Unit 8: Socializing and Thriving at College

Chapter 31: Studying at a Predominately White Institution (PWI)

Linnea Spitzer

Although many colleges and universities promote values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, actually attending classes may not feel very diverse, equitable, or inclusive. This is because colleges and universities in the United States were established primarily in order to educate White upper class men and still maintain many values inherent in dominant White culture. These values influence everything from the ways classes are taught (few hours in class, lots of individual work) to the ways the quarter or semester system is organized (for example, why does everything shut down for spring break?) (Anthony Jack). They also include expectations of ways of being, like the prioritization of independence and individualism over interdependence and collectivism (Vox).

If you are not an upper class White man, attending a predominantly White institution (PWI) can feel confusing and isolating. However, it doesn’t mean that you don’t belong there. The question is what makes these institutions so inhospitable for people from non-dominant racial, ethnic, economic, or linguistic groups?

Video: Anthony Jack “On Diversity: Access Ain’t Inclusion”

In this TED Talk, Anthony Jack explains how PWIs often overlook the needs and experiences of students from less privileged backgrounds.

The Hidden Curriculum

One of the major challenges faced by students from non-dominant groups who are attending PWIs is navigating the “hidden curriculum” (also discussed in Chapter 6: Evolution To College: Becoming A College Student). The Glossary of Education Reform defines the hidden curriculum as “the unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives” that are part of an educational experience. The hidden curriculum “consists of the unspoken or implicit academic, social, and cultural messages that are communicated to students while they are in school” (https://www.edglossary.org/hidden-curriculum/ ). The problem is that these messages are rarely explained because a shared cultural understanding is generally assumed by professors, advisors, and administrators. [1]

Navigating the Hidden Curriculum

It is certainly challenging to navigate the hidden curriculum, but this doesn’t mean it can’t be done. You deserve to understand the material and the expectations in your classes. Here are some ways to make sure that you have the support you need to figure out all the implicit expectations of college life:

  1. Ask your professors lots of questions. Make note of anything that is unclear, then stay after class or go to office hours. As mentioned in many chapters of this textbook, professors expect students to visit their office hours and are often happy to clarify their expectations.
  2. Get to know Juniors and Seniors. You can meet students in later years of their programs at social events held by your department or by cultural affinity groups. Relationships with students who have already “been through it” can be invaluable. They can tell you about classes to take and classes to avoid, about scholarships, clubs, internships, or other ways to get involved with university life.
  3. Identify potential mentors. As you are meeting people (students, faculty, advisors), notice who in your circle 1) seems to “get it” or understand what’s going on, and 2) is some you trust to give you good advice. Work on building relationships with these people, so they can support you in your studies. Building these kinds of trusting relationships may take time, so start by identifying people you think you might be able to work with, and then cultivate relationships with them. Reach out to them at least once per term to meet up and chat informally.


In addition to needing to navigate the hidden curriculum, many students also commonly encounter microaggressions from other students, faculty, advisors and university staff. The idea of microaggressions was first defined by Chester M. Pierce [2] and was further developed by Derald Wing Sue, who writes that 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.” [3]

Video: Derald Wing Sue explains microaggressions


According to Sue, there are three primary types of microaggressions: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. Microassaults are the most overt and direct of the three, and can involve name-calling, threats, or very obvious acts of discrimination. Microinsults are comments or behaviors that “convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity” [4]. They might include a white person asking a person of color “how did you get your job,” implying that the person of color was not qualified, or may be an “undeserving” recipient of an affirmative action program.  The third type of microaggressions is “microinvalidations,” which are comments that invalidate the experience of being a member of a minoritized community. They might include a white person saying that they “don’t see color” or asking a non-white person “where are you from?” implying that the target of this question does not belong in the US. These microinvalidations can actually be more harmful than overt acts of discrimination because they are hard to prove, and because the perpetrators often think they are acting with good intentions.[5]

According to the University of Washington, people who are the target of microaggressions often react in three ways:

  • Cognitive – internal dialogue about whether to respond
  • Behavioral – careful attention to word choice, tone, posture, and body language
  • Emotional – exhausted, angry, anxious [6]

Video: How students have experienced and responded to microaggressions


Activity 31-1: What have you learned about microaggressions?

