Campus survey demonstrates perceptions of discrimination

Just over nine out of 10 undergraduates at the College “agree somewhat” or “agree strongly” that students here are respectful of peers with racial backgrounds different from their own. While 52.6 percent of female students report experiencing unfair treatment or receiving derogatory comments because of their gender, 36.4 percent of students who self-define as members of a race other than “Caucasian” claim to have faced such discrimination based on race. When asked for additional thoughts on discrimination and respect on campus, one student simply wrote “WE DON’T HAVE A PROBLEM!!”

To state that the issue of discrimination on campus is complicated is like saying that lunch lines at Whitmans’ can be long: an obvious truism. As such, it was unsurprising that the Record’s recent survey, intended to gauge students’ personal experiences of discrimination at the College and their views on prejudice throughout the community, revealed a broad range of opinions and experiences.

Though it would be impossible to characterize all of the data the poll produced in a single sentence (and foolhardy to claim these data perfectly represent the experiences of the entire student body), a few significant trends in our results do stand out as worthwhile to note. Strong majorities of students report they have “never” experienced discrimination based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation, and agree with the statement “Overall, students at Williams are respectful of students with racial and ethnic backgrounds different from their own.” Of the non-white, non-straight and non-male populations, the female cohort had the highest proportion of respondents reporting unfair treatment. And a significant portion of respondents who chose to leave further comments described recent discussions of discrimination on campus as overblown.

The survey was e-mailed to 529 randomly selected students last Saturday afternoon and received 255 responses when it closed on Monday at noon. This number of respondents gives the questionnaire a margin of error of +/- 5.75 percent, a figure confirmed by Chris Winters, director of institutional research.

The poll asked students to rate how often other students had made derogatory comments about or treated them unfairly based on their race, gender, sexual orientation and religious affiliation. In addition, the survey posed three more general statements about the Williams culture and asked students to rate how much they agreed with them, before collecting demographic information on students’ race, gender, sexual orientation and religious affiliation, and fielding further comments.

The poll’s results suggest that the majority of Williams students have not experienced unfair treatment by other students based on any of the personal characteristics the survey examined. Of these respondents, 85.8 percent reported that they had never encountered such treatment due to their race, while the same percentage of respondents made that claim for discrimination based on their religious beliefs. A larger portion, 94.1 percent of respondents, reported they had never experienced unfair treatment due to their sexual orientation, and a smaller portion, 65 percent of respondents reported facing no discrimination at all due to their gender.

In addition, 77.5 percent of survey-takers said they disagreed, somewhat or strongly, to the statement “I have felt excluded or silenced while on campus because of a personal characteristic such as my race, gender, sexual orientation or religious affiliation.”

These figures look considerably different, however, when the responses to each question are broken down based on the characteristics they ask about discrimination in relation to. To this end, students’ responses to demographic questions were used to sort them into one of two categories for each question, a “majority” and a “minority” group. For instance, to better understand the responses to the sexual orientation question, the responses by those students who self-defined as bisexual, homosexual, queer or questioning were grouped together and analyzed by percentage within the group. The percentage of these “non-heterosexual” students answering a question in a particular manner was then compared to that of the heterosexual students choosing the same answer.

Analyzing in this manner, it was found that while only 5.9 percent of all respondents reported having experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation, 31 percent of respondents who identified as homosexual, bisexual, queer or questioning reported such unfair treatment.

The difference was slightly less pronounced among students who reported themselves as affiliated with a particular religion, rather than choosing “non-practicing” or “none.” Among students who chose a religious affiliation, 21.3 percent reported unfair treatment based on their faith, compared to the survey-wide average of 14.2 percent of respondents.

Students who self-identified as non-white also reported unfair treatment at a higher rate than their peers, with 36.4 percent of those respondents having experienced race-based discrimination at some point during their time at the College, again compared to 14.2 percent of the general population.

Given these results, it seems logical to assume that white and minority students would have different opinions on how respectful and tolerant their peers tend to be. However, the difference between the two groups proved statistically insignificant. While 95.1 percent of Caucasian students claimed they “agree strongly” or “agree somewhat” with the statement “Overall, students at Williams are respectful of students with racial and ethnic backgrounds different from their own.” 90.9 percent non-Caucasian agreed, a number well within the margin of error. Interestingly, when asked to respond to the statement “Prejudice and acts of bigotry are NOT tolerated on this campus,” only 70.4 percent of non-white students agreed strongly or somewhat, as compared to 91.5 percent white students. That the percentage of non-white students disagreeing with the latter statement is similar to the percentage that reported experiencing unfair treatment seems worthy of note, suggesting that personal experiences have a strong effect on one’s view of the wider campus culture.

As previously mentioned, female students reported the highest rate of discrimination of all of the groups, with over half of those responding recalling instances. In the context of the College’s public discourse on discrimination this semester, such a high reported rate of gender-based prejudice seems significant. The speakers at the February Stand With Us rally barely touched on the issue of sexism. In March and April, however, two separate women wrote essays about campus sexism that appeared in the Record’s Opinions section. The April piece, written by Colleen Farrell ’10, addressed a penis drawn on a whiteboard and inspired a thread on WSO that accused Farrell and other students of being overly sensitive. Evidence that a majority of women surveyed believe they have been treated unfairly due to their gender suggests that Farrell’s is not an isolated voice of a woman who feels she has experienced sexism on campus.

Students’ oversensitivity proved a pervasive theme in the comments students submitted with the poll. A majority of the 57 responses spoke skeptically of the existence of prejudice at the College and the value of Stand With Us and other College efforts to improve the climate of discrimination on campus.
Many of these responses were based on the perception that there is no problem with discrimination on campus. “Williams is a very tolerant place where I believe students treat each other with respect,” wrote one such student. “The isolated incidents of racism do not represent the majority of the campus and most definitely do not mirror the campus’ feelings and attitudes.”

Others expressed more hostility toward recent efforts to address the perceived problems with discrimination. “I have an issue with the aggression, and intolerance demonstrated by Stand With Us,” one respondent wrote, later concluding that “There is now a super sensitive air on campus, where people are afraid to speak, and eager to accuse.”
The remaining comments addressed a number of concerns, some with racism, sexism, homophobia and religious discrimination on campus, and a number related to socioeconomic discrimination. A number also took issue with aspects of the survey’s methodology, criticizing the limited gender options and lack of an intermediate frequency option between “a few times a semester” and “never.”