SMC Graduate Students Share Their Views About Race in Higher Education

Lectures by Daniel Solórzano Spark Reflections on Their Life Experiences  

How do perceptions about race affect people of color in higher education? Daniel Solórzano, a professor of social science and comparative education at UCLA, has devoted much of his life to answering that question. In the process, he has become the one of the leading experts in the field known as critical race theory.

In a two-day visit to Saint Mary’s in February, he spoke to a number of audiences and explained how an understanding of critical race theory and “racial microaggressions” can help us see how even subtle expressions of racism can have a striking impact on students in higher education.

After the lectures, we asked several KSOE students to reflect on what Solórzano’s message meant to them. Their words make it clear that this is an important message for the field of higher education and beyond.

“I Don’t Think of You as Mexican”

Miguel Flores Castro
KSOE student, single-subject teaching credential in English

Miguel Flores CastroDaniel Solórzano explained how he uses critical race theory and his studies on racial microaggressions to examine racism in everyday life. He defines racial microaggressions as offenses to people of color by whites. They’re a form of institutionalized racism used to keep those at the racial margins in their “place.” These racial microaggressions include verbal and nonverbal assaults and they can be subtle, automatic or unconscious. Assaults can also be layered to include gender, class and sexuality in addition to race.

For example: “I don’t think of you as Mexican,” “You’re not like the rest of them,” “But he’s so articulate,” and “How do Black people feel about…” are all forms of racial microaggressions by the perpetrator that create a plethora of effects and responses among the recipient. The effects include low self-esteem, self-doubt, stress, poor academic performance, and poor health outcomes. Responses can include denial of one’s association with race, self-policing, resistance and the feeling of constantly needing to prove yourself to others or to prove others wrong.

As a Mexican American pursuing higher education, the topics and ideas presented by Solórzano resonated deep within me, and it was great to put a name to the pain and aggressions I have experienced as a Latino in education. As a high school student I attended a predominantly white and Asian-populated high school and not only did I feel like I was self-policing my cultural identity to an extent out of fear that I would not fit in or be accepted, but I also received policing efforts on behalf of my mother who feared that if I attended another school that was more diverse I would fall in with the wrong crowd. My mother found comfort in the fact that all of my friends were Asian, Filipino or white and that we all shared the same intellectual vitality. “I don’t think of you as Mexican,” or “You’re not like the rest of them” were phrases that I heard often, and I almost took pride in them because it was a sign that I fit in.

It was not until I got to college as an undergraduate at Columbia University that I felt the need to have to constantly prove myself in the classroom because while we had all made it to the Ivy League, there was also the stigma that comes with the idea of affirmative action and the thought that people of color get into college because of the color of their skin. I also experienced instances where the perpetrators of racial microaggressions were people of color, and Solórzano made it clear that this ties in to one of the responses of a recipient, which is denial. Individuals can get to the point where they do not want to be associated with a certain class or race even if they come from those roots because of the effects of institutionalized racism and racial microaggressions.

As a student in the Kalmanovitz School of Education and future educator, I do not want to be afraid to bring these conversations and awareness into the classroom because if we constantly avoid the conversations that make us uncomfortable, then we cannot expect to progress as a society nor as individuals in terms of their open-mindedness and acceptance of differences. As a future educator, my goal is to create individuals who can positively contribute to society and be active and engaging citizens, so the topics of race, gender, sex and class need to be incorporated into the educational curriculum. Dialogue and awareness create allies, and the more people talk about it, the closer we get to change and improved race relations. The goal is not only to seek to account for the role of race and racism in education and work to identify and challenge existing forms of racism, but to identify and challenge all forms of subordination.

“He Named My Pain”

By Lizette Dolan
Ed. D. in Educational Leadership Program

Lizette DolanDaniel Solórzano likened critical race theory to the polarizing filter of a high-end camera. By twisting the outer ring, one can see what the eye previously couldn’t. The polarizing filter literally saturates the color in the moment waiting to be captured. Similarly, by turning the critical race theory lens, color, “race” and racism come into clear view.

It was powerful for me to listen to a Chicano professor lecture on information far beyond the white master narrative and traditional canon. His research and educational practice acknowledges me as a first-generation Latina and my experiences in academia. As a young, Black, girl from Michigan pointed out it, he “named my pain.” 

My parents immigrated to the United States from Central America and I began my school career as an “English Language Learner.” Having graduated from Saint Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco, the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard Graduate School of Education, I understand what it means to navigate predominantly white educational environments steeped in the culture and worldview of racial and economic privilege. I never had the privilege of having a cohort of peers who shared similar experiences. I was denied the privilege of learning from or working for someone who looked like me, sounded like me, smelled like me. I was taught to celebrate Columbus Day and extol the Pilgrims. My years of schooling made me question whether I truly belonged. I was adamant that I needed to be better than everyone around me to be taken seriously…to claim my place at the table. My student experiences then, and now at Saint Mary’s, not only continue to shape my advocacy for racial equity in all aspects of life but my understanding that it is not necessary to abandon one's ethnic culture and consciousness in order to attain academic and/or professional success.

Throughout my 15 years as educator, one of my primary goals has been to improve the racial culture and climate of predominantly white independent schools. As such, my qualitative research study will explore the stories from students of color within independent schools in the Bay Area. What experiences, big and small, both augment and detract from their journeys? Do they experience “microaggressions” or “everyday racism” and if so, how do they make sense of these moments? Dr. Solórzano challenged those of us in the audience to examine how institutions and institutional agents perpetuate racial microaggressions. It is imperative that we stand up and take responsibility when our students and colleagues “name their pain.” As the writer bell hooks wrote in her book, “Teaching to Transgress,” this is the enterprise of education as the practice of freedom, not just for our own liberation, but so that we may all become more free.

