As an African-American student at the predominately white Emerson College, I've often felt isolated as one of the few students of color in my classrooms. I've frequently sat through lessons where I've experienced the pressure to speak for my entire race and was outnumbered when students, knowingly or unknowingly, would make racist statements that went unchallenged.
I am not alone. As an advocate for social and racial justice on my college's campus, I've talked to students of various disciplines who have felt this kind of social exclusion. We've had to deal with our peers exoticizing our bodies, identities, invalidating our cultural viewpoints, and generally marginalizing us. Our courses are the last places we should have to defend ourselves from this. We invest faith and funds into our schools. Every student desires professors that understand and respect them, and minority students only want the same: Instructors who are trained to deal with cultural issues when they arise, so that those students who are already marginalized outside of the classroom are not further isolated within it. Higher education institutions across the country should establish cultural competency training.
I've endured and heard of times when microaggressions -- those subtle, daily indignities occurring between people of dominate and subdominant positions -- have gone without redress. Recently, a Japanese-American student told me that her teacher said nothing when her class laughed at a video of traditional Asian dances, after having repeatedly asked her to pronounce Japanese words. These moments only aid alienation.
This uncorrected ignorance becomes a weapon in and of itself against students of minority ethnicities, suggesting that our presence and experience isn't as valuable. In a subtler way, this climate of racism and cultural conflict poisons the trust between even well-intentioned individuals.
Even worse is when instructors, rather than silently sanctioning these expressions of cultural ineptitude, spark them themselves. In my mostly white American Literature program, my white professor thought it would be funny to pivot from literature on slavery to say that, because people originally migrated from Africa, we were all black. She said it as if it could make the racial issues go away, but she would never have to deal with the consequences of living in my skin.
Students should not be spending thousands of dollars to be disrespected and harassed in class. Nearly all colleges tout mission statements that make it seem that their student bodies are inclusive, yet these issues are universal partially because professors are not trained to have the cultural competency to deal with teaching students of different racial and cultural backgrounds.
I don't doubt that this training isn't desired by some instructors -- I've met with faculty members who have expressed the need for the basic instruction I'm calling for. However, they and their more problematic peers are not put into positions where this becomes necessary. As a result, students suffer. This is a betrayal of the students who put their faith into their institutions. Any person who has ever sat in a classroom in their lives should be able to understand how this is a disservice to the educational experience and one that needs to be rectified. Silence will not solve it. Ultimately, it should be a college's obligation to ensure that its faculty does not facilitate the degradation of its students.