Study Title: Exploring how Latino students experience racial microaggression on a university campus and its impact on their perception of campus racial climate.



Latino students face major challenges with respect to access, persistence, and graduation in higher education (Aguirre & Martinez, 1993; Strayhorn, 2008; California P-16 Council, 2008). These struggles of access and success in college for Latino students have been well documented (Aguirre & Martinez, 1993; Chapa, 1991; Tierney & Hagedorn, 2002). One factor that contributes to poor academic performance, lower retention and graduation rates is a negative campus racial climate (Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Locks, Hurtado, Bowman, & Oseguera, 2008). Research on campus racial climate points out that historically, students of color more often have experienced social isolation, discrimination, and racism in predominantly white institutions (PWIs) which directly and indirectly affects academic achievement, retention and degree attainment (Arbona & Nora, 2007; Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Muses, Nichols, & Lambert, 2008; Strayhorn, 2008). The purpose of this study was to understand how Latino students experienced racial microaggression on a college campus and their experience with campus racial climate.

This study examined the experience of Latino college students with racial microaggression and its impact on their perception of campus racial climate.  Grounded theory involves the researcher immersing in the data and systemically analyzing the data for themes (Strauss & Corbin, 1990; Charmaz, 2006). With grounded theory methodology, data analysis involves a complex coding process designed to break down data, create meaning, and then put data back together in new and different way. Focus groups were the primary method of collecting data. Focus groups capture the richness of the participants’ experiences by allowing the social group interactions to facilitate development of meaning (Morgan, 1997). Focus groups have been found especially helpful in successfully exploring racial perception and a number of topics dealing with race (Solórzano, Ceja, and Yosso, 2000; Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, and Tornio, 2007). The study consists of eighteen students participating in three focus groups. All participants self identified as Latino students.

Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in higher education, yet they are rarely studied in the field of higher education when it relates to race and racism (Villalpando, 2004). As the enrollment rates for Latinos continue to grow (Chapa, 2005), this is a necessary study that adds to the literature on college students experience with racial microaggression. Researching Latino students experience with racial microaggression provide implications for higher education institutions to create a more welcoming environment for Latino students and provide additional support to making sure Latino students are successful and persist towards degree attainment.


During the last 30 years the number of Latinos in higher education has increased significantly in the United States (U.S.). In 1976, the percentage of Latinos on college campuses was 4%, and in 2007 that number rose to 11% of the total college student population. In the same time period, minority student enrollment increased from 15% to 32% of the total college student population (US Department of Education, 2009). In California, the population of Latinos in school continues to increase. By 2010, Latino students will consist of one half of the students in public P-12 school system (California P-16 Council, 2008). Following these demographic trends, the number of Latino students enrolling on college campuses will continue to increase. A major concern for postsecondary education administrators is that although the number of Latinos on campus has increased, their persistence and graduation rates have not followed (Villalpando, 2004).

Latino students face major challenges with respect to access, persistence, and graduation in higher education. These struggles of access and success in college for Latino students have been well documented (Aguirre & Martinez, 1993; Chapa, 1991; Tierney & Hagedorn, 2002). One factor that contributes to poor academic performance, lower retention and graduation rates is a negative campus racial climate (Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Locks, Hurtado, Bowman, & Oseguera, 2008). Research on campus racial climate points out that historically, students of color[1] more often experience social isolation, discrimination, and racism in predominantly white institutions (PWIs) which directly and indirectly affects academic achievement, retention and degree attainment (Arbona, C. & Nora, A., 2007; Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Muses, Nichols, & Lambert, 2008; Strayhorn, 2008). In addition, when students of color experience prejudice and discrimination on campus, the resulting anxiety leads to adjustment difficulty (Muses, Nichols, & Lambert, 2008; Hurtado & Carter, 1997). These adjustment difficulties can lead to issues with transition, academic acculturation, and social integration.

Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in higher education, yet they are rarely studied in the field of higher education when it relates to race and racism (Villalpando, 2004). Examining Latino students’ experiences with racial microaggression help us better understand how campus racial climate affects the educational experiences and academic achievement of Latino students. As the enrollment rates for Latinos are expected to continue to grow (Chapa, 2005), this is a necessary study that adds to the literature on college students experience with racial microaggression.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study was to explore how Latino students experience racial microaggression on a college campus and its impact on their perception of campus racial climate. Using Critical Race Theory and Latino Critical studies as a guiding framework, the researcher focused on Latino students and their experience with subtle racism in college.

It was important to study the phenomenon of racial microaggression because of the implications it has on student of color.  This study adds to our understanding of racial microaggression and its impact on students of color. Four research questions will be explored:

(1) How do Latino college students experience racial microaggression?

(2) What impact do these racial microaggressions have on Latino students and how do they respond?

(3) How do incidents of racial microaggression influence students perception of campus racial climate?

(4) How do physical spaces on campus influence racial microaggression?

Significance of the Study

This study sought to add to the body of knowledge regarding students experience with racial microaggression. It was important to study the phenomenon of racial microaggression because of the implications it has on students of color. Findings in studies and surveys suggested that students of color struggle to survive academically when battling racism, both overt and subtle forms (Solórzano et al., 2000; Smith, et al., 2007). Since individual students and different populations can perceive a campus to be hospitable or unwelcoming, it was important to understand how various aspects of the environment influence students. In this study, the focus was on students’ perception of racial microaggression and the subsequent affects. The researcher examined racial microaggression on the campus and attempted to find physical locations where this phenomenon is experienced. Campus environments encompass physical spaces, libraries, residence hall, classrooms, recreation areas, and student unions (Kinzie & Mulholland, 2008).

