By Steffi Cao
Like many teenagers in high school, I used to dream about what college would be like. I would look up random schools and peruse their class catalogues, fabricating elaborate daydreams about laughing with my multicultural girl group on a sunny lawn or studying in a stained-glass library, à la Legally Blonde. Eventually, I enrolled at the University of Michigan because it really, truly felt like a home. But as I enter my senior year here, my hopes for UMich don’t mirror my reality, in part because my collegiate experience was marred with the grim backdrop of hate crimes on campus.
For the past three years, hate crimes have been drastically rising on college campuses, and as of 2017, UMich ranks second in the country for most reported hate crime incidents on a college campus, right behind Rutgers in New Jersey. In my first semester, a few days after the 2016 presidential election results, someone distributed posters depicting graphic Islamophobic images and racist remarks towards the Black community. A few days after that, a woman was pushed down a hill for wearing a hijab. The following years’ events only escalated from there, including a falsely reported active shooter threat.
And it’s not only the newsworthy events that makes being on campus so worrying; an additional microcosm of everyday acts of hate, building on a larger culture of polarization, linger between headlines and keep the unease fresh in students’ minds. Friends and I have been called derogatory terms while walking home from class, and there is a reliable pulse of hatred in the classroom and on larger campus grounds. Many marginalized students feel more frustrated and further isolated from the narrative college experience.
“You have to constantly be aware of what’s happening on campus,” says Lorraine Furtado, a fourth-year student and activist in several initiatives across campus. “Sometimes there’s so many [hate-fueled incidents] you just don’t hear about them or know about them, until you’re in a conversation and you ask, ‘oh, that one?’ People are like, ‘oh no, not that one, the other one.’”
Furtado, whose work spans across LGBTQ+ rights, mental health awareness, financial accessibility, and racial equity, says that being informed is the first step in advocating for others, but that barrage of information can be emotionally taxing for students who are already navigating how to simply exist within a predominantly white collegiate structure. “It’s so exhausting to have this constant internal dialogue and awareness in your head, weighing down on you all the time,” she tells MTV News.
The feelings of frustration and uncertainty on my campus are a byproduct of a much larger anxiety felt by marginalized young people all over the nation. Many are uncertain of what the future holds, as news pours in daily bearing crises that seem increasingly out of our control. The narrative that university is a carefree time of fun and adventure has only ever been true for a privileged few; for decades, many students have fought extensively for change on their campuses. From the 1968 Columbia University Protests, to the West Coast coalitions that established ethnic studies in higher education, college students have been an integral part of societal change, and among the first to stand up and speak against the violence in our lives at both the physical and structural levels. And while these are inspiring movements to be a part of, they can come at a cost that is often glanced over by the institutions themselves.
Regional Planned Parenthood organizer Hoai An Pham sees all of this exhaustion in part as a result of the ways hate crimes are culturally defined. “We often think of campus hate crimes as huge violent acts – as something physical, where someone probably got hurt,” she says. “However, we often don’t talk about violence in the way that it is structural: when we consider how violence is propagating white supremacy, it means that it’s a lot more normalized so that we don’t see it for what it is.”
The effects of hatred permeate students’ everyday existence, and those themes of exclusion, rejection, and invalidation can crop up in different ways. Exhaustion comes not just from blatant acts of violence, but the little things in between that compound throughout our lives.
“Being asked to justify your own experiences, or to calmly explain oppression to your oppressors, are forms of violence,” Pham says. “And in a university setting, the humanity of marginalized students is often casually debated under the guise of discourse.” And while some students or teachers might not understand certain classroom conversations as violence, these kinds of dialogues have an impact on people who are actively affected by the topics other people treat as theoreticals rather than reality. Debating undocumented immigration or the Black Lives Matter movement from a solely academic standpoint often leaves little room to recognize that marginalized students’ lives are directly affected by these issues. That doesn’t mean we should stop talking about them. But we need to acknowledge how these conversations take a toll on students, especially when they are brought up for the sake of argument alone.
Arwa Gayar, a senior studying public policy and an organizer in the pro-Palestine #UMDivest movement, says she also feels exhaustion in trying to instigate change. “I think with activism there comes a lot of emotional work, physical work, mental work,” she says. “It seems that once you take one step, they’re already ten steps ahead, and you’re just grappling to catch up.”
