Addressing racial discrimination, a student’s guide to taking action

By Betti Halsell, Nov. 7, 2023

On occasion, fragments of racial biases are found in shared spaces of learning.

Cal Poly Pomona provides a place for students to report discriminatory incidents and the improvement is carried out by the university. The Office of Equity and Compliance encourages students to respond to discrimination head on, as they come across those incidents in class.

Derrick Prince, the Black Resource Center retention coordinator, described common tendencies of students who visit the Black Resource Center after experiencing racial discrimination and he highlighted their desire to find out what to do about it.

“When I see students who faced racial discrimination within a classroom, their tone is very confused and distraught,” said Prince. “The majority of the time when I see students — the No. 1 topic tends to be microaggressions in the classroom. When students are faced with this, I recommend resources that are here on campus, such as reporting to Title IX Department and Equity and Compliance.”

According to the National Library of Medicine, BIPOC students are more likely to file a claim expressing discrimination than white students. In the article, “Racial/ethnic disparities in US college students’ experience: Discrimination as an impediment to academic performance,” 15-25% students of color reported their academic performance suffered as a result.

Once a cultural misstep takes place, the opportunity for impulsive reactions can escalate. This can lead to the overstep of students, reprimanding the professor in front of an audience. Or in fear of their grade, students could leave the cultural discrepancy unchallenged, and the crumb of racism is swept under the rug.

Andres Mejia, a political science student, explained his presence in class often includes the emphasis on his ethnicity, followed by a string of elusive cultural discrepancies.

“I haven’t experienced any clear racism, but it’s more like something subtle — professors not understanding cultural differences or where I’m coming from, or what spaces I’m coming from,” Mejia said.

Mejia also illuminated his cultural background produces a different life that is then sometimes judged as being “lazy” by his professors.

Mejia described having professors identifying his race through his skin color and making comments such as “It’s so good that you are here.” Mejia knows the comment has no bad intentions, but it is still creating a sense of division based on his ethnicity.

“I’m always aware that I’m Brown in those classes,” Mejia said.

Dawnita Franklin, assistant vice president of the Office of Equity and Compliance, highlighted the significance of student empowerment in addressing uncomfortable situations.

“We always try to empower students; they can address incidents that make them uncomfortable,” said Franklin. “It may not necessarily be to the point where you want to file a claim, but you may want that individual to know what harm was done or the impact that it had on you.”

The Office of Equity and Compliance offers multiple channels of connection, through calls, emails or report filing. Franklin noted students can report the incident to professors they are comfortable disclosing the information with. Then the selected professor can submit a claim to the Office of Equity and Compliance on the student’s behalf.

In terms of addressing an incident during a class session, Sunny Lie Owens, an associate professor of communication, considered the delicate dance of respect in a classroom setting.

“There’s something about approaching someone on a personal level and person-to-person level — it’s not as charged, and we can have a conversation,“ said Lie. “There’s something about personalizing it. That moment of public speaking, we (professors) are on this high and rush, and nobody wants to be publicly chastised — especially for the most part, I would like to think, most of us don’t intend to perpetuate racism and do something insensitive or inflict trauma on someone. As teachers, I would like to say, we are not doing it intentionally.”

Lie reinterred the power in having a learning moment where students are bringing more awareness to professors about the current pulse of social awareness.

Knowledge can travel from one person to the other in multiple ways. In the classroom, students are given the tools to learn new information. In a shared space for learning, there are benefits in knowing how to purge misguided cultural components in a way that does not impede anyone’s assumed role of pupil and educator.

If students experience any racial discrimination, they can reach out to the Office of Equity and Compliance at (909) 869-4646 or 

Feature Image Courtesy of Betti Halsell

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