DISCLAIMER: I want to note that the feedback from the individuals interviewed were based on their unique personal experiences and may not speak for all students. Some of the respondents interviewed would prefer to remain anonymous. Therefore, the people who are named should be treated with consideration and respect of their anonymity.
You could say I was a bit surprised when my friend said that to me. Well, actually, I was a sobbing mess. I admit, not my crowning achievement of adulthood, but I digress. “Your racism is too ‘American’” It’s been month or more since she made that comment, and yet it still felt fresh, uncomfortable and unsure. Of course, I completely disagree with the aforementioned statement, and emotionally I am satisfied with my conclusion, yet, here I am.
Since I arrived to Mt. Holyoke during the spring semester, I was with a relatively small group of students, most of whom were international students. Since then my close circle of friends became, without intention, from around the world despite my domestic upbringing. Before you assume I’m trying to decorate my resume with my natural aptitude towards achieving diversity in my environment and press the back button, let me assure you I’m not. So here I was sitting with a group made up of people from South Asia, East Asia and West Africa. Essentially, we were butting heads. One of my friends was showing a video featuring a white British man imitating accents from around the world. All of over the world. Let’s just say it didn’t quite match my pallet of humor, sparked primarily when he was imitating African American Vernacular English. Although I thought I would be joined in my disapproving silence, I was instead aghast at the chuckles and guffaws from my friends. I quickly shifted from confused to self-righteous as I queried why they found this video amusing, while I perceived it as nothing more than offensive and racist garbage. I was confident that I would be the victor of this pseudo debate between my friends.
However, as the debate escalated, I slowly realized that they had no concept of the racism that I have identified with. It was then that my friend made the final blow, “Your racism is too ‘American’”. For some reason that hurt more than intended (which of course none at all) Wait. Was I-- being the ignorant one? Was I not considering their perspectives to support my definition of racism? Perhaps what I am saying to international and even domestic students is no surprise. Much like white allies jumping to their friends of colors exclaiming “Eureka, I “get” racism now!” I may come off as redundant or obnoxious. Yet was this bastion of liberal learning- whether a student organized protests, or critical social thought applied in academic settings that I have constructed, was not as all encompassing as I thought?
In the United States, people of color make up over half of this nation. Ever since this country became the “United States”, people of color have concurrently endured the consistent oppression of the result of European colonialism. People of color have faced countless levels of aggression directly as well as with subtle prejudice- however well meaning. Over 200 years of oppression has resulted in people of color being of the defensive or sometimes the offensive when culture is the topic at dinner parties. We have conditioned ourselves to memorize the facts and to defend ourselves when being questioned. Essentially, people of color in the United States have to don an unshakeable front when discussing race and consequently attained a persona of sensitivity in these situations. My friends and family often criticize what they consider my abrasive and combative nature, born out of the desire to right the wrongs of oppression. And although I disagree with them, I see how at times it can seemingly become incredibly frustrating to be faced with its stark realities. It has taken a toll with my family relationships, my closest friends and my trust in people in this country. I would be lying if I said some of my stubbornness is due to my frustration with this conundrum.
So at Mount Holyoke College, one of the most “diverse” campuses in the United States, with over 30% coming from abroad certainly exhibited that we are the models of diversity. When I conducted the interview from students regarding the definition of racism in the U.S. and in general, opinions were similar in defining racism with many people used the word “systemic.” When it came to addressing the issue of racism, Lina Zuluaga stated that “Racism is, first of all, systemic…It’s a very real system, as it pertains to the United States, but also elsewhere. Where it puts privileges of a certain race above another… And I think using the word systemic allows us to identify social, economic, even just like life barriers that are set against a group of people.” Many people stated how it needed context and with that makes the label of racism much more intrinsic and elastic than most people think. Many domestic students had very well thought answers when it came to answer this question, as one student pointed how racism isn’t a universal definition as “It’s very different in other counties…. so certainly white supremacy is a universal concept, but it’s not necessarily like white vs. brown every single time... White people can certainly commit racist acts against other “white people” Or people that Americans would consider “white”. “ This student felt that white supremacy was universal yet the accordance and sentiments of racism was more subjective to the cultures and histories of the area.
When I asked international students on their perception of racism a lot of them came back with the answer as more broad and textbook. How one international student put it “Essentially it’s a certain group of people that are minorities that are being discriminated against.” Whereas domestic students pointed out much more quickly on how white supremacy and privileged groups played into racism. The rhetoric of black and white tensions was used a lot in the interviews as a way to compare their racist experiences in the U.S. One student was stated “We feel like those microaggressions are because people just too lazy to get us (laughs) like aggressions in there…. But I can’t really speak for African Americans, I do feel that they have it worse more.” It felt as if for international student, there is a sense of exclusion, or rather a sense of uncertainty when it came to sharing even just approaching the topic of racism in general. An international student stated that “I feel like the whole idea of racism is an issue here, but back where we come from it exists, but people never thought of it as “issue” because most of these countries are developing countries. They are focusing on issues that are much more important for them than this whole issue of racism. So it isn’t really a talked about issue back home. So this entire thing, we got exposed to it once we came here.” We are quick to include international students of color as a minority, which is true, but what they experience and face is different from the minority experience here in the United States.
When I questioned domestic students on their personal perception of international students regarding the topic of addressing racism on this campus, one student replied “I definitely say there is at the very least, miscommunication between the American POCs and the “international” POCs… you’re from a really homogenous society where American s consider you a person of color but where you’re from you’re the dominant group. So how can you be defined as a minority? I think that transition is very difficult and very confusing, and I have great empathy for “international” people of color who have to come here and meet that idea…so coming here, I think it’s a learning curve. And I think that’s probably very difficult.”
However one international student tried to interpret the miscommunications that came with the collateral of cultural collisions, as she said “Usually, not always of course, but usually the international students who come here are middle class or upper middle class who can afford to a good enough school, like a private school, in their country. And it’s a lot of money to go to one of those schools, which is going to give the resources to even apply or even just know about the colleges and programs in America…. In those countries, the issues are more along the lines like tribe territory conflicts or castes or classism. It’s more regional but almost never racism. At least not the way America defines it, because it’s a heterogeneous country, but that’s not the case in those countries.” Some of the international students did agree about the presence of white supremacy in their own cultures. It seemed what made it similar to how Americans would classify racism was the over glorification of whiteness. A student pointed out how the years of British colonialism in her country lead to this notion that whiteness was a benchmark of achievement. She stated that whites would face “prejudices”, but not racism because of the deeply internalized inferiority. I found this similar to how domestic students defined the difference between racism and prejudices for white and people of color in the U.S.
From the interviews I conducted, I realize that these people can’t speak for all, but I want to try to start breaking the walls when it came to racism. From what I concluded about the interviews, it seem like there was this recognized issue of speaking up about racism and defining it. Although what surprised me even more was the courtesy and consideration that every student had when it came to speculating the feelings and struggles of domestic or international students on campus. With that, domestic students need to adjust our aggressive and sensitive approach on the subject of racism. When it comes to elaborating and educating people on racism, the toll is always greatest on people of color, but we have allies that are invaluable to us that do face problems like us, just differently. International students have to be a little bit more patience with domestic students’ obligations on filling in what was lost in translation. I also want to close on a request for readers, as if there was any strong disagreements or discomforts with this article to please message me personally, as I understand this a sensitive topic may have not included the many perspectives and insights that I didn’t come across.