Home / Content / Blog: The Unbearable-ness of White Supremacy & Institutional Racism: Student-Led Protests On College and University Campuses by Keon McGuire

Blog: The Unbearable-ness of White Supremacy & Institutional Racism: Student-Led Protests On College and University Campuses by Keon McGuire

Monday, February 15, 2016

Last September, when I was invited to contribute to the Equity Alliance blog by engaging the topic, Transcending College Access: Retention and Promotion of Students of Color, I could not anticipate the brave, thoughtful, and inspiring student led protests that emerged in the last five months and continues to sweep college and university campuses across our nation. Beginning with the courageous actions of a group of Black women who initiated University of Missouri’s student-led resistance movements[i] (e.g., MU for Mike Brown, Concerned Student 1950, Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike, and members of the football team refusing to play), which led to the resignation of (now former) Missouri University System President Tim Wolfe and (now former) Chancellor R. Bowen, student-led protests across the country are demanding new leadership, removal of racist artifacts, increase in diverse faculty and student populations, and recently the dismantling of a campus police department (UC Irvine). Ultimately, students (as well as some faculty and staff) are calling for a fundamental transformation of colleges and universities and many continue risking their well-being to do so. Exposing the limits of an uncritical multiculturalism, which equates diversity to mere representation and cultural celebrations (e.g., food, dance, music) students’ demands are advancing an intersectional activism that challenges White Supremacy and Institutional Racism. By White Supremacy and Institutional Racism I am referring both to the ideological normalization of White superiority and non-White inferiority as well as the material systems, policies, and procedures that garner advantages as well as protect Whites, while disadvantaging and providing little protection to nonWhites.[ii]

For many, such organizing efforts and the issues they target are poignantly reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s. Being both effected by and constituent of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, these efforts resulted in greater access for Students of Color at predominantly White institutions, the establishment of Ethnic Studies departments, as well as investments in student support services for marginalized populations by way of creating multicultural centers. Despite these gains, present day protests are evidence that uprooting and overcoming interpersonal, institutional, and systemic racism is a job that remains undone. Researchers who have documented the lived experiences of undergraduate and graduate Students of Color, attending predominantly White institutions (PWIs), have made it clear that students often face hostile campus environments that materialize overtly in racist, sexist, and transphobic themed parties and vandalism (Garcia & Johnston, 2015).

Moreover, a critically important body of educational scholarship has emerged over the last decade highlighting subtler, but equally harmful, expressions of racism termed racial microaggressions. Originating in the field of psychology, particularly through the work of Dr. Chester Pierce (1974, 1995), racial microaggressions are “commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults” (Sue, 2010, p. 29). Examples of racial microaggressions in postsecondary education include White faculty and students believing that Students of Color are largely underprepared, affirmative action beneficiaries; trans* women of color being marginalized in largely White queer spaces; university police subjecting Students of Color to undue racial profiling, suspicion, and intimidation; faculty holding lower expectations for Students of Color; and educators diminishing or invalidating the significance of racism in students’ lives. Exposure to racial microaggressions also have been found to produce a range of negative psychological, physiological and academic outcomes, such as an increased sense of self-doubt, racial battle fatigue, depression, and anxiety (Smith, Allen, Danley, 2007; Yosso, Smith, & Solórzano, 2009). Colleagues and I have found that racial microaggressions undermine the educational success of community college Students of Color by creating classroom disengagement (e.g., a student remaining silent during an entire class after being microaggressed by a faculty member), while other studies have found that due to racist assumptions of inferiority about Students of Color, they are often not invited to join their White peers’ study groups or White faculty research teams.

Though it is true that racial microaggressions regularly occur at the individual level and are often considered subconscious, Critical Race Theorists appropriately draw our attention to the ways these micro-level actions are rooted in and perpetuate oppressive material and ideological economies; namely, institutionalized racism and White Supremacy (Huber & Solórzano, 2015). Considering PWIs, for instance, racial microaggressions take place in a context – produced by a number of (un)intentional institutional, state, and federal policies – that restrict access for Students of Color; fail to recruit, retain, and promote Faculty of Color; maintain a disproportionate number of White, cisgender, heterosexual men in the ranks of senior leadership; and the racist actions and behaviors of students and faculty are left largely unaddressed. Too, university curriculum remains a property of Whiteness and White Supremacy insomuch that the intellectual contributions of People of Color are often absent or treated as objects of history rather than subjects/contributors (Patton, 2016). Within such an environment, Students of Color find little recourse via sanctioned institutional processes (e.g., campus judicial offices) or power brokers (e.g., senior level administrators) who could act in ways to create a more inclusive learning environment. Why? Because White Supremacy and institutional racism are not the exception to the rule, but the rule itself. As such, policies and procedures work to sustain, rather than undo normalized White supremacy in curriculum and equitable access to and success in all academic programs (e.g., STEM majors), for example.

