Racial discrimination sets students back
COLUMBIA - While racial protests at MU heightened awareness of reported discrimination on college campuses, experts in education say the issue creates problems for students of all ages.
MU student Jalen Mosby told KOMU-8 he did not feel like he could be academically focused or successful in the days following the protests because he was too hurt and distracted. However, the social stigma associated with seeking mental help in the black community made him question whether or not he would utilize MU's services.
"I have the counseling page pulled up on my phone," Mosby said. "But counseling is such a taboo thing in the black community. We go to our grandmas and moms, but not a counselor. I don't know what I can and cannot say or how safe I am."
Anita Hayes-Birt, who is an MU graduate student in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis as part of the Educational Specialist degree program, said events of racial discrimination are a serious issue for students.
"I have participated in forums and workshops over the past 20 years discussing and researching the impact of racial discrimination in educational, mental health and religious settings," Hayes-Birt said. "Racial discrimination has a psychological effect on all students, from preschool through adult learning environments."
According to the latest study done by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, African-American students made up 25 percent of the population at U.S. schools offering gifted and talented education programs, but only 17 percent of the enrollment in those special classes. 60 percent of gifted and talented enrollment were white students. In Missouri, only two percent of black students are enrolled in this higher level classes, compared to the national average of 4 percent.
Hayes-Birt said early on-set discrimination, when students enter kindergarten or preschool, is the most detrimental. She said it is especially true when the students' cultural differences are viewed as behavioral and educational disabilities by faculty who don't understand them. Students of that age are too young to coherently explain the differences or defend them.
Hayes-Birt also said discrimination in the classroom does not look the same as it does in the adult world.
"It can range from lowering expectations to intolerance," Hayes-Birt said.
She said she attended a conference in St. Louis where a superintendent said, "There are superintendents who ascribe to the theory that blacks are genetically inferior."
"I also had a teacher blatantly tell me she did not know why my son is incapable of learning." Hayes-Birt said.
According to Carlton Slaughter, president of MU's Association of Black Psychologists chapter, the biggest threat to minority students who receive negative judgment based solely on their appearance is the loss of opportunity to accurately represent themselves.
"I don't always dress up," Slaughter said. "Sometimes I like to dress casual to class. On those days, I'm seen as black. When I dress up, I get to be taken more seriously and seen as more white. I'm always seen as black, but when I try harder to look professional, white people are more comfortable around me."
Slaughter said his definition of what it means to be black or white was molded by his experiences with peers and educators in high school.
"I went to a PWI [Predominantly White Institution] for high school, so I have heard the other side and understand it," Slaughter said. "I didn't always agree with it, but I never felt like I could stand up and say something else because I was the minority. Ultimately when you take away a students comfortability with speaking up for themselves, you teach them that they don't have a voice."
Slaughter said the effects of not having that voice on younger students can potentially last a lifetime.
However, Hayes-Birt said, hope is not lost.
"I remain hopeful as I witness educators take a leadership role in promoting cultural competency and instructional techniques that support diverse learners, locally and nationally," Hayes-Birt said.
Slaughter said, for him, the best practice is to be open and take instances of discrimination as an opportunity to grow and be stronger.
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