Like many large-scale schools, there is a seemingly-bottomless barrel of resources devoted to helping marginalized students at UMich. The school offers several ways to help marginalized students navigate their identities and voice their concerns, like the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Student Advisory Board. But all too often, I’ve felt as though these ideas act as bandages to quell outrage, as the offices seem unable to help or otherwise turn a blind eye in times of real conflict until student protests force conversation.
“UMich is a microcosm of the current society,” Dr. Robert Sellers, Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion, tells MTV News, adding, “There are a number of horrible things are happening in society,” which he chalks up to as “only human nature.” He also stresses that the school is “working hard to create an environment where a healthy sense of vigilance is coupled with a commitment to address head-on those issues that make us all feel less safe.”
Other schools across the nation have faced similar battles against a rise in campus hate and higher tensions overall. In October 2017, the University of Florida was one of the many colleges that controversially allowed the neo-Nazi Charlottesville rally organizer to speak on their campus. Students at several schools, including Stanford and Duke University, have reported incidents of noose sightings. The impacts of these incidents run deeper than surface-level consequences, as exposure to incidents of racial discrimination, especially for young people of color, has a direct link to psychological distress.
“It’s deeper than not feeling represented in terms of not being equal – it’s also that my voice isn’t heard when thinking about university policy, infrastructure, or the obstacles I face because of my background. It’s just isolating,” says Eva Maria Lewis, a student at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of gun violence awareness organization The I Project. “The capacity of this institution was not built to include me, so I become an afterthought. Hate crimes only further concrete the feeling. You already feel a type of way, and then campus events only validate that people don’t view you as a human being.”
“I’m doing all this academic work, putting a pause on some of the important things in my life, to make my community better in what little time I have here,” Gayar adds. “And it’s definitely hard.”
Dr. Bridget Goosby, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has worked thoroughly on the physiological and psychological impacts of discrimination, tells MTV News that when people are being discriminated against in their day-to-day lives, they can experience physical stress responses to those exposures. And while young adults still maintain better health than their older counterparts, the declining healthfulness compared to past cohorts of young adults suggests that the research might start to see exposure to stressors manifesting through “wear and tear on the body.”
“These biological markers can suggest risk for poor health later,” she says. “So when we think about marginalized groups like African Americans, who might be on campus experiencing, and mentally preparing to face, a multitude of discriminatory events, being in a classroom or encountering race-related harassment – these kinds of things can lead to increased risk for stress-related diseases such as elevated blood pressure, hypertension, and so on.”
Social media and the current news cycle play an influential role in adding to that stress. Goosby says that these two factors “provide more in-detail and in-the-moment exposures to injustices happening to people who share their social identities.” It’s a new, vicarious element of stress exposure in addition that exacerbates the already-existing layer of IRL discrimination.
Contextually, Goosby wants to make it clear that issues of anxiety, isolation, and frustration particularly affect minority groups in predominantly white spaces, like UMich. “It is very costly when young people are in these spaces as a numerical minority. While they’ve proved themselves and have made it into the university setting, often facing tremendous adversity, this is a space where they are more likely to experience forms of interpersonal discrimination – particularly if they came from spaces that are not as integrated, where people share their backgrounds,” she says.
Navigating a predominantly white space as a marginalized person is a difficult task to take on alone, but finding a community where you can feel safe can change how you handle hate and violence in these supposedly crucial years. It’s those communities that make all the difference in minimizing the feeling of being completely isolated. I would never change my decision to attend the University of Michigan. I love the grandeur of our law library, waking up to the sounds of game day, and my real-life multicultural girl group. I cheer loudly during games even though I have no clue about football, and am proud to have spent nearly four years here. But it is an institution, and I exist within it – even with leaps of privilege compared to many of my friends and peers.
There are no clear solutions, no unequivocal “next step” strategies. But I am certain university students will continue to fight for a better future. And they’re winning the battles: The University of Florida No Nazi movement provided a platform for students to voice their concerns, and campus organizers have been able to improve safety in other ways, like winning the fight to install more emergency “blue lights” in areas where marginalized students tend to feel unsafe. The University of Michigan has a new student advisory board for its annual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion summit to align its tone more to the current campus climate. These certainly aren’t absolute solutions, but they’re steps that put the responsibility on university institutions to listen to student voices after so many years of inaction and understandable distrust.
“We have to be there for each other as students of color,” Furtado says. “We have to protect each other mentally and emotionally because no one else will.”