Three years ago, Lauren Bryant walked across the campus of Appalachian State University with several other black students when they were verbally assaulted with a racist tirade.
“This guy in a pickup stopped at the light, rolled down his window and just started calling us a bunch of N-words,” she recalled.
It was not the only time Bryant has had an experience like this on the overwhelming white campus of Boone, a city in one of North Carolina’s most conservative regions. Whether it’s the presence of Confederate flags, Ku Klux Klan members handing out literature or a parade of pickups flagging in support of President Donald Trump, she believes they are all meant to signal that colored students are unwelcome there.
The college campus is a microcosm of racial strife that is happening across the country. From 2018 to 2021, Southern Poverty Law Center identified 1,341 incidents of white supremacist pamphlets on campus. Anti-Defamation League recorded around 630 incidents of white supremacist propaganda distributed on campus in 2019.
Black students at predominantly white institutions report everything from cases of thinly veiled racism, homophobia and sexism to pure racial hostility and threats.
Experiencing such incidents has consequences that go far beyond feeling uncomfortable. A growing body of research has documented the harmful health effects of both interpersonal and structural racism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that centuries of racism have had a profound and negative impact on the mental and physical health of people of color. The American Public Health Association calls racism an obstacle to equality in health and a social determinant of health similar to housing, education and employment.
Racist incidents can take a toll on students’ general health and well-being, undermine their self-confidence and affect academic performance, says Dr. Annelle Primmsenior medical director of Steve Funda non-profit organization that focuses on supporting the mental health of colored young people.
“This kind of emotion goes hand in hand with students in predominantly white institutions, where they may feel isolated or as if they do not belong,” she said. “Experiences are associated with problems such as depression, anxiety and difficulty concentrating or sleeping.”
In UCLA study published in the journal Pediatrics 2021 shows that the problems are not necessarily temporary. Young adults who experience discrimination are at higher risk for both short-term and long-term behavioral and mental problems that worsen with each new incident.
For various reasons, colored students do not get the type and amount of help they need. A recent study from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill of first-year students found that Black students had the highest increase in the frequency of depression. In all cases, a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that treatment use is lower among colored students compared to white students, even when checking for other variables. This corresponds to a 2020 report from Steve Fund who said that colored students are less likely than their white peers to seek mental health care even if white and black students experience mental health problems at the same rate.
College campus has problems recruit enough therapists to meet students’ needs for mental health in general. And few predominantly white colleges employ counselors and mental health professionals who are representative of students’ racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity.
This can be problematic for colored patients in any environment who doubt that white counselors can provide them culturally competent carewhich recognizes a patient’s heritage, beliefs and values.
When Daisha Williams talked to a white off-campus counselor about being alienated from her mother’s side by the family because she was biracial, her pain trivialized: “She was, like, ‘Sorry for that. It sucks. They really missed.’ . ‘ And that was that.”
The history of racism in psychology and psychiatry means that many blacks do not want to seek help. Last year, The American Psychiatric Association apologized for the organization’s “appalling past actions” and promised to introduce “anti-racist methods”. Months later, American Psychological Association issued his own apology.
But even a black adviser may not be enough to overcome reluctance. In a joint survey conducted by the Steve Fund and the United Negro College Fund, 45% of students at historically black colleges and universities said they would not talk to a mental health staff if they were in crisis.
Primm said that a student’s background and belief system can be a factor. “They may have been brought up to ‘put it in God’s hands’ or may be told that they could overcome these feelings if they prayed hard enough,” Primm said. “Sure, prayer and religious activity are important and useful for mental health, but sometimes you may need a little extra support.”
Black students account for nearly 4% of the more than 18,000 students in Appalachian State, and black residents make up less than 3% of Boone’s population. Bryant, program president of the university’s Black Student Association, believes that having a university with so few black people – in a city where black residents are even scarcer – encourages those who commit racist acts.
Bryant was well aware of the demographics of the school and the region before she arrived. But during a campus tour, university officials assured prospective students that they valued diversity and would make black and other colored students feel at home.
“We were under the impression that they would make sure we get support, but the reality of how things really change that dynamic,” she said. “We did not expect how much struggle we would have to contribute to things that could affect our education.”
And sometimes the racism that students encounter is more subtle than thrown-out epithets but still deeply disturbing. In 2017, Williams said, she eagerly expected to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coate’s essay “The Case for Repairs” in one of her classes in the Appalachian State, but the conversation soon became outrageous. A white student argued that any remaining economic or social inequality was due to the lack of initiative of black people, not the nation’s failure to atone for historical errors.
“He kept saying extremely offensive things like ‘They should just work harder’ or ‘They should try to improve their lives and educate themselves,'” Williams recalled. “At one point, he made some comments about lynching. “Once he said that, I just got up and left.”
Williams was particularly disturbed by what she saw as the professor’s encouragement. “Instead of saying, ‘You make students in color feel insecure and unwelcome,’ she went on to say, ‘Develop it.'”
Although institutions cannot control or eliminate these events, they are responsible for how they respond. Asked about what happened to Williams and Bryant, Appalachian State Associate Vice Chancellor Megan Hayes called the incidents “heinous” and said the university “is committed to promoting an inclusive, safe and supportive environment for all students, faculties and staff.”
Yet such incidents continue to happen across the country. A white Georgia Southern University student gave a class presentation white compensation theory, which has been linked to white supremacist ideology. When black students complained, the university defended the presentation as freedom of speech.
On Rhodes College In Memphis, Tennessee, pro-Nazi speeches were directed at black students and a banana was taped to the door of the dormitory for two black male students. On Northern Illinois University, The N-word was spray-painted on the Center for Black Studies building. A student at State University of New York The College of Environmental Science and Forestry posted a video showing two men firing at a tree while shouting, “This is what we are doing to n——.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, student organizations in the state of Appalachian spoke out and led protests against what they considered to be oppression and trauma that black and other colored students routinely encountered. March through campus, into downtown Boone and to Watauga County Courthouse aroused condemnation and threats of arrests.
But the backlash and vitriol that are often directed at students who engage in activism for social justice can take their own psychological strain. Work is often everything. “It’s going to be challenging,” Bryant said. “We should not have to advocate for things that should never have happened in the first place.”
Ebony McGee, an associate professor of diversity and STEM education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, warns students to jealously guard their emotional well-being. “The best way students can protect their mental health is to realize that they can not change the system,” McGee said. “The best way you can support racial activism is to graduate, because then you will have more power and a bigger voice in your society.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.
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