Surviving and thriving as a student of color at a less than diverse university

By Asha Jeffers, ARP guest contributor

Editor’s note: In this week’s “Ask Anti-Racist Parent” thread, we’ve been discussing how children of color fare in homogenous environments. Reader, Asha Jeffers, an African-Caribbean-Canadian student, offered this article, originally written for a college magazine, that highlights her experiences as a person of color in a predominantly white institution and shares advice for tackling the associated challenges. Many of you have children that are younger than Asha, but several of the issues she raises are relevant to youth in high school and younger grades. Thanks to Asha for sharing.

Whether you’re an international student, a big-city kid heading to a small-town university or pretty much anyone used to a certain level of diversity, adjusting to an environment that lacks the ethnic variety you are used to can be a difficult experience. For the university student, this is particularly true. After all, it’s tough enough to get used to the totally different lifestyle and learning style of university. The added pressure of being a person of color in these circumstances can make things even more stressful. Still, university can be an incredibly wonderful, enriching experience and is often the point in a young person’s life when they really start to think about important things like race and gender. For these reasons, as a (very) recent graduate who attended one of those less-than-multicultural universities, I wanted to share some tips that helped me and many of my friends minimize the frustrations and maximize the good times of the university experience.  I believe these tips are useful not only for students of color but their friends, families and professors who want to understand some of the issues they may face. 

(I’m Canadian and this article as originally written for a student magazine at my university, but I think most if not all of my points are still applicable to students in the US.)

If you don’t want to answer a question, then don’t.

A lot of people will likely ask you “Where are you from?” during your time at school.  Sometimes it will be asked in a rude, intrusive or dismissive way.  The logic is “you are different, and I need to explain to myself why you are different,” regardless of whether you are a 4th or even 6th-generation Canadian (And there are people of African and East Asian descent who are.) or an international student. Certainly, some people will ask out of genuine interest in you as a person.  It is never, however, some perfect stranger’s right to ask this. Thus, if someone does ask, and you don’t feel that they are asking out of interest in you, but rather out of selfish curiosity or the need to define you, then it is not rude to tell them that it’s none of their damn business. They are the rude ones in this situation and blowing them off is at least teaching them a valuable lesson, and saving you time and breath.

You can speak any language you damn well please. any time you please.
      
People who get mad or annoyed at you for speaking your native tongue to someone else who speaks your language are eavesdroppers and you should feel no need to oblige them.  Lots of white Canadians travel all over the world without picking up more than a couple of key words (and vulgarities) in the languages of countries they visit and they would never consider speaking Japanese to a fellow white Canadian they meet in Japan, no matter how long they’d been there.  Expecting you to do it is ridiculous, not to mention that it just serves to perpetuate the dominant culture.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to hang out with other people of color.

It’s a lot of work explaining yourself to people all the time. Sometimes it’s just really nice to be with people who simply understand certain things about where you are coming from and what that means to you.  That whole thing about “when in Rome do as the Romans do” is bull, especially since the Romans were a pretty f-ed up society.  I’m not saying it is better to only hang out with people who are exactly like you, I’m just saying you shouldn’t feel bad if you make fast friends with other people of color, based partially on that connection.

That said…befriending people you identify with ethnically is easy; having a more diverse group of friends takes work (but it’s totally worth it!)
      
Those of you from very cosmopolitan cities may be used to having friends with a wide variety of backgrounds.  Maybe you are used to visiting friends’ houses and hearing a different language at each one.  At most universities, thanks to the wide variety of ethnically-based associations you can join, it turns out to be fairly easy to make friends who share your same background. But it’s a bit hard to recapture (or experience for the first time) the experience of having a group of friends that puts one in mind of the United Nations. “Sticking with your own” is safe and when people are in a new place (i.e. university), safety sounds pretty nice. But even if your school isn’t the most diverse university around, there are still people from all over who are potentially awesome and, trust me, it’s worth the effort trying to expand outside of your comfort zone and meet them.

You are not the spokesperson for your ethnicity.
      
You do not, listen to me closely, you do not have to be the perfect/model/archetypical Pilipino/Tamil/Bolivian/Ghanaian just because there aren’t that many other ones around. All you have to be is you. You are not an embassy. If someone decides that every Indonesian does such-and-such simply because you do it, that person is an idiot. You are not responsible for that. You don’t have to get all “cultural” to live up to other people’s expectations. You also don’t have to give up your cultural practices and assimilate in order to convince people that your people are “accommodating” and “just like everybody else”.  Neither extreme is good.  People are complex beings and rarely do they accept or reject everything that is generally associated with their culture and you need not pretend you are any different.

Exoticization is just no fun.
      
For many of us, dating is not a particularly easy business under the best of circumstances.  A certain unhappy pitfall that people of color can find themselves dealing with is the problem of exoticization.  Exoticization as it relates to romantic relationships can be defined as at least one party in a relationship being interested in the other primarily for his or her “differentness,” based on a stereotypical perception of the person’s culture. A person from any ethnicity or gender can exoticize someone, but the unifying factor is that exoticization tends to be based on a comparison to the mainstream cultural representations of bodies, values and practices.  Some rather unpleasant examples of exoticization include liking someone because their people are supposed to be submissive or have higher sexual stamina or have less body hair or have bigger body parts and so on. It really, really sucks to have someone like you not for you, but what they expect or want you to be.  The worst part is that sometimes it takes time to figure out that this is the case and by that time you’ve already invested into a relationship.  A relationship based on exoticization can’t work because eventually, the exoticizer will realize that the other person doesn’t fit so neatly into their fantasy and the exoticized will get sick of pretending to be someone they are not.

Some things that might tip you off and help you to avoid emotional pain: Your partner brings up your ethnicity all the time, even when you think it has nothing to do with the matter at hand; he feels like he is an expert on your ethnicity due to his connection to you; she gets very defensive if you call her out on a stereotypical notion.

When you are away from school, stock up on culturally specific food/stuff, because it’s likely a lot of it won’t be available where you are.

This one is pretty self-explanatory.  The city my school was in was pretty limited when it came to certain things and this seems to be the case for a lot of non-metropolitan areas.  I, for one, stocked up on Bollywood movies, shwarmas and West Indian-style bread when I was away in a bigger city.  Never underestimate the power of comfort food.

It’s not your job to educate everyone, but if you want to, go for it.
      
Just because you were born where you were born, looking the way you do, does not mean you have a lifelong duty to fix all of the racism of the world.  There is far too much, and eventually we all realize that tackling the racism of even one person takes a lot more energy and time than many of us can give. Remember, therefore, that your first duty is to yourself and your personal health and happiness.  However, if you do want to make it your business to work actively against racism and other forms of oppression (And truthfully, it’s hard not to when you have to deal with it daily.), then make sure that you have a dependable network of support that will help you deal with all of the emotional and sometimes physical effects of such work.

Hopefully these tips help you to avoid some unfortunate pitfalls and make your first year the awesome experience that it can be!

Asha Jeffers is beginning coursework for an MA in cultural studies and critical theory, focusing on second-generation cultural production.
 

 

 

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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