With the increasing diversity of students on campus it is time for higher education administrators to review the new racial realities. Many feel that racism is long gone and we have overcome the years of racial discrimination and prejudice (Villalpando, 2004; Harper & Patton, 2007). Educational researchers would argue that race and racism are still imbedded in our society, but now its more subtle and unconscious. Despite an increased interest on how students of color experience racial microaggression, it was surprising that so little empirical research has actually been conducted on the topic, and specifically the Latino student experience.  The lack of knowledge on Latino students experience with racial microaggression is evident. Further exploration about racial microaggression and its effects on campus racial climate are necessary and has not been adequately researched. Studying Latino students adds to the knowledge base of all marginalized groups who deal with microaggressions. Researching Latino students experience with racial microaggression provides implications for higher education institutions to create a more welcoming environment for Latino students and provide additional support, policies and programs to making sure Latino students are successful and reach degree attainment.

What is Racial Microaggression?

         On today’s college campuses, Latino students are rarely exposed to overtly racist acts, but have increasingly become exposed to subtle forms, known as racial microaggression (Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Smith, Allen, & Danley, 2007). Instead of overt expressions of racism, research supports that racism has developed into more subtle, ambiguous, and unintentional manifestations in society (Chester, 1974; Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, & Tornio, 2007).

Chester Pierce (1974), the psychologist who is given credit for developing the term “racial microaggression,” stated that in analyzing racial discrimination, “we must not look for obvious acts of racism, but subtle, cumulative mini-assaults” (p. 516). Educational researchers have defined these microaggressions as subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001; Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000). Sue et al. (2007) added that whether intentional or not, they communicate hostile or negative racial slights and insults with a potential for harmful psychological impact on the target person or group. Going beyond psychological impacts, these microaggressions also have had an impact on college students’ academic achievement and overall college experience (Solórzano et al, 2000). In this study, the focus of racial microaggression was in the context of campus racial climate and the effects it had on Latino students. To examine students’ perception of racial microaggression, concepts from critical race theory and Latino critical theory were used as a conceptual framework to guide the research approach for this study. The next section discusses both concepts as it pertains to understanding Latino students’ experiences with racial microaggression.

Critical Race Theory and Latino Critical Theory

Scholars have used critical race theory (CRT) and Latino critical theory (LatCrit) to help improve our understanding of issues related to social justice and racial inequality in society. In the monograph Addressing the Unique Needs of Latino American Students, Villalpando (2004) suggested that CRT and LatCrit helps us better recognize patterns, practice, and policies of racial inequality that continue to exist in more subtle and covert ways.  These concepts have been adopted by scholars (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1998; Smith, Allen, Danley, 2007; Solórzano et al., 2000; Villalpando, 2004; Yosso, 2006) in education to discuss racialized barriers facing people of color and analyzing issues of access and success in higher education.

To address racial microaggression and campus racial climate, the researcher felt CRT and LatCrit would best serve to examine, deconstruct, and understand the racial realities within higher education (Quaye, 2008). LatCrit would also serve to understand the specific issues Latino students face as it relates to race and racism in higher education. Founded in legal studies, critical race theory draws from fields like sociology, ethnic studies, women’s studies, and education (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1998). There are five basic tenets of critical race theory: (a) the centrality of race and racism and its intersectionality with other identity dimensions; (b) the challenge to dominant ideology; (c) focus on social justice; (d) focus on experiential knowledge and lived experience of people of color and (e) the focus on historical context. (Delgado & Stefancic, 2001; Solórzano et al., 2000; Villalpando, 2004). LatCrit complements and enhances CRT by examining issues like language, immigration, culture, and other identity dimensions relevant to Latino students. Villalpando (2004) suggested that LatCrit was a valid and reliable lens through which to analyze Latinos’ multidimensional identities and address issues of racism, sexism, classism and other forms of oppression. Using CRT and LatCrit allowed the researcher to better understand Latino students’ experience with racial microaggression and campus racial climate.

Campus Racial Climate

 Hurtado’s The Campus Racial Climate: Contexts of Conflict has been widely cited as a foundational study for this topic (1992). Campus racial climate refers to the overall “feel” of an institution including norms, inclusiveness of environment, faculty interaction, student body demographics, and perceived feeling of prejudice or discrimination (Hurtado, 1992; Harper & Hurtado, 2007; Quaye, 2008). Hurtado’s study raised salient findings that racial minorities’ perceptions of a negative campus racial climate was high and that one in three college students perceived racial tension on campus. Hurtado established that students of color perceived university environments as hostile, uninviting, alienating, and “chilly.” Interesting to note, most students believed faculty and administrators did not care about fostering a welcoming campus environment (Hurtado, 1992).

The consistent theme of alienation experienced by students of color in their campus environments is indicative of a deep underlying problem that has not been adequately addressed by educational researchers. These students often feel isolated, perceive racial tension, and had a lower sense of belonging to the university (Locks, Hurtado, Bowman, & Oseguera, 2008). The recent literature continues to suggests that some campus environments are unwelcoming, more alienating than involving, and more hostile than encouraging (Strayhorn, 2008). Continued research on campus racial climate and sense of belonging is warranted because both of have been strong predictors of academic success, retention and degree attainment among students of color (Braxton, Milem, & Sullivan, 2000).

