How do I navigate through a (racially) diverse space?

Image: A racially diverse group-taken from U.S college website (https://www.ccd.edu/org/transfer-success-center)

I’ve heard international students express their disappointment after coming to U.S colleges towards the lack of interactions between different races and cultures – “Asians (tend to) stay with Asians”, “Domestic students(mostly white) don’t want to interact with international students” etc. This disappointment has become a rather typical response to a certain image that many international students see in U.S college brochures: a group of racially-diverse students engaging in a seemingly intellectual conversation. In general, cultural/racial diversity and acceptance is a recurring theme that continuously crops up in college websites, reinforcing a fantasy students at U.S colleges push aside racial divisions and inspire each other with diverse perspectives.

Regardless of whether such disappointment is valid, (which is also something that’s been bothering me, but I won’t delve into it here since it’s not the main focus of this blog), living in Japan- a homogeneous country that is quite intolerant of people who deviate from the norm, racial diversity- or diversity in general-was appealing enough; I was immediately drawn to such an unfamiliar, yet respectable concept, when it was presented to me as a commodity in U.S college brochures. It didn’t help that I had been exposed to oversimplified theories like “making friends across border, culture, and race is the first step towards global peace.”

Let’s face it though- at Carleton, the majority of people whom I (an Asian) hang out with are Asians. I’m not saying this is a bad thing really. I value their companionship and am particular about not labeling and dismissing them as just “Asians”- they are more than that.

However, there are times when I feel like I am reconstructing those racial divisions the international students refer to.

Sometimes it happens during meals; I consciously take a sweeping glance across our mostly-Asian breakfast table, and when there is a white person, she becomes a token.

Or when I’m talking to non-Asian students, I sometimes catch myself imagining other people’s gaze- hoping that I might be seen as a person who is not afraid to engage with the “other” , who doesn’t fit into the stereotype of “Asians sticking with other Asians”. And I won’t hide the fact that I feel proud of myself for ‘diving headfirst into the “otherness” and for doing the “right thing” to foster “racial diversity” that I once yearned for. It makes me feel like I am being a good person.

But this comes with self-disgust. Regardless of whether race is involved or not, talking to people for the sake of gaining insights and hearing exotic stories has always seemed rather repulsive, if not unethical to me. I remember a certain girl from my high school who went around initiating conversations with “interesting” people/those who deviated from the “norm”. Being a twisted cynic, I was quite skeptical of her motivation; specifically, I suspected that she was driven by a desire to enrich her world view and to feel like a good person for mingling with  the “other”. This was not something I approved of. I wanted to believe that friendship should be an end in itself, so it bothered me when I saw it being treated as an overt means to improve oneself.

But what should I do then? Not taking any action will only perpetuate racial division. Unless I initiate conversations with the “other”, I will never be able to understand and relate to them.

For a while, I have been trying to figure out what to do about this. Recently though, I’ve become more okay with the somewhat unavoidable exotification/commodification I do when I talk with non-Asians. Not that I no longer think my behaviors are problematic, but there’s something that has stuck with me from the podcast “Am I an Asian-ny trinket to you?: Mixed Race in America”[1]. For a brief moment, Maureen doubts if she might be guilty of commodifying her date-“the degree to which you’re seeing someone as a full, individual human is always kind of odd in that setting anyway because if it’s just a brief encounter, who knows?” Perhaps, this “commodification” is very much normal. When I don’t know anything else about a person besides the fact that we belong to different race, that will be something I can’t ignore. And even after I’ve known them for a while, just as Amairany said in class that interracial dating will always be more than just dating, interracial interaction/friendship in general will mean more than just interaction/friendship for me, partly because I’m not used to it. I just can’t conveniently disregard the racial stereotypes (“Asian stick with Asians”- in this case) once I’m exposed to them. Even though I’m fairly sure that my motivation for talking to non-Asian peers doesn’t stem only from the desire to feel like I’m an accepting, liberal person, I will probably continue to doubt my motivations; It’s already too late not to.  

*Strictly speaking, the “other” I use here differs from “other” used in bell hooks’s discourse. First, I am not white. To them, I might be the “other”even. But as an international student, I don’t think of myself as the “other” that is marginalized. I don’t consider myself qualified to speak on behalf of PoC community because back in my homogeneous country, I was the majority, so I have never been marginalized because of my race institutionally and/or historically. I don’t think I can viscerally relate to experiences PoCs go through in America- I can only imagine. It’s not that I have never experienced discomfort here, but I chose to come here regardless, and in fact, I even sought discomfort because it had been commodified as something that would help me grow as a person. Plus, I always have a home country to go back to.

Endnote:

[1] Alex Laughlin, “Why it can be hard to date as a multiracial person.” The Washington Post. May 1, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/postnation/wp/2017/05/01/dating-mixed-race-microaggressions/?utm_term=.a0d6b445489d (accessed May 26, 2017)

Bibliography:

hooks, bell. Black Looks. New York: South End Press, 1992. c2.“Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance”

Laughlin, Alex. “Why it can be hard to date as a multiracial person”.The Washington Post. May 1, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/postnation/wp/2017/05/01/dating-mixed-race-microaggressions/?utm_term=.a0d6b445489d (accessed May 26, 2017)

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