You Must Be Adopted “Because You’re Cool”

Liza Pierre
KSOE Graduate Counseling Program College Student Services/Career Specialization

Liza PierreI grew up in northern Minnesota as an adopted child in a Caucasian family. Given my upbringing, I am used to being the only non-white person in a group of people. For the most part, being the only student of color surrounded by people who looked nothing like me didn’t bother me – it was all I knew. Of course, the obvious physical differences between my classmates and myself separated me in a way, but they treated me as an equal, and on a day-to-day basis, I didn’t necessarily feel different from anyone else. When we talked about racism at school, the discussion usually centered on overt or blatant insults. I had never been subjected to anything of the sort, and so in my mind, I was not a victim of racism. Yet I have been on the receiving end of plenty of subtle insults – most of which were actually meant to be compliments.

College was definitely the point at which I became aware of the more subtle forms of racism. For the first time in my life, I was attending school with other Asians, although most were international students. I think being around other Asians made it more apparent to others and to me that I wasn’t the “typical Asian.” This is when I began to experience one of the forms of racial microaggressions mentioned by Dr. Solórzano: “You’re not like the rest of them; you’re different.” Although I may have looked the same as the other Asian students on campus, I wasn’t an international student. I spoke perfect English. I didn’t dress “Asian,” and most of my friends were white. In one instance, I was in the middle of speaking to someone when he stopped me and asked if I was adopted. I told him yes, and asked him how he knew. “Because you’re cool.” At that point, I didn’t know how to process what he was saying to me, much less know how to respond. I knew he meant it as a compliment, but I couldn’t help but feel insulted. When I think about that instance now, I wish I had told him he was being offensive. After that interaction, I found myself wondering if everyone automatically assumed I wasn’t “cool” because of my race. My roommate was also quick to provide her so-called compliments, like “You’re not really Asian, Liza.” I think she used that as a way to rationalize other offensive comments about Asians, and would say them without hesitation around me. When I would get defensive, she would tell me I shouldn’t be upset because “I’m not like them.”

Dr. Solórzano’s discussion provides a framework for understanding many of my own experiences. Hearing that other students of color have experienced these subtle forms of racism proves that I am not alone and my feelings of frustration are not unfounded.

Safe and Open Dialogue Is the Key to Change  

Kimberly Burks
KSOE Graduate Counseling Program College Student Services/Career Specialization

Kimberly BurksListening to Daniel Solórzano lecture on “Critical Race Theory and Microaggressions” felt like someone gave him a special high-powered lens to look over my life. It has always been challenging to explain my experiences as a person of color to white peers in what is perceived to be one of the most tolerant places in the world, the San Francisco Bay Area. There have been moments in my life when I doubted that subtle racism exists because no one else witnessed the racial assaults directed toward me and my feelings have seldom been validated by peers of color and those who are white.

Early in my professional career, African American employees experienced frequent racial microaggressions. For example, there were a few times when I and two other Black women were able to take our lunch break at the same time. When we had lunch together, this is what we would hear from my boss’s boss as she, my boss and her other subordinate, all whom where white, left for lunch:  “Oh, look, it’s the three musketeers!”

In the area where we worked, our bosses began to put more and more restrictions on when we could take our lunch breaks so we could rarely go to lunch together. They wanted to stop our counter-space (an alternative social group) and for the most part, they were successful. We began to play down our friendliness to one another. We rarely talked to one another in the office. We kept “heads down” as our white peers exchanged friendly conversations with each other and with us. But, when we, the Black workers, talked among ourselves, our boss would often find a reason to call one of us into the office for some sort of “business,” or she would find a reason to walk over to our work area to break up our conversation, which was about the work at hand. Consequently, we began to whisper and pass notes to exchange information that we needed from one another to get our job done. As Dr. Solórzano shared, we had to work while carrying the weight of always anticipating displays of subtle racial assaults. We were constantly on guard. Having to live and work on the defense with my guard up while self-policing in response to racial microaggressions became stressful.

I feel more empowered knowing  that there is a theory and proven research around these types of racial assaults. I am now able to find closure to negative experiences I shared along with many, many others. As I reflect on Dr. Solórzano’s lecture, I have given myself permission to not second-guess the decisions I’ve made. I responded many times as many other persons of color have responded to racial microaggressions, with self-policing, defensiveness, constantly being on guard, resisting. Going forward, I believe education, along with safe and open dialogue with both persons of color and whites, is the key to change.  

Compiled by Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

Special thanks to Professors Jerry Brunetti, Raina Leon, Heidimarie Rambo and Gloria Aquino Sosa for their assistance with this article.

Solórzano’s visit was sponsored by the Kalmanovitz School of Education. Co-sponsors included the Office of the Provost, the School of Liberal Arts, the Office of Undergraduate Academics, the Office of Graduate & Professional Studies,  and the departments of Anthropology, Communication, History, Modern Languages, Psychology, Sociology and the Ethnic Studies, Liberal & Civic Studies, Women's Studies, Single Subject, Multiple Subject, Special Education, Educational Leadership, TESOL and Graduate Counseling programs. The visit was made possible by generous grants from the College Committee on Inclusive Excellence, the Social Justice Coordinating Committee and the Intercultural Center