Research Studies on Racial Microaggression

         The few empirical studies on racial microaggression have focused primarily on African American (Solórzano et al., 2000; Smith, et al., 2007; Sue et al., 2008), while just one study focused on Asian American students (Sue et al., 2007). Studies have found that all students of color are subject to racial microaggression. The review of the literature revealed significant gaps, where Latino and American Indian students have not been adequately studied. It is the researcher’s intent that a study be constructed that examines the experience of Latino college students with racial microaggression. In understanding students’ perception of racial microaggression, we can find another indicator of campus racial climate and sense of belonging.

Understanding students’ of color experiences with racial microaggression begins with the work of Daniel Solórzano. Solórzano was one of the first researchers to utilize Chester Pierce’s (1974) concept of racial microaggression and apply it to college students and campus racial climate. Since then, researchers have utilized racial microaggression to analyze college students’ experience and the campus racial climate.

Table 1. Recent research studies on racial microaggression.

Researchers Population Purpose of Study Methodology Date
Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso African American College Students Understand how students experience racial microaggression, what impact it has, and how students respond to it. Qualitative- Focus groups 2000
Solórzano, Allen & Carroll Students of Color How racial microaggressions are experienced by students of color Qualitative- Focus groups 2002
Smith, Allen, Danley African American Male College Students Examine perception of racial microaggression and psychosocial effects. Qualitative- Focus groups and interviews 2007
Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, & Tornio Asian American College Students Examine the types of subtle racism direct toward Asian American students Qualitative- Focus groups 2007
Sue, Capodilupo, & Holder African American College Students Understand Black Americans’ perceptions, reactions, and interpretations of racial microaggression Qualitative- Focus groups 2008

Table 1 denotes the research conducted within the last decade on racial microaggression. Of the five studies in Table 1, three have focused on African American students, one focused on Asian American students, and only one study had Latino students as participants. All studies explored how participants experienced racial microaggression, but also attempted to answer other questions. Sue, a clinical psychologist and educational researcher focused on the psychological and stress factors found in encounters with racial microaggression. Smith, Allen, and Danley (2007) focused on the psychosocial experience and black misandry. To explore how Latino students experience racial microaggression, we must first review what literature exists on previous studies involving students of color and other marginalized groups.

Solórzano, Ceja, and Yosso (2000) examined how African American students experienced and responded to racial microaggression on predominately white institutions. The authors provided a foundational study for understanding students of color experience with racial microaggression. Participants in the study came from three elite, predominately white, Research I universities. The study utilized focus groups as the data collection strategy. In all, thirty-four African American students participated in the research study. The focus groups were divided into ten sessions.  The research study’s strength was in the use of focus groups. The results of the focus groups provided knowledge on the forms of racial microaggression found on campus and the effects it had on African American students. Solórzano, et al. (2000) stated that racial microaggression existed within academic and social college spaces. Within academic spaces, racial microaggression came in the form of feeling invisible in the classroom, sense of lowered expectations from faculty, and negative assumptions and put-downs from classmates (Solórzano et al., 2000). Outside the classroom the themes that emerged were feelings of discomfort in places like the library and academic departments. In social spaces, the participants felt unwelcomed in the student union, had an increased sense of scrutiny when planning campus events, and described hypersurveillance by campus police.

Solórzano, et al. (2000) concluded that racial microaggression created a tiring effect and increased sense of discouragement and helplessness for African American students. A major implication was that several students felt racial microaggression had affected their academic performance, leading them to “drop a class, change their major or transfer to another more inclusive university” (Solórzano et al., 2000, p. 69).

Solórzano et al. (2000) were the only researchers to argue that African American students created “counter-spaces” as a means to cope and endure the racial microaggression perceived on campus. They defined a counter-space as “a site where deficit notions of people of color can be challenged and where a positive collegiate racial climate can be established and maintained” (p. 70).

In Smith, Allen, and Danley’s (2007) study on racial microaggression, they examined the experiences of thirty-six African American male students enrolled at historically white institutions in three distinct regions: the west coast, Midwest, and east coast.  The researchers used the concepts of racial battle fatigue and racial microaggression as a framework to examine the students’ psychosocial experience at these historically White institutions. The researchers employed a qualitative methodology using focus groups, guided discussions, and one-on-one interviews to collect data.

After analyzing the data and identifying major themes the researchers established that students experienced racial microaggressions in three areas: academic, social, and public spaces. These themes were consistent with the results from the Solórzano et al. (2000) study. Smith et al. (2007) concluded that the students’ experiences with racial microaggression had led to “psychological stress symptomatic of racial battle fatigue” which included frustration, disappointment, anxiety, and hopelessness (p. 551).

Another focus of this study was examining Black misandry, the marginal treatment Black people receive because of their status in society. Smith, Allen, and Danley (2007) stated that Black misandry came in the form of stereotyping, racial profiling, hypersurveillance, and “fitting the description” (p. 571) in crime related incidents. The research suggested that these racial microaggressions had negative psychosocial effects, negative impact on academic achievement, and contributed to a negative collegiate experience. In both studies the researchers proved that racial microaggression was harmful to students of color in various manners, including feeling intellectually inferior, invisible, and powerless.

