Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students

Article excerpt

Microaggressions are subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously. Using critical race theory as a framework, the study described in this article provides an examination of racial microaggressions and how they influence the collegiate racial climate. Using focus group interview data from African American students at three universities, it reveals that racial microaggressions exist in both academic and social spaces in the collegiate environment. The study shows how African American students experience and respond to racial microaggressions. It also demonstrates how racial microaggressions have a negative impact on the campus racial climate.

... one must not look for the gross and obvious. The subtle, cumulative miniassault is the substance of today's racism... (Pierce, 1974, p. 516)

In and of itself a microaggression may seem harmless, but the cumulative burden of a lifetime of microaggressions can theoretically contribute to diminished mortality, augmented morbidity, and flattened confidence. (Pierce, 1995, p. 281) These two epigraphs by psychiatrist Chester Pierce over a 21-year period speak volumes about an important, persistent, and underresearched social problem in the United States: racial microaggressions. Little is known about microaggressions, and yet this subtle form of racism has a dramatic impact on the lives of African Americans. Pierce and his colleagues have defined racial microaggressions as "subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are 'put downs' of blacks by offenders" (Pierce, Carew, Pierce-Gonzalez, & Wills, 1978, p. 66). They further maintain that these "offensive mechanisms used against blacks often are innocuous" and that the "cumulative weight of their never-ending burden is the major ingredient in black-white interactions" (p. 66). Additionally, Davis (1989) defined racial microaggressions as "stunning, automatic acts of disregard that stem from unconscious attitudes of white superiority and constitute a verification of black inferiority" (p. 1576).

Racial microaggressions, or unconscious and subtle forms of racism, though pervasive, are seldom investigated (Delgado & Stefancic, 1992; Johnson, 1988; Lawrence, 1987; Sol6rzano, 1998). Occasionally, African American students get a glimpse into the world of unconscious racism as demonstrated in comments such as those related to us by students who participated in the study described in this article: "When I [a White person] talk about those Blacks, I really wasn't talking about you," "You [a Black person] are not like the rest of them. You're different," "If only there were more of them [Black people] like you [a Black person]," and "I don't think of you [a Black person] as Black." Referring to White authority figures in particular (i.e., judges and other criminal justice authorities), Davis (1989) has suggested that Whites are capable of such utterances because "cognitive habit, history, and culture [have made them] unable to hear the range of relevant voices and grapple with what reasonably might be said in the voice of discrimination's victims" (p. 1576). Subsequently, as Pierce (1974) maintained, each Black person "must be taught to recognize these microaggressions and construct his future by taking appropriate action at each instance of recognition" (p. 520).

RACE, RAcism, AND RACIAL MICROAGGRESSIONS Our study of the collegiate racial climate and the effect of racial microaggressions begins by defining race and racism. One can argue that dominant groups often attempt to legitimate their position via ideological means or a set of beliefs that explains or justifies some actual or potential social arrangement. According to Banks (1995), an examination of U.S. history reveals that the "color line" of race is a socially constructed category, created to differentiate racial groups and to show the superiority or dominance of one race-in particular, Whites-over others. …

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