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How to Confront On-Campus Racism

Tackling on-campus is complicated, here are some practical tips for students looking to create sustainable change.

By Gloria Oladipo

When will this foolishness end? Real talk though. At Cornell University, my current schooling, there have been a number of “racially insensitive incidents”. In the past 4 months “Build a Wall” has been chanted at the Latino Living Center, an African-American student was beaten while being called a “nigger”, and  anti-semitic posters were hung up around campus.

Oddly, I don’t feel surprise or shock, but I do feel a constant disappointment that this is the world we live in. Adding onto my disappointment is the lingering feeling that nothing can really be done to make campuses a safer space for marginalized students.

As for the faculty, bureaucracy and hollow olive branches have been the forwarded responses. The main strategy has included plastering fliers reading “Hate has no home here” across campus, as well as the creation of various sub-committees. The student response has been a slew of protests, occupation of board meetings, and lists of demands. While I applaud the actions of students as kinetic compared to the sedentary pace of the faculty’s, all of these actions still leave me wondering: “Is this it?”.

I wanted to write this article as a pseudo-instruction manual to students, trying to suggest strategies to more effectively combat the racial climate on campuses, but then I thought: “I also don’t know what to do.” There is a question I still struggle with: How are we, as students, supposed to actively combat our own feelings of powerlessness by fighting against racism while also acknowledging the structures that prevent true change in the first place? So after curating responses from older folks and different community members, I melded them with my own thoughts to create a shortlist of opinions regarding the role of students:


It’s not just on us—acknowledging the work others (i.e. white people) must put in:

In the wake of these racist events, there is the widespread phenomenon, particularly expressed by other students of color, that the responsibility of redressing these  events should fall primarily on the shoulders of student of color groups. “We aren’t doing enough,” students would whisper angrily during strategizing meetings, “We aren’t solving the problem.”

While I can understand the role students of color have in advocating for our own humanity as few outside groups are interested in doing so, white people who take shelter in the structures of privilege also have an obligation. Notably, the real threat of co-option/plain foolishness from allies is important to consider, but students of color should have the grace to not always be organizing and educating. There should be increased pressure placed on white people to magnify marginalized voices, not just for the comforting self-righteousness of being “woke” but due to the realization that having privilege of representation gives a one certain degree of push that is necessary for the fight.  

Hope to cope, not to change:

Sometimes, as students of color who are eager to alter the campus climate, it can be comforting to believe our actions will cause a seismic change. One more sit-in is all it takes to stop someone from writing “nigger” on the dorm hall white boards. One more list of demands and the university president will finally listen to black and brown students.

Unfortunately, a history of racial violence disproves the theory that digestible forms of protest are disruptive. Rather, we should frame these actions as ways to ignite hope within our community and hope for ourselves. Racism on campus has a deep rooted history far longer than 2017 or even the past 10 years. That being said, our actions aren’t creating a “change,” but rather an important form of progress to make our campus more livable. Change would be an alteration of the racist status quo, one where black and brown students are treated on par with our white peers. Progress, instead, is the knowledge that the racist underbelly that defines universities is here to stay, but, as students, we can create tools to insulate and care for ourselves.

Interpersonal racism matters too:

Many times, racism isn’t perpetuated via racial slurs and physical beatings, but through more subversive tactics that can slip under the radar. Different microaggressions like inappropriate comments and other “smaller” actions still impact the lives of students, though they often aren’t accounted for. There is a reason why a very overt display of anti-blackness—a black student being beaten and called a “nigger”—was the straw that broke the university’s back.

The numerous dashes of racism that are sprinkled into students’ lives daily aren’t taken seriously by those in power. To this point, an essential part of the strategy to create progress is one that can account for ways to hold people accountable for interpersonal racism. Just because the racism that happens most frequently on campus isn’t “Birmingham, Alabama racism” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t deserve a heightened level of attention and responsiveness.  

Creating effective procedures for students to report professionals and students that have targeted them without the fear of retribution is a necessary component to an improved campus environment.

Acknowledge people’s different levels and abilities:

“Activism” is not a race. There is no medal for who can attend the most sit-ins, for who goes to the most organization meetings. We need to stop creating and using litmus tests within our community for who is more woke than thou based on standards that do not account for variants such as mental health and the social security to publicly resist. Obviously it is important that everyone is conscious of what their existence means in a white society, but for many, simply attending college and taking up space is a means of resistance that is neither measured nor celebrated.

Additionally, confronting continuous displays of racism is extremely exhausting; Taking a timeout from advocacy can be its own form of self-care for many. Therefore, be kind to one another and don’t make presumptions about someone else’s “wokeness” based on whether or not they were at the last protest.

Overall, there are so many layers, unanswered questions, and paradigms behind determining the best community response to moments of crisis. Even so, hopefully, we can learn the means to advance our causes in the most strategic way whilst being kind to each other and ourselves.




Author Bio: Gloria Oladipo is a vegan woman of color and freshman at Cornell University. Based in Chicago, IL.



Featured Image: Students gather at American University in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 3, 2014, to protest against the Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson. (Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images)


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