Derald W. Sue (2007), well known for his research on cultural diversity and racism in the field of psychology and counseling headed a research team to examine the Asian American experience with racial microaggression. In Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, and Tornio (2007) the researchers examined the types of subtle racism direct toward Asian American students. They wanted to explore this population and understand if there were differences between marginalized groups. The researchers used purposive sample and selected their participants through a demographic questionnaire. Data was collected using focus groups and semi-structured interviews. The study resulted in identifying eight microaggressive themes. Some of the themes that emerged were feeling as an alien in their own land, denial of racial reality, and invisibility. The authors argued that Asian Americans were not “immune to the effects of racism” and that microaggression should not be seen as a minimal issue, but rather as harmful and possessing negative effects for the recipient (Sue et al., 2007, p. 78).

Table 1 showed that the studies similarly used qualitative approaches, employing focus groups or semi-structured interviews as the means to collect data. The strength of these studies lie in using grounded theory approach where the researchers immerse themselves in the data and systematically analyze it for themes (Creswell, 2003: Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The majority of the studies in this paper focused on two types of populations, African American and Asian American and its contribution to the knowledge base for higher education and counseling practitioners. Researchers focused on effect on academic achievement and overall psychological effects.

In summary the literature on racial microaggression and campus climate has grown in recent years, however educational researchers must continue to explore this phenomenon. By expanding research studies on specific populations like Latino, American Indian, or undocumented students and other marginalized groups we can better understand what our students face on our campuses, how to provide support, and work towards an inclusive campus were students perceive less racial tension, feel a part of the community, and thrive academically.


In exploring Latino students experience with racial microaggression it was important to choose a research methodology that allowed the individual experience to emerge during the research process. This study’s methodology was developed through a review of literature on previous racial microaggression studies. This study utilized a constructivist research paradigm because it prioritizes the ways in which meaning is constructed through individuals’ engagement in the social world (Arminio & Hultgren, 2002). It also recognized that the interaction between researcher and participants as necessary in order to understand the meaning of experiences shared during the research process (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Charmaz, 2006). This especially holds true when collecting qualitative data through focus groups and/or semi-structured interviews (Morgan, 1997).

I used grounded theory as the methodological approach to study a phenomenon that has not been fully explored. Grounded theory originally developed by Glaser and Strauss in 1967, offers a systematic qualitative analysis intended to construct abstract theoretical explanations of social processes (Charmaz, 2006). Through the years, ground theory has undergone several modifications and revisions (Charmaz, 2006; Glaser & Strauss, 1970; Strauss & Corbin, 1990, 1994.) This particularly study followed Charmaz’s constructivist ground theory approach which allows the grounded theorists take a reflexive stances toward the research process and understand how the presuppositions they bring affect the inquiry.

Research Setting and Context

         The research site for this study was Seacrest Regional University (a pseudonym), a large, selective, high transfer-in public university. Seacrest is an urban predominately white institution located in the western region of the United States. When the data were collected there were over 29,000 students enrolled. Latino students comprised 22.7% of the student population.

A total of six undergraduate students participated in this study. Participants were selected based on purposive criterion with the aim of choosing a sample that typifies the phenomenon under investigation and aimed toward constructing a theory (Patton, 1990; Charmaz, 2006). Within the theory constructing sampling, maximum variation was used to insure diversity with respect to age, gender, academic major, Latino ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. All participants selected were above the age of 18. The researcher used the following questions to determine the eligibility:

1) Are you a current student at a university?

2) Do you identify as a Latino/a?

3) Are you over the age of 18?

4)Are you able to participate in a study that will take 40-60 minutes of your own will?

5) Have you ever experienced racial discrimination at SDSU?

To recruit participants, I emailed student organizations the purpose of this study with my contact information. Within days I had students sign up for various focus groups. Students who completed the demographic questionnaire online were then called and assigned a focus group time and told their participation in the study was strictly voluntary. All participants in the focus group self-identified as being Latino, born or raised in the United States, and agree that racism and discrimination against people of color exists in the United States.

The participant pool for this study included three female and three male participants. Three participants were transfer students, all other participants enrolled into Seacrest out of high school. A majority of the participants (5 of the 6) described their socioeconomic backgrounds as “lower-class.” Of the participants, three were seniors, two were juniors, and one was a freshmen. Three students were foreign born; one becoming a US citizen during high school and two indentified as “AB 540” students. The term “AB540 student” is used to describe any student who enrolls on campus through the California bill signed into law in 2001. This bill allows any student, including undocumented students, who meet specific criteria to pay in-state tuition at California’s public colleges and universities (e.g. California Community College, California State University, and University of California system).


Data Collection

Data for this study was collected through focus groups. This method of collecting data captured the richness of the participants’ experiences allowing the social group interactions to facilitate the development of meaning (Morgan, 1997). Focus groups have been found to be an effective method of collecting in-depth information about unexplored concepts and phenomena (Morgan, 1997). Solórzano et al. (2000) stated that focus groups have four strengths that enrich this type of research process. The four strengths are (a) ability to explore and discover concepts and themes about a phenomena where exploration is lacking, (b) add context and depth to the understanding of the phenomena, (c) provide an interpretation of the phenomena from the viewpoint of the participants in the group, and (d) observe the collective interaction of the participants (p. 64). Focus groups have been found especially helpful in successfully exploring racial perception and a number of topics dealing with race (Solórzano et al., 2000; Sue et al., 2007).

