Navigating the black student experience at UCLA

Anh-Vy Pham/Daily Bruin

Two UCLA professors have devoted their research to understanding racial discrimination in academia and popular culture. The Daily Bruin’s Megan Daley spoke with UCLA professors Tyrone Howard and Caroline Streeter to gain insight into their research and experiences as professors of color.

Howard is the associate dean for equity and inclusion at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He is also a professor of education and the director of the Black Male Institute, a think tank on campus that works to support the academic experience and potential of African-American students.

Howard grew up in Compton, California, where he later taught as a public elementary school teacher. He said witnessing firsthand how communities are underserved motivated him to understand the causes of racial discrimination and potential solutions to it.

Since entering postgraduate studies and a career in academia, Howard said he has not encountered blatant racial discrimination, but has experienced instances in which his credentials have been doubted.

“I use it as motivation,” he said. “I know there’s always going to be naysayers.”

He added his colleagues often find it difficult to publish their work or to receive grants to fund it because they study race and equity.

“It’s hard to prove because oftentimes, no one will say it, but it becomes clear that those topics aren’t important (in higher education),” he said. “I think it’s important because these issues are real.”

Caroline Streeter is an associate professor in both the English and African American Studies departments. She is a cultural critic who focuses on African-American representation in film, literature and popular culture. She also researches the intersectionality between race and gender.

Streeter said she thinks racial discrimination is inherent in the higher education system.

“Racism and sexism are just embedded,” Streeter said. “They’re part of the way the university functions.”

She added discrimination is seen in the lack of diversity among professors and salary discrepancies between white faculty and faculty of color.

“It’s probably most evident in the populations of professors,” she added. “If you just look at the statistics of how many male professors there are, how many females, how many professors of color.”

She added she also experienced some implicit discrimination from students.

“When I first arrived at UCLA, (and taught) texts by women and texts by people of color, I got comments on course evaluations that they didn’t realize they were signing up for a women’s studies course or an ethnic studies course,” she said.

Some student evaluations remarked on her physical appearance as well.

“I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed,” she said. “I think it certainly was a way of belittling me, but it never made me feel like I should change what I was doing.”

Streeter and Howard both said racial discrimination is also prevalent among undergraduate students.

As the associate dean for equity and inclusion, Howard said students often come to him to report racial discrimination, but there are limitations to how he can help them find solutions. Howard said in contrast to sexual harassment cases, which he must legally report under Title IX, there are no formal processes for racial discrimination.

“(For) racial discrimination, there are no federal protections,” he said. “Someone can say ‘I was discriminated based on race and I don’t have to (legally) report it.’”

Howard said students are often hesitant to share their experiences of racial discrimination with him because they fear they will face repercussions if the person they report finds out.

Streeter added it can also be challenging for students of color if they are the only representative of their ethnicity in the classroom. Because of institutional inequality, students of color are often not given the same access to education and are therefore underrepresented on university campuses, she said.

“(It) could turn out to be a positive experience, but it’s very alienating,” she said. “And that’s before anyone has said or done anything that might be considered offensive.

She added while universities may not necessarily be hostile environments, they are usually still predominantly white environments.

“I think there’s a fatigue associated with having to encounter people who don’t have any familiarity with people of color,” she said.

UCLA is, however, beginning to directly address racial discrimination on campus by creating the UCLA Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Office, Howard said.

“We don’t have our heads in the sand. We have offices set up. That’s a start,” he said.

Although there is no substitute for one-on-one conversations, the school encouraging campuswide discussions about these issues is a step in the right direction, Streeter said. She added the curricula of various departments have also become more inclusive.

“The English department has changed a lot with the curriculum,” she said. “I definitely don’t encounter as much resistance as I did 15 years ago to works by women and by people of color.”

However, Howard and Streeter both say the school has more work to do to create an inclusive space for all students.

Accountability is lacking when it comes to tone-deaf or blatantly racist instances on campus, Streeter said. She said she was disappointed in the university's response to the racist “Kanye Western” party hosted by a UCLA fraternity in 2015.

Howard said UCLA needs to foster an environment where students who experience racial discrimination are more comfortable speaking out. Streeter added it is important that students know where they can go and what to do if they ever experience instance of racial discrimination. The best thing for the university to do is to publish information on how to report these cases, she said.

“(Publishing information) once a quarter might be a good thing to do, because there is so much information out there and ... new groups of people are coming through all the time," Streeter said. "The information needs to be refreshed."

Howard said students must also be able to have faith that UCLA will address the instances of racial discrimination students report.

“Because of the power dynamic on campus, victims don’t share because they think that the school won't listen to them, it won’t believe them, that nothing will happen to perpetrator,” he added. "We have to make sure the victims are heard and the perpetrators feel the sting of what they’ve done.”