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NCORE & Facing Race – Kim Laney

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If there’s one word that I would use to describe my experience at NCORE, it would be “validation”. Growing up, the words “diversity” and “multi-cultural” were never used by the people in my environment. I spent my childhood and adolescence in either Maine or Japan, neither of which is known for their diverse communities. I’ve heard a lot of people complain about having a predominantly white community or school, but I’d like to ask them to imagine living in the whitest state in the entire nation. Add to that being surrounded by the second and third whitest states in the United States (Vermont and New Hampshire). Not only is my state almost completely Caucasian, but almost all of the out-of-staters wandering in are also white. The minorities in my graduating high school class consisted of 4 minority students. I was among the maybe 3 people in my high school of 800 students who identified as Asian American.

I explain my background because it tremendously affects the way I interact with people of color, and how I approached this conference. It also affects the way I view U of R, which most people see as “too white”. For me, my experience at college has been mind-blowingly diverse. I remember walking into Pre-O and practically falling over from the view. I met my first Indian-American and Latina-American, who later became my closest friends. I had conversations with black people for the first time in my life. But what honestly shocked me the most was meeting Asian-Americans for the first time, most notably the Eastern-Asians. This is going to sound a little crazy, but it was the first time that I heard “full Asians” speak English without an accent. It blew my mind beyond belief! It’s hard to describe, but it was as though my brain wasn’t able to connect two and two together. The face didn’t match the voice. Even to this day, I (embarrassingly) confess that it feels odd to speak with an Asian-American who speaks without an accent.

Although it’s hard for me to process, this experience was what peaked my interest in diversity issues, especially regarding Asian-Americans. I wanted to know what it was like for other minority students who came from a similar background. Some of the sessions I attended discussed exactly what was happening in my mind. The speakers discussed how many minority students are viewed as “forever foreign” because they aren’t seen as part of the Caucasian-American experience and history. It’s so odd to realize that I view the minority students in a similar way, and that my mind has been brain-washed in a way. All the TV I watched, the history lessons I learned, the magazines that I read didn’t usually include any Asian-Americans. For me, it’s a constant reminder of how much work there still is to do.

Going into the conference, my main goal was to explore different minorities that I never heard about, or had consistently only gotten one angle on. For example, I made it a point to attend conferences that spoke about modern issues facing Native Americans. My education had (very) briefly skimmed over the Trail of Tears and early colonization, but I wanted to know the issues that they faced here and now. The sessions were absolutely fascinating. I heard their point of view on casinos, support for Native American students in higher education, and how they were portrayed in history. I asked about the history of their family names, and it was amazing to hear the different tribes answer accordingly.

My favorite presentation discussed how Asian-American Pacific Islanders (AAPI’s) are increasingly left out of diversity initiatives. There was a diversity initiative at U of R called that did just that. I heard from many different people that though they were a few AAPI’s in the group, the point of it was to host black and Latino students. AAPI’s were allowed to come, but UR wasn’t reaching out to them. Many sessions discussed how wrong it is to exclude the AAPI community, because of the unique issues they face. Language barriers are a large factor they pointed out. I can’t imagine coming to the US as a Hmong refugee from Laos who has zero English skills. They pointed out how most things in the US are English or Spanish, neither of which most immigrant AAPI’s are native speakers of. A lot of AAPI’s I spoke to at the conference spoke about their experiences supporting their family when their parents couldn’t speak English. I felt so lucky to have an American father, especially when I see how much my mother has struggled with English. Thinking about how AAPI’s are missing out on scholarships and different support systems really angers me. To apply the “model minority” blanket statement to all AAPI’s is both ignorant and outrageous. The more I read the information on AAPI’s, the more I see that the community is not “okay”. The AAPI community is extremely diverse in many factors, such as ethnicity/culture, economic status, and education level. What I also found interesting was that most of the studies conducted on the AAPI community don’t differentiate between different generations. Many of the wealthy AAPI’s are in their 3rd or 4th (sometimes 5th) generations. Clearly the Chinese family that has been in the US for multiple generations is most likely going to be better off than the Vietnamese family that just immigrated. The presenter also mentioned that there has been surprisingly little research done on AAPI’s because of the “model minority” myth.  I hope that the future will bring more support and understanding for the AAPI community, I especially hope that we get past the “model minority” status, because it’s one of the obstacles that has been holding us back.

At the Facing Race conference, I attended sessions that focused more on the intersections of race with other competing identities. I went to a session that discussed the dual burden of the LGBTQ identity, which is not something that I can personally relate to. However, it was amazing to hear their experiences with their dual identities. The person who I found to be most interesting was a half-Chinese, half- white panelist who identified as transgender. I thought it was so brave of them to come out to their Chinese side of the family, who ended up being less than accepting. If I identified as LGBTQ, I highly doubt that I would ever come out to the Asian side of the family, so I thought it was wonderful that they found the strength to do so. Though the outcome wasn’t the best, it means a lot to me that they had this courage, and still had a strong support system of loving friends. I also met a Filipino man who identified as gay, and we discussed the difficulties of living up to the standards of many Asian families as an LGBTQ person. He directed me to the “BasicRights” Youtube channel, which interviewed families of many different ethnic backgrounds. I watched all of them, and was especially pleased by the inclusion of the Native American families. It’s with the simple resources and connections I ended up gaining that I am so thankful for these conferences!

At both conferences, I definitely noticed the lack of focus on people of Middle-Eastern, South-Asian, and Pacific Island descent. I wonder that if the largest racial conference in the United States wasn’t offering sessions on these minorities, how much support were they receiving in their schools and communities? Arguably, the people who slip through the cracks are the ones who need the support the most. My goal is to learn more about the experiences of these minorities in America, which began by splurging on a few books that were being sold at the conference. So far, I’ve managed to get through a couple, and my next stop is “A Different Mirror” by Robert Takaki, which discusses the history of minorities in the US.

Overall, I was actually surprised by the amount of new information that I learned. Many people have told me that they think that race is an issue that has been beaten to death, and should be less emphasized. I would have agreed with this statement (to a certain point) because I do think race is sometimes talked about too much in terms of the Black/White Paradigm. I sometimes notice that people around me think that racial diversity = black and white. I’ve had people say to me “wait, you’re biracial? You don’t look black at all!”. How have we come to so oversimplify issues of race? There are clearly many obstacles that black students must face, but I hope that we can eventually acknowledge the unique issues that other minorities face as well. I’m hoping that as the different minorities in America begin to expand, our discussions of race and ethnicity will expand beyond this, and will acknowledge and validate other experiences more. Learning more and addressing the issues of other minorities is what made these conferences so exciting and fresh for me. Being at these conferences gave me hope for the future of America, especially when I saw how many universities sponsored people to go. Clearly, this is a pressing issue on the minds of many, and I hope that we can continue to have spaces where people feel comfortable enough to discuss these issues. 

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