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Racial microaggressions and the Latino/a experience in postsecondary education | Race-Talk | 267

Racial microaggressions and the Latino/a experience in postsecondary education

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Latina/o students continue to be the least studied racial/ethnic population in postsecondary education (Hernandez, 1999; López, 2007; Solórzano, Villalpando, Osguera 2005) and are largely excluded from discussions of race.  One reason for this could be that Latinas/os are comprised of multiple ethnicities, skin tones, and geographic locations.  Latinas/os are not a designated race, despite descriptions such as “La Raza Cosmica” or even “brown”.  Yet, racism is part of the every day lives of people of color, in particular the lives of Latinos/as.  Specifically, how does racism affect the Latina/o experience in academe? This paper will explore the effects of microaggressions (e.g., subtle racism) on the Latina/o student experience using the works of scholars in higher education. In the next section, I will discuss the term racial microaggressions.


Higher education scholars and beyond, largely agree that racism is no longer manifested in the forms Americans have been accustomed (Pierce, 1970; Bowman & Smith, 2002; Bonilla Silva, 1997; Bonilla-Silva & Foreman, 2000; Yosso, 2005).  Overt racism, while still prevalent, is no longer widely accepted within public arenas.  While federal policies have begun to hold organizations accountable for overt racist policies through enforcement of the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action policies, there is increasing evidence of subtle forms of racism that impact the daily lives of people of color.  Terms such as “contemporary racism” (Bowman & Smith, 2002), “subtle racism” (Bowman & Smith, 2002; McClelland & Auster, 1990), and “color-blind racism” (Bonilla-Silva & Foreman, 2000) have been used to describe racism experienced today.  It is believed that this type of racism is facilitated by “micro inequities” (Hurtado, 2002; Beagan, 2001), or “microaggressions” (Pierce, 1970; Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Solorzano, 1998).  As of today, there is no formal consensus as to what to call this form of racism.

Psychologist Dr. Chester Pierce defines microaggressions as “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put downs’ of blacks by offenders” (Pierce, Carew, Pierce-Gonzalez, & Wills, 1978, p. 66). Solórzano, Ceja, and Yosso (2000) expand this definition by explaining that while overt forms of racism are no longer socially acceptable, racial microaggressions often manifest in private conversations and other personal interactions creating a modern day climate of subtle racism. Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, and Esquilin (2007) states that racial microaggressions are “Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities”.  While the study of racial microaggressions is minimal, there are even fewer examples of how this form of racism has been studied and applied to different racialized groups in the context of higher education (Solórzano, Ceja, Yosso, 2000; Bowman & Smith, 2002; Solórzano, Allen, & Carroll, 2002).

While few examples have been studied and applied to various groups, racism is perceived to occur only in overt forms.  However, subtle forms of racism are very prevalent, but less visible and minimally researched in Latina/o education. These racial microaggressions are found to be more insidious, as they occur more frequently than overt forms of racism. Consequently, they are cumulative products of unconscious dominant attitudes that affirm subordination of non-dominant groups (Davis, 1989; Delagdo & Stefancic, 1992). Pierce (1995) writes “in and of itself a microaggression may seem harmless, but the cumulative burden of a lifetime of microaggressions can theoretically contribute to diminished mortality, augmented morbidity, and flattened confidence” (p.281).



Identifying racial microaggressions and researching its impact on college students is no easy task.  As Bonilla-Silva and Foreman (2000) confirm, studying subtle racism, or what they call “color-blind” racism, cannot be measured in the same way that researchers have often surveyed racist ideologies in the American public.  Bonilla-Silva and Foreman, in fact, find that there is a disparity between white college students’ racial attitudes when surveyed as a group and when interviewed individually. In their article “I am not a racist but . . .”: Mapping White college students’ racial ideology in the USA,” the authors find that White students have a difficult time explaining why they do not support race- based policies in education or employment, interracial relationships or marriages, and other racialized situations while still emphasizing that they are not racist.

Other scholars such as Bowman and Smith (2002) also find that racism is no longer manifested in an overt manner on college campuses.  They added that “contemporary racism” is not only complex but it is also changing the racial dynamic and climate on college campuses.  They write that because the campus racial climate is more complex, it needs to be understood from the perspectives of multiple groups that were previously excluded from the Black-White binary in which racism and its impact is often studied (p. 103). College students seem to publicly reject “old-school” racism while accepting culturally deficient views of people of color.  In the name of aspiring to a “color-blind” society (Bonilla-Silva & Foreman, 2000), individuals, particularly whites, will engage in everyday exchange of notions of equality based on a meritocracy, rejecting such policies as affirmative action and blaming the seemingly downward mobility of Black and Latina/o populations on their individual characteristics. This exchange of putdowns and offenses are what scholars call “microaggressions” which shapes modern day racism – a subtle, incessant, and injurious process often deemed as more harmful than overt racism because microaggressions are harder to identify thus more difficult to combat (Pierce, 1995; Solorzano et al, 2000; Yossso, 2000; Sue et. al, 2007).


As noted earlier, few scholars have studied racial microaggressions as agents in contemporary racism.  Even fewer have investigated their effects on Latina/o students in postsecondary education.  For the purpose of this paper, the author has identified three sources that have recognized the impact microaggressions or micro inequities have on Latina/o students. This scholarship explores the effects racial microaggressions have on Latina/o students.  These researchers find that racial microaggressions particularly influence Latina/o student persistence.  These effects include feelings of a hostile campus racial climate (Hurtado, 2002); feelings of invisibility (Hurtado and Carter, 1997); feelings of exclusion from peers and campus life (Solorzano, 1998); perceptions of lowered expectations by faculty (Solorzano, 1998); and the desire and motivation to challenge negative perceptions of Latinos (Yosso, 2000) and the desire and motivation to challenge negative perceptions of Latinos (Yosso, 2000).

