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‘We Are Not a Monolith:’ How to Better Cover Race on Campus

Questions to ask about student activism, racism and racial injustice at colleges.

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For decades, college campuses have served as vital spaces for student activism, especially on issues of race. And, if anything, campus activism on racial issues has been ramping up in 2021.

Sparked by ongoing and newly documented police killings of Black Americans, college students across the country protested racial injustice despite the global pandemic. And now protesters and organizations are addressing larger issues of systemic racism throughout the higher education system. They demanded, for example, more scholarships for students of color; more accountability for individuals who make racist or sexist comments; more inclusive policies, and the cutting of ties with local police departments.

Speaking at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 National Seminar, panelists Julie Park, associate professor at the University of Maryland; Dorien Rogers, a college student at Salisbury University; and Eli Capiluto, president of the University of Kentucky, suggested ways journalists can cover race on campus with more nuance and context. Adam Harris, a staff writer for The Atlantic, moderated the Race on Campus session that resulted in several reporting tips and story ideas.

Tips for higher education reporters

  • Fact-check anecdotes and simplistic narratives with data. 
    “Although personal stories are very powerful, we have research studies that survey thousands and thousands of students. And so we can actually base some of our conclusions off of research instead of just anecdotes,” Park said.Park, author of “Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data,” said her research contradicts, for example, commonly repeated allegations that “colleges are hopelessly self-segregated…and that clubs for students of color, such as a Black Student Alliance or Asian American organizations,” are blamed for playing a role in perpetuating that.“What we know from the research is that students, especially Black and Latino students, who participate in these types of clubs, actually have higher levels of cross-racial engagement during college,” she said.Park also warned against perpetuating “a simplistic narrative that campuses are just divided. “That’s not to say that there isn’t division, and there certainly is isolation of students of color,” she added. But some people may extrapolate too much from seeing, say, a group of Black students sitting together in the cafeteria.

    “Students spend a lot of time outside of the cafeteria. You can have time where you are having community with people who share the same race/ethnicity as you. And you can also have healthy interactions across race,” she said.

  • Take time to build trust and learn about intersectionality with sources. 
    Rogers said he and other student activists who talked with journalists sometimes feel the relationship is too brief and transactional to get at the truth.Too many reporters don’t take the time to understand the nuances and diversity within every community, or each interviewee’s unique concerns, he said.“We are not a monolith. People are so quick, especially within the press, to say, you know, all Black people think alike. That’s not the case.”He asked reporters to take the time to explore and understand each interviewee’s “intersectionality…If somebody is Black and is a woman and has a disability, those are intersectional points of different marginalized groups” that will affect their experiences.
  • Add history and context. 
    Since students are only on campus for a few years, they often don’t have a good sense of their school’s history of conflicts over particular issues, noted Park.“There’s a lot of institutional history that can be easily missed,” if reporters don’t do their own research and interview knowledgeable faculty or staff members, such as student affairs educators. Understanding institutional history and longstanding practices can be critical to understanding the motivations for and dynamics of what, how and why people are protesting, added Rogers.“In order to identify the things that you want to see change, you need to know how the system works,” he said.

Story ideas and questions reporters should ask

Reporters looking for fresh ways to approach the subject can start with questions recommended by the speakers:

  • What does burnout among student-activists look like? 
    There is surprisingly little coverage of how many activists get exhausted and need to step away, Park said.
  • Who’s really being an activist, and are they different from the people for whom they are advocating? 
    In many cases, it takes privileges, such as not having to work two or three jobs or care for family members, to have the time to be an activist, Park noted. “You have some students who have a certain amount of privilege because they don’t have to work outside of taking classes. And then you have students who are still making time and space for activism (despite) working full time or (having) other burdens. Looking at inequality within the student body would be something very compelling,” Park said.
  • Do colleges follow through with initiatives to address the promises of diversity, equity and inclusion? Do they fulfill their promises? 
    Harris, author of “The State Must Provide,”  a new book on the higher education system’s failure to fully and fairly serve Black students, wondered how reporters can know “that the commitment extends beyond the initial words?” How do college leaders intent on change “get that institutional buy-in” needed to achieve lasting reforms? Rogers noted that for many activists, “the more (college leaders) use the words of diversity and inclusion,” without meaningful followup action, “they start to lose their meaning. It adds to the fatigue of students of color and students of marginalized groups.”
  • How does race intersect with other aspects? 
    At Salisbury University, for example, Rogers said his activism is “not just about color or race, but it’s more about people with disabilities as well, people of a different gender and sexuality…interconnecting those things.
  • How has COVID-19 changed the strategies student-activists use to affect change on campus?

Additional resources for journalists