Favorites ()
Three multicultural students at commencement

The Campus Climate for Students of Color at Historically White Institutions

Authored by Jayne K. Sommers, PhD (University of St. Thomas) and Joel Navam, MA (University of Minnesota)

According to the latest National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data collected in 2016, race was the leading category of motivating bias associated with the three most frequent types of hate crimes at degree-granting postsecondary institutions—accounting for 38% of vandalism cases, 40% of intimidation cases, and 42% of simple assault cases (Musu et al., 2019). These statistics disprove the notion that United States colleges and universities are operating in a “post-racial” society. Furthermore, these statistics demonstrate the “racialized” climate that students of color find themselves in when they arrive on a college campus for their postsecondary education.

Racialized climates refer to environments where students of color experience the likelihood that their racial identity will put them at high risk as targets of various forms of racism, including hate crimes (Leaker & Boyce, 2015). Students of color do not wish to be the recipients of racism, attempt to avoid situations that seem threatening, and are hyper-aware of how others may perceive their racial identity on a college campus. At the same time, when students of color arrive on campus, they are expected to succeed academically, feel a sense of belonging, and complete a degree (Leaker & Boyce, 2015). In addition to statistical evidence demonstrating that students of color interact in challenging, unfriendly, and in some cases, overtly racist college environments, numerous incidents remain unreported. Therefore, educators must consider the subtle ways in which students of color are made to feel less than, excluded “othered,” or “minoritized” in predominantly White contexts. In doing so, educators interrogate deeply rooted racist ideologies and values that permeate our society in the United States and around the world today.

Psychological Campus Climate

A campus’ racial climate determines the level of inclusion or exclusion that a student of color might experience at their college campus. Hurtado et al. (1999) developed five components to measure a campus’ racial climate: 1) institutional historical legacy of inclusion or exclusion, 2) compositional diversity, 3) psychological climate, 4) behavioral climate, and 5) structural diversity. For the purposes of this piece, we will focus on psychological climate.

The psychological climate of a college campus impacts a student of color’s perception of interracial interaction. Hurtado et al. (1999) summarized psychological climate at an institution as individuals’ opinion about cross-cultural relationships (as cited in McClain & Perry, 2017). Therefore, the psychological climate of an institution is created by individuals who collectively choose the level of inclusion they will foster, the prioritization of learning across differences, and the response to various forms of racism. Moreover, faculty and staff members have the ability to shape psychological climate by creating inclusive policy, supporting diversity initiatives, and valuing cross-cultural interactions. While the perception of racial climate might vary from individual to individual, multiple forms of microaggressions continue to be inflicted upon students of color on U.S. college campuses (McClain & Perry, 2017). Therefore, staff and faculty members at all levels of an institution have a responsibility to facilitate a psychological climate that is safe and inviting toward students of color.


To support inclusive spaces for students of color, staff members can learn to identify racial microaggressions with the intent to decrease their frequency of occurrence. Sue et al. (2007) define racial microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (p. 271). Sue et al.’s (2007) analysis of racial microaggressions in everyday life for people of color can be applied to the experiences of students of color in historically white institutions (PWIs). Students of color experience microaggressions in the form of subtle looks, gestures, comments, and tones. Within the larger category of racial microaggressions are three sub-categories: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.

A microassault is the most explicit or overt form of the three. Microassaults are verbal or non-verbal racial derogation expressed through name-calling, avoidant behavior or purposeful discriminatory actions.  The perpetrators of microassaults are most likely to consciously and deliberately engage in them, with full awareness of doing so. For example, a White student might refer to a Black student as “colored,” or ask a Black student “Shouldn’t you be involved in the Black Student Alliance instead of running for student government?” Additionally, displaying a swastika, openly discouraging interracial interactions, and displaying hate speech in the form of racial epithets are all forms of microassaults.

Again, microassaults generally occur when a person has an understanding of the oppressive and hurtful nature of their words or actions. However, microaggressions can also occur when an educator may not have awareness of the potential for negative impact of their words or actions. In regard to the latter two, it is important to name the importance of intent versus impact. Regardless of our intent, the impact of our words and actions are most important. Educators must recognize our potential perpetration of racial oppression, given our socialization into a culture of White supremacy. We must let go of the good/bad binary and understand that we all operate within this culture (DiAngelo, 2018). Neutral–or even “good”–intentions do not exonerate us from responsibility for the oppressive impact of our words or actions.

Microinsults are less explicit than microassaults and communicate insensitivity toward a person’s racial heritage or identity. Microinsults result from embedded ideologies unknown to the perpetrator. Nonetheless, microinsults convey belittlement, rudeness, and disrespect to a recipient of color. For example, in a conversation about hiring of student employees, a White student affairs educator engages in a microinsult by telling a prospective student employee of color, “I believe the most qualified person should get the job, regardless of race” (Sue et al., 2007, p. 274). In this example, the underlying message received by the prospective student employee of color is that people of color are not qualified. A non-verbal example of a microinsult is when a White faculty member avoids eye contact, turns away, or abruptly changes the topic after a Black student makes a contribution in the classroom. In doing so, the White faculty member communicates that a Black student’s contributions to class are not important. This kind of microinsult is particularly damaging when a Black student might observe the same faculty member make eye contact, physically face, and ask follow-up questions of a White student in a similar situation. Therefore, a White faculty member affirms the contributions of a White student, while devaluing the contributions of a Black student. Additionally, a professor asking a Muslim student to speak on behalf of all Muslim indiviuals or asking a Columbian student what Catholic churches are like in Mexico when the student has never been to Mexico and does not identify as Catholic are examples of microinsults.

