Cultural Competence, Racism and Discrimination

Are we doing enough?


Although publicized occurrences of racism and discrimination greatly impact the campus racial climate at the University of Iowa, those that are not publicized are equally damaging. Campus discrimination comes in many forms.

“On campus, white peers often avoid making eye contact with myself and other friends of color by looking down at the ground until we have walked past them. So much to the point that it’s noticeable,” Reese Woods said.  The fourth year student shared that this has him feeling out of place.  “It makes me feel like I’m a threat and unwanted on campus,” Woods said.

Do non-black students recognize their problematic assumptions?  Also, do students even realize that they are stereotyping African American students?

The ignorance, curiosity and presumed stereotypes from many uneducated students have created a microaggression-heavy campus.  A microaggression is described as a “casual degradation of any marginalized group.” The term was created by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce, which he used to describe the “insults and dismissals he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflict on African Americans.”

A microaggression can also called a backhanded compliment, like telling a woman of color that she is “pretty, for a black girl”.  The implication here is that black women are not beautiful.

A microaggression can be associating a black male with various media stereotypes of their race, such as that of a rap-loving thug, or that all African Americans are from the crime-stricken Chicago. “A friend and I were walking to the IMU…when we walked past a few white kids. One of them yelled out, ‘Free Rondonumbanine! Gang shit!’. The person he was referring to is a rapper from Chicago who is incarcerated for murder,” Woods said.  “He must have assumed that I am from Chicago, which I am not.”  

Another example is asking a tall, dark-skinned stranger if they play basketball for the UI, implying that African American students only attend the school on sports scholarships.  “I get asked if I play basketball all the time,” Woods said.

Overall, a microaggression holds an underlying tone of prejudice, and highlights the misrepresentations and stereotypes of other cultures.  It also highlights the lack of understanding of other cultures, which results in a lack of what is called “cultural competence” at the UI.

In the UI Student Profile report for Fall of 2016, 3.1% of the 33,334 students at the University of Iowa were African American, along with 3.5% of the student body being of two or more races.  With a majority white campus, there is a need for greater cultural competency in order for everyone to feel welcome.

There are times that Africans Americans feel the need to answer questions about the Black American experience in order to educate their peers about their hurtful language. Devin Francis, a third year African American studies major used to refrain from wearing the bonnet that she used to protect her hairstyles at night outside of her freshman year dorm room.  “I was literally the only [black girl].” Francis stated that comments and questions about her hair came from many of her floormates, making her feeling extremely “other” and alienated.  “It was overwhelming,” she said.  She did not want the responsibility of educating her floor about her ethnic hair.

There are also times when acts of discrimination are more intentional.  Donovan Roberts, a third year student and employee with the Chief Diversity Office at the UI recalled an event from the Iowa Start-Up Games this past year where he was directly targeted. Roberts, an Alaskan native, was sharing with a teammate and his roommate that the summer time is the best time to visit. “And my teammates roommate [then] said, “probably because there is no cotton up there,” Roberts shared.  After taking a moment to process what happened, Roberts tried to rationalize the remark with no luck.  “There was no way to make the comment not racist. My teammates ensued to laugh at his comments, leaving me feeling extremely isolated.”

So, is the institution progressing, or digressing in terms of cultural competency, ending microaggressions, and creating a less racist environment? These African American students all agree on one thing – the University of Iowa uses terms of such as inclusive too loosely, claiming that the UI is not as united as it seems.

“I don’t feel like our campus is woke,” Woods said.  

[The UI] likes to present this false united front.  We throw around the terms like diversity and inclusion without actually acting on it,” Francis said.  “We like to glaze over it by acting like we are culturally competent when we are not, which is very problematic,” Francis said. “We need to have a community discussion about these issues.  It needs to be a genuine discussion [with officials] in order to gauge where we really are in terms of cultural competency,” Francis said.

It is a façade put up by the university that makes you believe that the University of Iowa is a diverse and inclusive place,” Roberts said.  He believes that instead of focusing on the experiences of the students, the school focuses more on creating an appealing image.

“From dorm halls being named after African American athletes to plastering people of colors faces on incoming freshman brochures and program propaganda, it’s all one big front.  Real students are facing real racial issues every day and the university chooses to downplay it,” Roberts said.

