Racial conflict is a product of a system that continues to fight racial hierarchies. Racial conflict also signifies discord between beliefs, values and practices within a group or between two or more constituencies. If we consider the various groups that currently coexist within our universities, we must learn to accept racial conflict as a natural part of a diverse system. If we consider ourselves defenders of justice and as stakeholders in the education of global citizens, then we should accept racial protest as a form of racial conflict that attempts to correct injustices committed against under-represented and under-served minoritized groups in higher education.
White Supremacy is a system in which beliefs, values, and practices are developed, maintained and upheld to preserve social and political dominance of one racialized population over all others When non-dominant racial populations contest those beliefs, values, and practices, racial contestation – a type of organizational conflict - arises. Thus, racial conflict should be taken seriously on college campuses – whether it is a racist verbal interaction between two students or larger more structural forms of racial conflict (e.g. stating that diversity is an important value of the university while overtly or subtly resisting the hiring and promotion of People of Color in faculty and senior administration). These incidents of racial conflict suggest that there are clashes in racial beliefs, values, and practices within the institution. The outcome of these conflicts reveals the interests of the institutions of higher education.
My research on campus racial conflict reveal important information about racial conflict (some which are included at the end of this piece) but among them is that students do not trust administrators to do the right thing when it comes to campus racial conflict. Some students admit that they don’t trust administrators because they believe they represent and protect the institution and not them.
Additionally (to my surprise!), my research also reveals that administrators felt that they had a sense of how students were feeling about the racial climate on their campus – until their students were interviewed and their thoughts recorded by the media. They felt that students often gave a different opinion about the racial climate when the representatives from the media asked them about the same issue.
Drawing on over a year of qualitative research involving 35 interviews with students, faculty, and administrators, I examined the perceptions of campus racial conflict at two types of institutions of higher education: a minority-serving institution (MSI) and a historically White institution (HWI). Based on the data, I highlight several strategies below that can be employed by colleges and universities seeking to understand students’ experiences with racial conflict:
- Be clear about campus racial conflict policies and consequences
- Be honest about the kinds of incidents of racial conflict students have experienced at their particular institution. Part of my research agenda includes a typology of incidents that may occur at different institutional types. This typology can then be modified to each institution that desire to delve deeper into this topic.
- MSIs (Minority Serving Institutions) can suffer from incidents of racial conflict, too. MSIs should do regular investigations of the kinds of institutional and structural forms of racial conflict that may be more likely to occur at these institutions.
- HWIs (Historically White Institutions) need to re-evaluate and study the effectiveness of their diversity mechanisms.
- Racial conflict can’t be addressed in one training day. In fact, some of my respondents desire a conversation that goes beyond punitive practices. If racial conflict is only addressed when something “bad” happens, we tell stakeholders that racism isn’t a part of our daily lives and it occurs only at “bad” institutions.
- Employ people who have the skills to study the aftermath of an incident of racial conflict is important to study. According to my respondents, these incidents often spur an interest in learning about the history of the institution, an increased desire to take classes that address race and racism in society, and know who allies are.
- Take care of those affected by racial battle fatigue. If some stakeholders are tired of “diversity talk” on their campuses, there are a whole other group that are tired from always being called upon to do the work that ends up as a study on a bookshelf. Addressing racial battle fatigue is an important part of addressing campus racial conflict. This especially should be emphasized among those who participate in racial protests.
Campus racial conflict is a daily occurrence at all our institutions, whether it makes a headline or not. Campus racial protest, a form of racial conflict, is an active type of racial contestation that opposes a White Supremacist regime. Diversity politics, then, is an important tool but not sufficient in the battle against White Supremacists beliefs, values, and practices - with some study these could be identified on our campuses. Our job as student affairs administrators is to be honest with ourselves and figure out what role we play in this kind of environment: do we want to maintain the regime as it is? Do we want to be the band-aid with the hope that these incidents of racial conflict will heal on their own? Or do we aspire to temporary peaks of progress and employ mechanisms that truly combat White Supremacy