Following the procedures established by Morgan (1997), I incorporated a funnel approach that stressed low-level involvement from the moderator emphasizing broad, open-ended questions allowing free discussion and then progressing towards more structured discussion of specific questions. The duration of the focus group ranged between 60 and 75 minutes. During the focus groups I asked the participants to reflect on and discuss experiences with racial microaggression and share interactions that had influenced their perception of the campus climate (See Appendix A for Focus Group Protocol). For example some of the questions I asked during the focus groups were: “In thinking about your daily experiences on campus, can you describe a situation in which you witnessed or were personally discriminated against?, ”What are some ways you believe people treat you differently because of being Latino?,” and “Have you ever felt discouraged to express your culture?” Upon completing, each focus group was audio taped, fully transcribed, and analyzed using HyperRESEARCH qualitative data analysis program.



Data Analysis

Charmaz’s constructivist grounded theory approach was used to investigate the concept of racial microaggression. Data analysis for this study followed the techniques and procedures proposed by Charmaz (2006) for developing grounded theory. As part of the ground theory procedure I coded the transcripts through open, axial, and selective coding to analyze the action and process in question. Through the coding process I broke down data, created new meaning, and then put the data back together in different ways that told a theoretical story about Latinos experience with racial microaggression (Charmaz, 2006). At the same time, I wrote detailed analytical memos to record my thoughts and interpret the emerging data. Using grounded theory methodology allowed me to explore the primary research question: How do Latino college students at one large public predominately white institution make meaning of racial microaggression. Grounded theory was chosen for its usefulness in exploring relatively unexplored phenomenon, ability to synthesize rich data on a particular phenomenon using appropriate coding procedures, and capacity to generate a new theory that is grounded in the data collected (Charmaz, 2006).

Analysis consisted of three major types of coding: open, axial, and selective coding (Creswell, 2003; Strauss & Corbin, 1990).  Open coding is the initial part of the analysis concerned with identifying, naming, categorizing and describing the phenomena.  For the open coding process I thought it was best to do line-by-line coding then move into incident-to-incident coding. Through line-by-line coding I broke down the data asking myself, what was the process at issue, how could I define it, and what were the consequences of the process. From there I utilized incident-to-incident coding to help me study the incidents of racial microaggression found in the transcripts. Comparing incidents would help me in the second stage of the coding process.

After all of the transcripts were initially coded, I utilized axial coding to look at the data for casual relationships, relating codes to each other, relating categories to subcategories, and specifying the properties and dimensions of a category (Charmaz, 2006). Axial coding allowed me to group the coded incidents and concepts into categories. This process began as I reread the fully coded transcripts along with the initial codes and analytic memos that I had writing during the initial coding phase. Concepts and incidents that appeared to be related to the same phenomenon were grouped together and given a code that captured the essence of this phenomenon. For example, the concepts, “college status questioned,” “feeling like an outsider,” and “oh you come here” were grouped under the category “You shouldn’t be here.” Likewise, “lack of Latinos in the classroom,” “intimated of peer interactions,” and “culture excluded in the curriculum” were concepts that comprised the category “Invisible in the classroom.”

Finally, I performed selective coding indentifying the core category, and relating all other categories to the core category. The core category for this study was racial microaggression that existed in the campus climate. Following Charmaz’s (2006) guidelines I used selective coding to choose one category to be the core category, and related all other categories to that category. From that point I developed a visual model (see Figure 1) that explained how all the variables worked around the core category.


FIGURE 1. A Conceptual Model of Latino Students Experience with Racial Microaggression.









The following sections describe the findings from the focus group data. The findings from this study are addressed in three ways. First, I examined the various ways Latino students experience racial microaggression. Then I explored and categorized the effects racial microaggression had on Latino students. Lastly, I described how students respond to the racial microaggression[EF1] .

The students’ in this study established that racial microaggressions exist in the campus environment in many forms. These covert, cumulative assaults include both verbal and nonverbal assumptions. In this study they ranged from stereotypical assumptions to questioning students college status or having lowered expectations for Latino students.  From the data analysis four major categories emerged describing different types of racial microaggression that take place on campus. These categories were: Invisible in the Classroom, Language as a Barrier, Accommodating to Others, and “You shouldn’t be here.”

Invisible in the classroom

The students in the study consistently described feeling invisible in the classroom. This category emerged as the strongest factor that influenced the way they experienced racial microaggression. Students in the focus group indicated the invisibility of Latino students and their culture in the classroom. This category encompassed two sub-categories, the lack of numerical and cultural representation in the classroom. The first section describes being physically absent in the classroom and the second details the lack of culture in the class and curriculum.

The lack of Latinos in the classroom was a major issue in these students’ experience with the university. Many students discussed the feeling of being invisible within the classroom environment and on campus in general. These students felt that the lack of physical representation in the classroom translated into being ignored, intimated, and discouraged from participating in classroom lectures, forming study groups, and engaging faculty members. A Latino student noted, “you see one or two Hispanics in a class that has 20 or 30 Caucasians, of course you feel intimated.” The lack of relatable faces and support was an issue that many participants described.  For instance, a Latina student described how she felt isolated in many of her classes and was too intimated by others students to try to form study groups with them. These students saw the lack of Latinos as obstacle in being involved in the classroom.

In order to not feel invisible in the class, one student purposely chose courses that were ethnic based. That student mentioned, “[in] most of my classes I don’t see any Latinos. She continued on by saying: “I purposely picked an English Literature class; it was a comparative to slavery class. I purposely picked my schedule like that because I just thought I was gonna just be surrounded by Whiteness in the classroom.” Others brought up the demographic percentage of Latinos and stated, “even though we are 23% of the university, you don’t see [us] in the rooms.” Students echoed the sentiment, one shared, “in some classes I don’t see any other Latinos.” For these students being physically invisible in the classroom created on unsupportive environment with culturally insensitive faculty and students that hindered class participation.

