The predominantly white institution predicament

Graphic by Haley Morkert.


It is the first day of first-year orientation. It is a warm afternoon, and you are walking into a lecture hall to attend your first meeting with your orientation group. You walk in, sit down and take a look around you: not a single soul in this room looks like you. 

Being visibly marginalized at a predominantly white institution — PWI — is a strangely stressful experience. Visible marginalization refers to possessing an identity that makes one marginalized in a very visible, outward manner.     

For me, my racial and religious identities make me very visibly different. As a South Asian Muslim woman who wears the hijab — a headscarf for religious purposes — I constantly stand out. There are preconceived notions about my racial and religious backgrounds that exist in proliferation, and that impacts how people perceive me. There are unfortunately countless harmful and false stereotypes that exist. 

First-year exploratory major Sumaiyah Ryan wears the hijab, and she shared her experiences with being a visible minority. 

“I do get stares,” Ryan said. “People kind of tend to lose a sense of boundaries … I notice when people talk to me, they’ll ask me questions out of the blue that just [have] weird wording. I’ll randomly have people come up to me and ask ‘What are you?’”

As someone who also wears the hijab, my Islamic religious beliefs are fully visible to anyone who takes just one look at me. I thoroughly acknowledge that not everyone is totally aware and educated about the various aspects of my identity. 

With the abundance of stereotypes that exist, the attitudes of people are far from ideal.  Junior entrepreneurship major Paul Ford shared his thoughts on how his identity as a Black student is perceived on campus, as someone who is visibly marginalized and often very outspoken about his beliefs and activism. 

“I think that on Butler’s campus, sometimes our identities can be seen as an accessory,” Ford said. “There are a lot of assumptions and stereotypes that are made, especially when you’re not only visible but [also] outspoken. So it can kind of makes you feel out of place. Sometimes it can make you feel vulnerable.”

Anthony Murdock II, an entrepreneurship and innovation lecturer and Butler alum, shared his experiences with facing marginalization and prejudice on campus when he was an outspoken student. Murdock is Black, and his experiences as a student ranged from microaggressions to significantly more dangerous forms of racism. 

“Butler was far from a perfect place,” Murdock said.   

For Murdock, Butler was where he was often mistaken for other Black students. Butler was where he was made to feel out of place by professors for attending class in his work uniform because he worked multiple jobs. Butler was where he was called slurs. 

Butler was where Murdock received his first death threat. 

“In 2014, we had a Black Lives Matter protest here,” Murdock said. “And [YikYak] was popping when we were students. And we actually wrote an article about it … and a lot of us were targeted.”

Through an email follow-up, Murdock explained that the article he referenced was written by him and the other founders of Bust the B.U.B.B.L.E.. The article includes screenshots of a few of the fiercely racist messages on YikYak. A Collegian article from 2015 also includes examples of some of the explicitly racist and bigoted messages, which include jokes about white supremacy and the KKK. The messages, which are completely anonymous, are graphic and unequivocally racist. Murdock’s experiences as a Butler student are recent, since the racism he experienced happened less than 10 years ago. 

But Butler was also where Murdock was able to co-found Bust the B.U.B.B.L.E., a student-led activist organization that focuses on the needs of Black and Brown students. 

“We started [Bust the B.U.B.B.L.E.] in 2014, “Murdock said. “We created toolkits that empower Black Student Unions across the country to demand more from institutions … I was here then, and I couldn’t have asked for … a more prime opportunity to be positioned to solve some problems.”

Since being founded, Bust the B.U.B.B.L.E. has continued to grow and thrive. The MLK Love Walk is an annual event Bust the B.U.B.B.L.E. hosts, and in 2022 the event had the largest turnout it had ever seen, said Ford, who is affiliated with the organization. 

“This was the seventh annual Love Walk,” Ford said. “We made it to the news, and I think it was really just a push and a culmination of all the efforts that Bust the B.U.B.B.L.E. leadership had before … It really energized the campus towards activism.”

Through creating an advocacy-based student organization, the legacy of the students that founded Bust the B.U.B.B.L.E. continues. Murdock’s PWI experience was simultaneously negative and positive. He spoke of the struggles he dealt with, and in the face of such immense adversity, he continued to thrive and help other students of color and other Black Student Unions do the same. As a lecturer at Butler Today, Murdock recognizes that some improvement has been made, but there are still a plethora of issues that must be addressed. As he said, Butler was far from being a perfect place, but it was perfectly the right place for him to be at that time. 