Feelings of a hostile campus racial climate

Researchers find that racial microaggressions influence how Latina/o students observe and experience the campus climate (Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Hurtado, 2002). Hurtado & Ponjuan (2005) write, “Latina/o students who perceive a hostile climate for diversity on a campus also expressed more difficulty adjusting academically, socially, and emotionally as well as more difficulty building a sense of attachment to the college” (p.237). Similarly, Cabrera and Nora (1996) find in their study that among all other racial groups, Latinas/os perceive the most discrimination in the classroom and other aspects of campus life, a finding they connect with an indirect reason why Latinas/os decide to leave their institution. A sense of attachment to the institution is crucial to forming goals and individual commitments, which is imperative to persistence in higher education (Tinto, 1993).

Although many researchers have explored and developed theories of retention, few have studied the impact that campus racial climate has on Latina/o student retention (Cabrera & Nora, 1994; Hurtado, 1992; Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pederson, Allen, 1999). Solorzano (1998) finds that while there are studies on Chicano student experiences as they relate to success (e.g. Cuadraz, 1993; Gandara, 1995; Morales, 1988), they do not focus on the impact that race may have on persistence.

Feelings of exclusion from peers and campus life

In addition to the perception of a hostile racial climate, Solorzano’s study on Chicana graduate students and their experiences with racial microaggressions reports that they have feelings of not belonging or “feeling out of place” (1998, p128).  His respondents explain that feeling out of place in academe is often a result of the discontinuity between the home environment and the academic environment, particularly if the academic environment is a predominantly white institution. Additionally, Chicana/o students felt out of place in their academic environment because they had faculty who also were not of their same background causing for the lack of role models students could relate to on campus. Forming relationships with peers is also found to be a crucial factor in the social and academic integration of students (Bean, 2005, p. 228), particularly Latina/o students, on college campuses.  Thus, a student who develops healthy attachments to their peers, will feel academically engaged (Tinto, 1993) and increase his/her self-confidence (Bean, 2005).

Feelings of invisibility on campus

Hurtado and Carter (1997) discover in their work that Latina/o students often feel more invisible amongst other students on college campuses. In essence, feelings of invisibility can affect how students feel in their college environment and attachment to the institution.

Perceptions of lowered expectations by faculty

Solorzano (1998) also finds that Chicano students experience lowered expectations by faculty, affecting their student progress. Often, this perception by faculty was based on students’ personal characteristics such as class, gender, and racial backgrounds. These entry characteristics often were perceived as culturally deficient by faculty often forcing them to not engage with Chicano scholars the way they would with students from dominant populations.  Chicano scholars often felt alienated and discriminated by professors.  Students felt that these lowered expectations impacted guidance in course work, forming positive relationships with professors, and scrutiny over dissertation topics (p.129-130).  Some respondents chose areas of study often focused on Chicano/Latino issues which faculty were not familiar with causing them to question their students’ decisions in topics of study.

Motivation to challenge negative perceptions of Latinos

In Yosso’s (2000) work, she studies the impact of visual microaggressions on Chicano/Latino college students. She finds that Chicano students ultimately attempt to challenge stereotypes when confronted with microaggressions. In her study, she demonstrates that as students become aware of negative perceptions of Latinos, microaggressions seem to push them to uphold a “prove them wrong” attitude that advances them along their academic journey. According to Yosso, facing racial microaggressions helped students “confront the negative portrayals and ideas about Chicanas/os, are motivated by these negative images and ideas and are driven to navigate through the educational system for themselves and other Chicanos/as”. Hurtado (2002) agrees: “They [Latinos] face micro-inequities in their daily life but feel empowered enough to cope with adversity and create their own cultural spaces” (p. 131).

Particularly as it affects Chicano students, Yosso developed a working definition for microaggressions that would include all racialized groups of people. Using Pierce’s and Solorzano’s work on racial microaggressions to guide her definition, she writes

Microaggressions are subtle, stunning verbal and non-verbal put downs of People of Color, often done automatically or unconsciously. Microaggressions are layered insults, based on notions of race, gender, class, sexuality, culture, language, immigration status, phenotype, accent, and surname. Microaggressions are cumulative and cause [undue] stress to People of Color while privileging Whites (Yosso, 2000, p44).



A limitation that exists in this work is the focus on Chicano students.  While Chicanos or Mexican Americans represent over 60% of the Latino population, research on the effects of racism on Latino students should not be limited to this group. Another limitation is that a psychological, interpersonal lens largely frames this research.  More work should focus on organizational and institutional factors that contribute to the perceptions held by these students.          This literature review suggests that there is an indirect connection between racial microaggressions and low retention rates among Latino students, but our inability to understand  these experiences makes it difficult to say that race and racism play a role in the Latino student experience. Thus, racial microaggressions should be understood as they intersect with other factors such as language.  For example, Hurtado and Ponjuan (2005) find that Latino students who report speaking Spanish at home perceive more discrimination on campus than students who do not speak Spanish at home.



From research conducted by scholars in higher education (e.g. Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Hurtado, 2002), the evidence is clear that race still matters and that racism still impacts the daily lives of students. To be sure, although Latinas/os have not been legally designated with a race, they are highly racialized and feel the effects of racism in different ways than do other racialized groups. A need for more research in this area is critical to understanding the intersection of education, race and racism, and Latino students. Additionally, this population is still largely at risk of leaking out of the academic pipeline. Ignoring concepts, such as racial microaggressions and/or racism is to miss opportunities in understanding the Latino experience. A push to study Latino/a students can help us understand how to support these students as they progress through higher education, and also explore racism among a people with no officially designated race.


Photo by:  Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian


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