The students in this study also commented that their experience as a Latinos was missing in the course curriculum. For instance, a female student stated: “My major is public health and my culture is not covered, my ethnicity is barely touched when we discuss diabetes and high blood pressure.” Many students felt that they were only represented in ethnic studies and felt invalidated by not being represented in other courses. On student mentioned “[I see] no culture in the classroom, not unless its an ethnic specific major. I’m Chicano, I shouldn’t just be in Chicano Studies, I should be everywhere.”

Within this subcategory students stated they felt invisible in the content being taught and absent in the curriculum. Some mentioned that when responding to questions in the classroom, their cultural views were not valued or validated.

“In a sense you are allowed to raise your voice, [but] if you say something different then the [dominant] culture then it’s wrong.”

The lack of diversity in the classroom, also made these students perceive that their classmates were less aware of the Latino culture. Many felt the need for a supportive environment to discuss stereotypes that were being perpetuated in class. One student spoke of her experience in a sociology class, “Again, in class, [we were] talking about welfare, and the stereotypes of who is on welfare were about Latino.” The lack of Latinos in the classroom led these students to feel discouraged from participating, hesitant expressing their cultural views, and intimidated when trying to interact with other students or forming study groups. Many students echoed the sentiment of one student who said, “If could make friends with a group of people in my class, I would be more engaged, listening to the lecture and volunteering as well.” What was most compelling about this finding was the amount of discouragement created by feeling of invisibility. The students shared experience after experience on how they felt invisible in the classroom and absent in the curriculum. Their stories identified that without out adequate physical representation, the classroom can seem hostile and unwelcoming.

Language as a barrier

Language as a barrier describes students experience with being subtle discriminated against for having an accent, using the Spanish language, or possessing a varying communication style. This category was formed from students description of being discriminated because of their accent, slighted based on communication skills, and other students not accepting bi-literacy. For many Latinos being bilingual is a part of life. They code switch and are able to interact with English and Spanish speaking peers. Several of the students interviewed in this study reported issues with feeling discriminated against because of their usage of language[EF2] .

The participants reported feeling bad, excluded, and even slighted because of their use/misuse of language on campus and in the classroom. A few students reported that they were discouraged from participating in class discussion because of their accent. One student shared, “They look at me in class, I know its because of my accent, I feel kinda bad.” Students commented that they felt discouraged from participating and voicing their opinion. A Latina shared, “We all have a different accent and some people do discriminate against that.” These students stated that both students and faculty alike treated them differently because of their accent.

Students provided examples of racial microaggression in faculty-student interaction. One student stated, “[I] feel like professors doesn’t acknowledge me or provide the same quality of response.” Adding to the conversation, another student commented, “it has mainly to do with my accent and knowing that I am Hispanic, because I have noticed that some other people, either Asian or Caucasian, ask the same question and she kind of acknowledges them a little bit better than me.” This negative interaction with faculty seemed to instill a sense of inadequacy in their communication skills and left to them being silent in the classroom. The majority of the students reported negative feelings and sense of discrimination based on their accent. The participants in the group shared their experience and how difficult it is to interact with White students and faculty.

Another subcategory of Language as a Barrier was non-Latino students’ inability to accept bi-literacy in the classroom or on campus. A few students commented that people had asked them not to speak in Spanish in the class. One student described that other students have said to him “this is California, speak English” or “don’t speak Spanish, because I don’t understand it.” White students could not understand that the Spanish language was part of these students culture and a distinct way to express themselves.

Accent[EF3]  and issues with bi-literacy were forms of racial microaggression that affected the students in this study. The students in the study had mentioned multiple times that they felt discriminated, slighted, and ignored because of their accent, and communication style/skills.

Accommodating to others

Accommodating to others emerged as another category that illustrated the participants experience with a campus environment that called for assimilation and the adoption of the dominant culture. Concepts that created this category were: “playing their game,” “accommodating to the dominant culture,” “told you need to assimilate,” “learning a system,” and “feeling like you can’t express your culture.” Several students interviewed indicated that upon entering the university they were constantly been forced to accommodate to others or assimilate to the “white” culture. Latino students in this study provided numerous examples of how they felt pressured to accommodate to others standards. The essence of this category can be described by a Latina students experience with accommodating:

“I think that higher education is definitely accommodating to somebody else’s standards and that you need to learn how to play their game. And there’s a difference when, your like um, ya I’m here, but I’m learning to play your game and that doesn’t mean I’m welcomed…So I’ve had to learn how to play this game, learned how to accommodate to their standards, to the norm, um, and sometimes I feel inadequate.”

Playing the Game

Students described the campus and higher education in general, as a “system” they had to learning and play well in order to succeed. The participants shared a range of experience within this category. A first-year student shared,  “this educational system is very oppressive and we need to change that.” While a male transfer student described his experience as a give-and-take process of assimilation. He shared: “I learned that you need to adapt, if I knew how to play the system, I would succeed. I’ve done that cuz if not I wouldn’t be here.” Beyond learning the rules to navigate the college environment, these students also shared a conflict embedded in the reason people attend college.