It is this untenable and unbearable reality produced by White Supremacy and institutional racism that (largely) students, faculty, and staff across our country are powerfully speaking to and resisting. I offer the recommendations below as a junior, non-tenured Faculty of Color (re: vulnerable) who studies issues of racism in higher education, but more urgently as a Black man who has and continues to suffer the consequences of institutional racism and White Supremacy:

  • Listen AND Act: Any institution that hopes to improve the experiences of Students of Color must first listen to Students of Color. This should not be interpreted simply as convening a few students for one conversation. On the contrary, educators must systematically engage in sustained equity-based problem-solving whereby Students of Color are engaged not merely as informants, but co-leaders in co-constructing inclusive learning environments.[iii] Moreover, progressive change and improvement requires educational leaders willing to act in ways that directly address students concerns; this means listening and acting upon students’ concerns. Professor Bensimon and the Center for Urban Education, University of Southern California Rossier School of Education’s Equity Scorecard offers one powerful example of such work. Also, educators must engage the broad diversity of Students of Color. More specifically, students who are trans*, non-cisgender, women, queer, and men should be engaged equitably.
  • Offer Space: Providing both physical space as well as opportunities for Students of Color to gather, in order to heal, support, and “simply be,” is critically important. Such space may come in the form of multicultural centers or institutionally-funded social, academic or professional events. While institutions should support the development of such space, educators (faculty, staff, and administrators) must balance providing mentorship/support without co-opting students’ efforts.
  • Increase Accountability: Last, and arguably most important, institutions must find ways to hold educators and students, who create hostile learning environments for Students of Color, accountable. For example, while racial microaggressions, as a concept, is gaining increasing popularity, what redress do students have against a tenured faculty or senior administrator who consistently microaggresses students through their (in)actions? As educators, we must find ways that hold such persons accountable. For example, institutions could work with Human Resources and Faculty bodies to develop formal processes and policies that develop sanctions (e.g., elimination or reduction of merit increases for the next year) for faculty who repeatedly make racist, sexist, heteronormative, and classist remarks.



Garcia, G. A., & Johnston-Guerrero, M. P. (2015). Challenging the utility of a racial microaggressions framework through a systematic review of racially biased incidents on campus. Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs, 2(1), 50-66.

Huber, L. P. & Solórzano, D. (2014). Racial microaggressions as a tool for critical race research. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 18(3), 297-320.

Patton, L. D. (2016). Disrupting postsecondary prose: Toward a critical race theory of education. Urban Review, 51(3), 315-342.

Pierce, C. (1974). Psychiatric problems in the Black minority. In S. Arieti (Ed.), American handbook of psychiatry (pp. 265-282). New York: Basic Books.

Pierce, C. (1995). Stress analogs of racism and sexism: Terrorism, torture, and disaster. . In C. Willie, B. Rieker, B. Kramer & B. Brown (Eds.), Mental health, racism, and sexism (pp. 277-293). Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburg Press.

Smith, W. A., Allen, W. R., & Danley, L. L. (2007). Assume the position . . . you fit the description: Psychosocial experiences and racial battle fatigue among African American male college students. American Behavioral Scientist, 51, 551–578.

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microagressions, marginality, and oppression: An introduction. In D. W. Sue (Ed.), Microagressions and marginality: Manifestations, dynamics, and impact (pp. 3-24). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Yosso, T., Ceja, M., Smith, W. & Solorzano, D. (2009). Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate For Latina/o Undergraduates. Harvard Educational Review, 79, 659-690.

[i] I want to thank my colleague Dr. Amalia Dache-Gerbino who provided insightful feedback on an earlier draft of this blog.

[ii] For a longer discussion of White Supremacy than I can provide here, consult Charles W. Mills’ (1997) The Racial Contract and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s (2001) White Supremacy and Racism in the Post–Civil Rights Era.

[iii] I owe this particular insight to a recent presentation by my colleague Dr. Melanie Bertrand, discussing her and her colleagues, Drs. Durand and Gonzalez, work employing Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) (http://www.spencer.org/developing-civic-participation-marginalized-youth-through-literature-infused-youth-participatory).

Author Biography

Dr. Keon M. McGuire is an Assistant Professor of Higher and Postsecondary Education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. Employing Africana frameworks, such as Black Feminist Theory and Queer of Color Critique, his research broadly explores Black undergraduate students’ intersecting identities as well as issues of race and racism in higher education. Dr. McGuire holds a joint Ph.D. in Higher Education and Africana Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and was a finalist for the 2014 Melvene D. Hardee Dissertation of the Year Award form NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.