence in America.

The issue of schooling in America is extensive, but the research shows black students are projected to be less educated, while white students are expected to be more so educated. This is shown in a study done in 2015 by an organization called “Child Trends,” which is a non-profit and non-partisan research center that tracks data about children. Black parents are shown to have lesser education than their white counterparts, and therefore their expectations are less for their children. Lesser expectations, according to this study, is more or less a self-fulfilling prophecy. This creates tension with the idea of school, not very “positive attitudes” when it comes to school, and “less parent-child communication about school.” This all creates negative impacts and first impressions by students and teachers in the American schooling system.

According to this study, “disparities in discipline begin in preschool and continue through every level of schooling.” While blacks make up 18 percent of students in preschool, they account for 42 percent of students with an out-of-school suspension and 48 percent of students with multiple out-of-school suspensions. This is not the only disparity that exists between white students and black students. Even in areas where schools are predominantly minorities, “on average, schools serving more minority populations have less-experienced, lower-paid teachers who are less likely to be certified,” according to a report from the Center for American Progress.

Education, and school discipline leads to another problem, as Holloway talks about, the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Holloway refers to the “new slavery” as the mass incarceration of black people, which originated with Reagan and his supposed war on drugs. Although for Holloway, you cannot convince him that this war on drugs “was genuine at all,” and it was “pretty much an attack on black people, to capitalize off them, and black communities.” This school-to-prison pipeline is an issue Holloway and fellow members of the United States Student’s Association study extensively.

The school-to-prison pipeline is what happens when an educational system continues to push out, on the fringe, the most at risk students, such as minorities, based on all of the previous information delegated. A lack of expectation, plus discipline that is greater for African Americans than it is for white Americans highlights the more important aspects of the school-to-prison pipeline. The educational system refuses to acknowledge the problems it faces, and it enacts zero-tolerance policies that make it easier to suspend or expel a student, who is then left alone without supervision. According to a study done by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, and students who have been suspended are more likely to be held back a grade and dropout of school entirely. This is an issue inside America that is ignored, and something that enables a system in place, that is set up to fail minority students.

The issue comes back to expectations placed on white students versus black students, and a recent study found that teachers have their own agendas and biases. According to a study by John Hopkins University, “when a black teacher and a white teacher evaluate the same black student, the white teacher is about 30 percent less likely to predict the student will complete a four-year college degree, the study found.” If the teachers do not have high hopes for the students, why would the students believe in themselves? This is a form of microaggression, that is caused by societal constructions and intentional whitewashing. Assuming that white is generally smarter than black is clearly detrimental, and provides a never-ending cycle that will not benefit anyone in the future.

This is the reason TJ Holloway wants to go into the profession of teaching, although he admits he is “disillusioned” at the moment. What Holloway wishes to happen is to create an open dialogue between race, an interrogation of yourself, of your values, and as this generation moves into adulthood, accountability. “Being culturally and socially responsible,” as Holloway puts it, “This is the first time we held ourselves accountable, whether people are there or not.” He does not expect a miracle, and in fact still understands that “19-20 years of socialization” is not going to change within one year, two years, three years, etc. Holloway believes the accountability factor will weigh in at the end. If a person interrogates themselves, and understands that this socialization occurs, it will be easier to question certain standards, and remain aware.

Holloway believes there needs to be a dialogue about these issues. Not a call-out, but more or less a “call-in.” When something happens, or someone says something microaggressive, he says, there needs to be a moment when someone engages with that person, such as a simple, “Yo, we need to talk about this.” Holloway understands that socialization is something hard to separate oneself from, still admitting there is a part of him that is socialized, and he realizes each person has their own narrative, so even type-casting, or stereotyping them will never work. Every person has his or her own experiences that lead them to a certain point in time, and Holloway understands that.

Holloway’s motto when it comes to life, and how he can always improve himself is quite simple, really.

“Never get too comfortable.”


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