Participants described the pressure of having a differing philosophy on attending college, academic majors and career objectives. The students in this group shared that they came to school for the “love of getting knowledge” and “ability to make a difference in their community. These students felt that the dominant culture existing on campus opposed those views. Participants shared that felt pressured by students and faculty to choose educational path that led to monetary compensation. One student shared, “I chose my major not because I’m probably gonna get a good job out of it but because I actually want to learn” and followed up with “to me, everyday there is a reminder that you need to study something, it doesn’t matter if you like, so long as you can get a good job, …and to me that’s not what I want to do.” For these students, it was evident that their differing philosophy on education conflicted with those of the dominant culture.

Accommodating to others was not something readily accept by these students. The students in the study had a strong understanding of their ethnic culture, expressing a rich heritage, having a beautiful language, and strong ties to the United States. The students in this study collective stated that expressing and sharing their Latino culture was important and necessary on campus. Many felt that the campus was culturally insensitive and required them to adapt to the dominant culture.

The students in this study learned early on that academic preparation was not the only necessary aspect to be successful. These students experience illuminates a need for Latino students learn how to navigate an unknown environment and how to effectively integrate their cultural values with those existing on campus.

You shouldn’t be here[EF4] 

The students in the study related several instances of racial microaggression into a feeling of “you shouldn’t be here.” This category was raised from a theme after collapsing similar codes. Throughout the interview process students stated that their college student status was consistently questioned, their intentions at the university were questioned, many assumed that they were community college students or inquired, “how did you get to state? The students’ experience with this racial microaggression; created a sense of inadequacy in their academic abilities, feeling of underestimation, need to defend why they deserved to attend the university, and perceived that they were unwelcome.

Several of the students indicated that a key issue was feeling like they “shouldn’t be here.” This stemmed from students being questioned if they attend the university or asking if they were visiting from a local community college. Several[EF5]  students interviewed indicated that students, community members, and university police questioned their college student status on a consistent basis. One student shared, “I am constantly asked, when I’m in school…oh, do you go to City College or are you visiting? After this comment, the students in a particular focus group shared their experience with being treated like an outsider or someone that should not belong to the university.

Within the category, students expressed that their academic merit and abilities were questioned. One student shared, “It happens on a very regular basis. Like, oh no, I come to San Diego State. People are shocked, like really. [I say] ya, I can achieve academically just as well as you can.” A Latina student shared, “when they ask if I’m a student here, it’s an underestimation of your… capabilities or even your potential.”

Many of students experience with this racial microaggression lead them to a sense of not being welcome and feeling like an outsider. One student remarked, “Sometimes the thing I get from other students, is that I’m not welcome here, basically.” A first-year student commented, “People I guess sometimes, subconsciously make you feel like this is not the place for you.” When people questioned them about their purpose on campus, a few students felt that their academic merit was invalidated and made them feel inadequate.

Responding to Racial Microaggression

From the students’ experiences with racial microaggression three responses emerged. They were: becoming desensitized, discouraged, or resistance. Students who felt desensitized stated that racism and discrimination was something they had faced their entire life and it was not going to affect them in college. These students described being desensitized as “numb to racial insults,” “making racism acceptable in everyday life,” or “not noticing anymore after learning how to ignore it.” Being discouraged was another response to the racial microaggression experienced. A student shared they felt “slowed down and discouraged” from the racial microaggression she has encountered on campus. Students shared that they were discouraged from interacting in the classroom with peers and faculty and being involved in campus activities. This discouragement also affected academic achievement. A Latino male stated, “Now, it seems that I live up to their expectations, I get Cs, when I could do better.”

The last response to racial microaggression that emerged from the data was resistance. Being academically successful and graduating from Seacrest was the strongest form of resistance that emerged from the data. Students shared that staying on campus although the climate was negative was necessary. One student commented, “I think I stay here in resistance and then I also think to show other people, like my nieces and nephews, my community that like, look you can do it, you can do it.” Resistance in this context also meant proving people wrong. A Latina student shared, “I got to prove people wrong that think that I can’t do it. I think that’s a big thing in me, proving people wrong.”


         Despite the steps taken to establish trustworthiness in this study, there are several limitations to note. First, selection bias, sampling was aimed toward theory construction, not for population representativeness. Second, the findings of this study were context-bound, only one research site was involved and one type of student population selected. Therefore, the findings cannot be generalized beyond the research site and participants. The sampling size consisted of only six Latino students and did not include all Latino ethnicities. I will continue recruiting participants beyond the scope of this class, to increase my sample size. Lastly, as a Latino researcher, there is a need to test assumptions, learn about the participants’ views and try to understand their life experience from their perspectives and not simply follow preconceived ideas.



In this section, I provide a summary of the study, discuss my findings as they relate to the published literature, offer implications for practice and concluded with possible directions for future research.

The primary purpose of this study was to explore how Latino students experienced racial microaggression on a predominately white institution. Four forms of racial microaggression emerged from the focus group discussion. In addition to identifying the forms, I sought to understand how students were affected and responded to these racial microaggressions. This study confirmed that Latino students on a predominantly white institution do experience racial microaggression and perceive the campus climate as negative. The students in this study raised many salient points for higher education administrators. These different types of racial microaggressions experienced by the students in this study created a very negative campus experience causing feelings of isolation, poor transition, or failure to integrate to the campus successful.