“I have seen the Hub for Black Affairs, [and] that’s an intentional Black space,” Murdock said. “That’s amazing … there’s power in being explicit … because being explicit makes people uncomfortable, but growth and uncomfortability go hand in hand. And it brings me joy to know that we can have a Black space on campus that I know makes people uncomfortable.”

Ignorance may be blissful, but it ultimately sets the stage for hostility to be bred. You are made uncomfortable by our identities, but the discomfort that we experience based off of, that is incomparable. You are uncomfortable because you do not understand our identities; we are uncomfortable because we are tired of constantly being overlooked for who we are as humans. You are uncomfortable because you choose to discount our experiences; we are uncomfortable because we are tired of shouting for acceptance; our screams are heard as whispers by your ears. 

Microaggressions and other subtle forms of racism and Islamophobia are sometimes impossible for people to understand. There often are not any explicit examples; it is simply just the atmosphere and attitudes of people. It is the look I get when I walk into a room full of people. It is the tone of voice people use to speak with me. It is the feeling of discomfort that people exhibit when I am near. It is my professor pointing to my hijab and asking “What is this?”. It is virtually impossible to describe how it feels to constantly be regarded as the outsider, the outlier, the other. 

“You get looks,” Ford said. “And I also think that from the [student leadership] positions [relating to diversity and inclusion] on campus that you hold, it can almost seem like that’s the reason.”

 Attending a campus that is primarily white has made me hyper-aware of the extent to which I will always stand out. But standing out is not the issue at hand; the issue lies in how people react and respond to visibly marginalized identities. People feel the need to act a certain way when they are in the presence of someone who is different from them. 

“I feel like people are sometimes walking on eggshells,” Ryan said. “They’re scared to say something wrong … I wish that people would just treat me like a normal person … I feel like people don’t really realize the everyday struggle that you have of people constantly questioning you … People don’t really realize that it’s something we go through every day and that we become very desensitized to it.”

However, the term “microaggression” by no means implies that microaggressions have a “micro” or small impact. 

“Microaggressions have macro impact,” Murdock said. “Microaggressions are normalized, but you can’t normalize the impact [they have] on me.”

Murdock’s point is absolutely true. It is damaging to constantly have to deal with the blissful and knowing ignorance of others. 

Ryan described that constantly experiencing microaggressions has made her desensitized to an extent. 

“You’re always constantly reminded … just by the comments people make … that you’re just different,” Ryan said. “They don’t see you as the same as them or equal to them.”

Being a visible minority does not mean that we are not human. We are just like everyone else. Moreover, everyone is ignorant to some extent; it is impossible to know everything about every type of identity that exists. It is important, however, to always be respectful and willing to learn more. It is unrealistic to assume that everyone I will ever encounter will be fully aware of the various nuances of my identity, and likewise, I will not know everything about the backgrounds of others. What truly matters is being open to learning more and being respectful. 

Many people exhibit colorblind racism, another type of microaggression, in which they claim to “not see color”. Choosing to not see race actively invalidates visibly marginalized people of color. My race is part of my identity, and by choosing to not see that, you are neglecting to see me. 

“We have to have a critical conversation about how toxic and problematic it is to live in a colorblind society,” Murdock said. “That’s one of the most explicit forms of racism that we’ve normalized.” 

Visibly marginalized people cannot hide their identities. Regardless of whether I make the decision to actively represent my various visible identities and backgrounds, that decision has already been made for me by society. I will always be perceived as South Asian and Muslim. When people claim that they do not see race or that everyone is the same, they ignore our struggles and experiences. 

With the rise of censorship within academia, the experiences and voices of visibly marginalized people will only continue to be ignored. It is impossible for change to occur when the root of the problem cannot even be spoken about. If we cannot talk freely and openly about the experiences of visibly marginalized people, we cannot work towards fixing this systemic struggle. The microaggressions and other more explicit forms of racism and prejudice that students of color and marginalized students face are only one aspect of a multifaceted issue.

“The world was my oyster,” Murdock said. “But it was hard to pry that thing open.”

The world is my oyster too, and I have only begun my journey to the pearl inside.


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