The UI is no stranger to these situations.  One of the most memorable instances of racial tension was the display of a statue, adorned in newspaper articles about the damage the Klu Klux Klan had caused throughout the years.  What frightened the students, however, was the statue’s form – standing at seven-feet tall and shaped as a Klan member. The Turkish artist named Serhat Tanyolacar was a second year Grant Wood Fellow with the UI School of Art, and spoke about his art piece with many angry students in December 2014.

Anthonie Perla was a first-year student when the incident occurred.  Although some years have passed, Perla still remembers what he felt during his conversation with the artist.  “He claimed that he wanted to bring awareness to the fact that there are still Klansmen in Iowa,” Perla said. Perla did not, however, agree with the public art aspect of the piece, for it caused an uproar and great fear among African American students and faculty.  It also reminded him of a time where he dealt with a Klansman first hand in his hometown of Houston, Texas.  “We were all really angry and hurt,” Perla said.

A trend of racist graffiti and propaganda in both residence halls and cultural resource centers has plagued the UI campus over the past five years.  University President Bruce Harreld released a statement via email to the student body after a November 2016 racial slur graffiti incident and hateful flyers that were posted on the Latino Native American and Afro American cultural centers.  “Hate speech does not reflect the values of our institution and will not be tolerated. We are a caring community that values compassion, inclusion, respect, and dignity. This is a time to come together in support of one another, remaining respectful in dialogue across our differences,” Harreld said.

A recently publicized situation occurred at the beginning of the 2017-2018 year in August, which prompted Herrald to speak out once again.  The Press Citizen reported that Harreld condemned white supremacists and the KKK in a welcome-back email to the student body, pledging that “once again…we will not tolerate anything but a safe and inclusive campus for people of all backgrounds, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or country of origin.”  Harreld ended the email with the hashtag “#YouAreWelcomeHere”.

The problem with improving the campus racial climate, however, is that it is extremely complex – just as that of our society.  As stated before, some non-black students do not even understand that they are pushing the stereotypical ideas upon students of color.  Other students may only know about students of color from various media outlets, for their hometown was filled with only white individuals.  Also, when the campus is located in a country that was built on institutionalized racism, can a campus move past those facts?

Campus officials are making attempts, however, in order to combat and prevent these issues through both education and awareness.  On Iowa!, the largest welcome-week program on the University of Iowa campus has created programming about social issues such as microaggressions and discrimination on campus for the first year and transfer students.  Linda Kroon, one of the content creators of the section called “CHOOSE” said that there is a significant need for this material.

“It is essential education for students in the 21st century, as the problems of social inequality have persisted too long,” Kroon said.  “I believe it is important that cultural competence… be infused in all the programming offered to our students, as well as the academic curriculum,” Kroon said.

One section in CHOOSE highlights the former social media application Yik Yak, which allowed users to post anonymous messages visible to anyone within a 5 mile radius.  Discriminatory comments appeared on the app and were portrayed in a real-life setting during CHOOSE videos, showcasing the vast misunderstanding of cultures and ethnicities here at the UI.  Kroon shared that the segment on microaggressions was added to the OnIowa! CHOOSE segment beginning in 2015, during the same time as the app’s popularity. Students are also shown how to be an effective bystander, whether that be directly or indirectly with these kinds of situations, which enables students to be more accountable for their actions.

The UI Chief Diversity Office strives to educate students about these issues through their Success at Iowa training, which each student is required to take their first semester at the UI. The office also works with various avenues in the University to create a comfortable and inclusive environment for all students.  The Center for Diversity and Enrichment is an extension of this office, and strives to create an inclusive environment for students as well, by partnering with campus organizations throughout the year that hold microaggression workshops, panels, and other culturally competent programming.

Kroon also agrees that the campus environment is not where it should be in terms of being culturally competent.  “We have made some good beginnings in addressing the problem of microaggressions occurring on campus, but there is more work to do,” Kroon said.

Blatant racism, discrimination and microaggressions hinder us from becoming an all-inclusive campus.  The fact that some African American students do not feel comfortable on campus is an issue that needs to be resolved.  These instances can be decreased through education about the effects of these behaviors and rhetoric for both individuals and our campus alike.  Exposing these issues will also create an environment where those involved are held accountable.
This will, however, take some work. “That work includes education and skill-building training for all members of our campus community – students, faculty and staff – as well as the work each of us as individuals needs to do in our daily interactions with others,” Kroon said.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s