Finally, microinvalidations often take the form of communications that “exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color” (Sue, 2007, p. 274).  For example, when Black individuals are told, “I don’t see color” or “we are all human beings,” the microinvalidation negates their experiences as racial and cultural beings. Similarly, when White friends say, “don’t be so oversensitive” or “don’t be so petty” to a Latinx student describing a negative experience they had with an academic advisor, a microinvalidation has occurred. As a result of the microinvalidation, the victim of color is made to feel like a “second-class citizen.” 

What Can Educators Do?

These examples of microinsults, microassaults, and microinvalidations constantly occur on college campuses, and perpetuate the feelings of exclusion and marginalization that students of color navigate daily, which naturally can impede their readiness and ability to learn and engage with the campus community. These examples and definitions of microaggressions at large provide educators with language to understand the environments with which students of color interact at historically white institutions in higher education contexts. Educators within this context can use this increased understanding to recognize and interrupt microaggressions that make campus climates feel exclusionary for students of color.

Specifically, educators must facilitate conversations, small group discussions, and retreats around topics such as race, ethnicity, culture, and inclusion. Such initiatives help decrease overt and covert forms of racial microaggressions on college campuses by raising awareness of embedded racist ideologies (Sue & Constantine, 2007). Watt (2007) identified conversations around privilege, oppression, social identities, and social justice as “difficult dialogues” because students, faculty, and staff are unlikely to engage in these discussions by default. Educators can model self-awareness and reflection by sharing their identities based on race, culture, and ethnicity while creating opportunities for students to do the same.

Educators need the institutional infrastructure to prioritize training for students, faculty, and staff to increase general consciousness around racial equity and inclusion. Racial microaggressions occur because students, faculty, and staff members have not challenged deeply held racist beliefs and values that exist without the awareness of the individual (Davis & Harrison, 2013). Members of a college community can be given opportunities for voluntary and required training sessions that: 1) distinguish between overt and covert forms of racism 2) define racial microaggressions 3) highlight the negative impact on students of color and 4) provide examples of inclusive language, all towards an increased awareness of inherent racial bias. For example, an institution might require online training at the start of every school year or organize social identity discussion-based sessions for first-year students during orientation. These sessions are especially helpful for those who identify as white males, who are most likely to leave their racial existence unexamined and opt-out of voluntary opportunities to acknowledge White identity (Cabrera & Corces-Zimmerman, 2017).

Finally, educators must collaborate across divisions and departments to implement support initiatives for students of color. Sue et al. (2009) asserted that while professors are likely to ignore incidents of bias in the classroom to redirect attention, students want professors to intervene when racial microaggressions occur. Moreover, professors who teach courses related to diversity and inclusion perceive microaggressions more negatively than professors who do not (Boysen, 2012). Consequently, student affairs professionals can partner with faculty members to support one another in practicing racial inclusivity, using language that promotes the well-being of all students, and creatively intervening when microaggressions occur. Further cross-departmental support initiatives include mentorship opportunities with peers and professionals of color (Luedke, 2017) and course curricula that centers non-white cultural, religious, and ethnic histories. 


Boysen, G. A. (2012). Teacher and student perceptions of microaggressions in college classrooms. College Teaching, 60(3), 122-129.

Cabrera N. L., & Corces-Zimmerman, C. (2017). An unexamined life: White male racial ignorance and the agony of education for students of color. Equity & Excellence in Education, 50(3), 300-315.

Davis, T., & Harrison, L. M. (2013). Advancing social justice: Tools, pedagogies, and strategies to transform your campus. Jossey-Bass.

DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it's so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press.

Hurtado, S., Milem, J., Clayton-Pederson, A., & Allen, W. (1999). Enacting diverse learning environments: Improving the climate for racial/ethnic diversity in higher education. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report Volume 26(8). Washington, DC: The George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

Leaker, C., & Boyce, F. A. (2015). A bigger rock, a steeper hill: PLA, race, and the color of learning. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 63(3), 199-204.

Luedke, C. L. (2017). Person first, student second: Staff and administrators of color supporting students of color authentically in higher education. Journal of College Student Development, 58(1), 37-52.

McClain, K. S., & Perry, A. (2017). Where did they go: Retention rates for students of color at predominantly white institutions. College student affairs leadership, 4(1), 3.

Musu, L., Zhang, A., Wang, K., Zhang, J., & Oudekerk, B.A. (2019). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2018 (NCES 2019-047/NCJ 252571). National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, DC.

Sue, D. W., & Constantine, M. G. (2007). Racial microaggression as instigators of difficult dialogues on race: Implications for student affairs educators and students. College Student Affairs Journal, 26(2), 136-143.

Sue, D. W., Lin, A. I., Torino, G. C., Capodilupo, C. M., & Rivera, D. P. (2009) Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogs on race in the classroom. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 15: 183–190.

Watt, S. K. (2007). Difficult dialogues, privilege and social justice: Uses of the privileged identity exploration (PIE) model in student affairs practice. College Student Affairs Journal, 26(2), 114-126.

Learn More

Click below to learn more about the School of Education at the University of St. Thomas.