  1. Watch the video above about student experiences with microaggressions.
  2. What types of microaggressions (microassaults, microinsults, microinvalidations) do the students report experiencing?
  3. How did they respond to these microaggressions?
  4. How would you have responded if you had been one of these students?

How to address microaggressions

Whether a microaggression is targeted at you or at someone you know, it is important to have strategies to deal with it. Whether or not you deal with a microaggression head on will depend on how safe, supported, and emotionally resilient you feel in the moment. It may also depend on the relationship you have with the person committing the microaggression. The following section provides some tips on how to handle microaggressions you experience or witness.

  1. Report bias, harassment, or discrimination
    Everyone has the right to feel safe and validated in their college experience. No one should make you or anyone else feel uncomfortable or unsafe. If comments or behaviors that someone has made make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, it is very important to report them. Most universities and colleges have confidential or anonymous reporting hotlines for biased behaviors, including harassment and discrimination. For example, Portland State University has a Bias Incident Report Form and a process for filing a  complaint of discrimination by a faculty or staff of the university. You will not get in trouble for filing such forms, and the team in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion will work with you to determine the best course of action.
  2. Call out microaggressions
    If you feel like you can do so safely, it is important to call out incidents of microaggressions. Doing so can not only help the perpetrator understand why such comments or actions are harmful, but also provide resolution for the recipient of a microaggression. If you experience a microaggression directly, or if you witness a microaggression, Ganote, Cheung and Souza suggest responding with a technique like Open The Front Door to Communication (OTFD). These steps include:
    Observe: Concrete, factual, and observable (not evaluative)
    Think: Thoughts based on observation (yours and/or theirs)
    Feel: How this makes you feel in the moment
    Desire: Specific request or inquiries about desired outcome

    Example OTFD:
    I noticed (Observe) that you asked me where I was from. I think (Think) that you are assuming I was not born in the US. This comment makes me feel (Feel) like I don’t belong here. Can you tell me (Desire) what your intention was with that question?


  3. Identify who you can rely on for support and validation
    Studying at a PWI can be exhausting. Many students have to contend with daily microaggressions and other forms of discrimination, both overt and subtle. As mentioned in previous chapters and later in this unit, having a community that you can rely on will help you process these feelings and build reserves for another day. Maintain regular connections with your family and friends, and try to build new connections with people at your university.
  4. Talk about your experience
    If you have experienced microaggressions or have witnessed them, it’s important to talk about this experience and how it made you feel. Diversity, equity, and inclusion expert, April Allen, argues that that sharing experiences helps build empathy, which can help people relate to each other better. She says that empathy makes people ask themselves:
    1. How would I feel if this happened to me if I were in a similar situation?
    2. How would I want to be treated if I were them?
    3. Have I ever experienced a similar emotion that can help me better show support through my actions? [7]

Another way to share your experience is through Racial Climate Surveys, which are often conducted by universities to learn more about how students are experiencing race and racism on campus. It is important to complete these surveys, if you receive them in your email. Your experience is important and can help the university understand how best to support all students on campus.


Licenses and Attributions:

CC licensed content, Shared previously:

The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

All rights reserved content:

Jack, Anthony. “On Diversity: Access Ain’t Inclusion.” TEDxCambridge. June 13, 2019. https://youtu.be/j7w2Gv7ueOc. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.

Pacific Lutheran University. “LISTEN: How Do You Respond to Microaggressions?” Listen Series. October 11, 2016. https://youtu.be/C3LFB4mJ0DI. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.

Teachers College, Columbia University. “Derald Wing Sue.” Mini Moments with Big Thinkers. May 12, 2013. https://youtu.be/h_lQNI9T6vs . License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.


  1. The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
  2. https://www.vox.com/2015/2/16/8031073/what-are-microaggressions
  3. Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice. American psychologist, 62(4), 271.
  4. ibid
  5. ibid
  6. https://teaching.washington.edu/topics/inclusive-teaching/addressing-microaggressions-in-the-classroom/
  7. https://www.opensesame.com/site/blog/the-power-of-empathy-in-dei/


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Blueprint for Success in College and Career Copyright © 2019 by Linnea Spitzer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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