Each category in the findings section provided evidence that the campus environment at times was perceived as negative and chilly to Latino students. These students shared their experience at Seacrest Regional University and a collective voice stated their invisibility in the classroom, experience with discrimination based on language, and constant pressure to accommodate, while attending a campus were they felt unwelcomed.

The lack of Latinos in the classroom affected academic achievement and social integration. Many of the students felt their classmates were cultural insensitive and perpetuated stereotypical beliefs. Most of the students described the need for faculty to create a safe environment to discuss, challenge, and make more students aware.

The findings of this study confirmed the published literature; however some new insights emerged that are particular to Latino students. Researchers have study the impact of racial microaggression on students of color over the last decade. Solorzano et al. (2000) found that African American students on PWIs felt invisible in the classroom and were discouraged from interaction with White peers and faculty. These types of microaggression were similar to what was found with the Latino students’ experience. Academic underestimation was found both in this study and Solorzano et al. In contrast, Sue et al. 2007 established that Asian American students had experienced an “ascription of intelligence” were it was assumed they were good at math and science. Sue also found that Asian American students felt invisible and treated as “second class citizens.” This study, and previous ones, show that racial microaggression exist in the campus climate and has a negative affect on students of color. What is particular about this study is how students perceived subtle discrimination based on language and accent. Language, particularly being bilingual, was an issue for Latino students on a PWI. This study illuminated the discrimination based on language experienced on campus and the sense of inadequacy in their communication skills it created. Further exploration on Latino students experience with discrimination based on language is warranted and will be expanded.

This study provides strong support that racial microaggression exist on campus and creates a negative environment for Latinos. We can no longer afford to ignore the racial microaggression that exist on campus. Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in college. If we are going to see Latino students persist and be successful we need to understand what influences their achievement and struggles. This study showed the impact of racial microaggression on academic achievement and social integration. It is important to continue researching what effects Latino students since our goal is to provide an environment that promotes success.

Implications for Practice

Taking the findings of this study, I have compiled recommendations for universities such as Seacrest Regional University to take in order to improve the campus climate for Latino students. It was my hope that by researching Latino students experience with racial microaggression on a predominantly white institution I could shed some light on what aspect of the campus climate is found to be negative. These recommendations can help higher education institutions to create a more welcoming environment for Latino students and provide additional support, policies and programs to making sure Latino students are successful and reach degree attainment.

Culturally relevant pedagogy curriculum

On any given campus, a student primary interaction is in the classroom; they have weekly sessions with multiple faculty and peers. It is important to highlight the importance of faculty in creating an inclusive environment for Latinos. Faculty need to understand the racial realties of their campus, how omitting culture from the curriculum affects non-white students, and how to facilitate discussions on diversity. For example, in the study one student shared that he took a “History of Astronomy” believing the course would touch on the rich history of the Maya and Aztecs with astronomy. He stated that he was surprised that Egypt was barely covered in the course and it was primarily about “white peoples” achievement. He stated he was extremely disappointed that other students could not learn about his culture’s achievements. This is one example were faculty could infuse the vibrant culture that exists on campus. Many universities have begun to expand the opportunities available for faculty to learn new teaching strategies on how to work with diverse student. These Teaching Centers/Institutes provided faculty with strategies for creating a more inclusive curricula and supportive environment.

Make cross-cultural dialogue and interaction an institutional priority

The need for dialogue and cultural awareness is necessary at all institutions of higher education. This is especially true at PWIs. Higher education institutions need to make a commitment to providing programs to increase dialogue and cultural awareness among students. Much of the racial microaggression experienced on campus can be decreased with improving cross-cultural dialogue among students. In a diverse society, students need to be able to relate, understand, and work effectively with people of various backgrounds. It is now higher educations mission to help all students become culturally competent. By expanding the awareness of all students, the campus environment may seem more welcome and inclusive for diverse and underrepresented students.

Examples of cross-cultural dialogue can be workshops provide by the university that promotes cultural competency. Another way to increase interaction is to provide a diversity awareness workshop during new student orientation. This could provide students a forum to begin to explore being on a campus with diverse student population. At Seacrest Regional University, the students mentioned most of the current diversity programs available are attend primarily by students who are already “culturally aware.” Institutions need to do a better job of making sure that White students are participating in cross-cultural events sponsored by the university.


Implications for Future Research

Most of the attention on college issues with Latinos has been focused on preparing and enrolling them into higher education institutions, now is the time to shift focus on how to retain and create environments that promotes success for Latino students, and all underrepresented students. I completed this study to understand the ways Latino students’ experienced racial microaggression at a predominantly White Institution. Researchers should explore this phenomenon with more ethnic specific students (e.g. Asian-Pacific Islander, Native American) and expand the focus beyond one particular institution. I would hope that future researchers would have the ability to choose researcher sites beyond one public university on the west coast.


This study resulted in a greater awareness of what issues Latino students experience in the college environment. Researching Latino students experience with racial microaggression provided implications for higher education institutions to create a more welcoming environment for Latino students were they can be successful and persist towards graduation. In order to achieve a successful environment for these students we need to reconsider our basic assumptions of higher education and work towards constructing new learning environments for all students to be successful (Ortiz, 2004). This study illuminated that the environment for Latino students needs to be improved through innovated programs and services. If we do not begin to focus on these issues, Latino students will continue to face experiences like the ones shared in this research study. As the enrollment rate of Latino students continues to increase, educational administrators need concentrate on ways to make the campus environment friendly, welcoming and creating a climate for academic success and social integration.


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