Love, Life Stories

Here’s what I didn’t know about race until I got to college

The lack of racial and religious diversity definitely made moving to a much more diverse college a bit of a shock.

My mother often bemoaned the lack of diversity in the small town that she had decided to move to from Washington DC. “DC had so much culture, and so much racial diversity,” she would say. But her family was in Massachusetts, and after years of living apart from them she wanted her children to grow up near them.

I don’t fault my parents for moving to a small town. It was a safe place to grow up, and I was happy there. But religiously, too, most people were Christian, Jewish or non-religious, with very little diversity of faith. The lack of racial and religious diversity definitely made moving to a much more diverse college a bit of a shock.

There was only one high school in town, and only a handful of people of color in that high school, so in general my high school had the same problems with lack of diversity as my town did.  I don’t think that many people in my school were outright racist, but I do remember small things.

“Oh yeah,” someone in the year below me said of one of the class council candidates “He’ll definitely get elected to the class council because his family is Indian, and to not elect him would seem racist.”

I don’t remember how I responded to that, or if I had a response.

Apart from these microaggressions, the largest issue was just a lack of other perspectives. The few minority students we had were not vocal about racial issues (not that I blame them, such things are always hard to talk about, and I imagine especially so in the high school years). So I never learned much about diverse perspectives, or about societal racism and what it looked like. The concept of microagressions, for example, was one that I would not have known in highschool. At times I felt frustrated with the lack of culture in our small town, but for the most part I had no feelings about the lack of racial diversity, it was more like a lack of feelings.

When I moved to college this changed suddenly. For one thing, it was an all-women’s college which changed the perspective to a much more female one. But I was also surrounded suddenly by so much more racial, socioeconomic and religious diversity than I had ever known.

At first this was a struggle to get used to mostly on a personal level. I was excited and wanted to learn about ways of life that weren’t my own. I wanted to make friends, and to hear about all different kinds of life experiences that I hadn’t heard about before, so my first impulse was to ask people around me who obviously had a different background than I did about their life and culture.

During orientation I approached one of the students in my orientation group who was wearing a headscarf, because I hadn’t ever seen anyone wear one in my hometown. I knew, vaguely that there was a religious or cultural reason, but I also wasn’t sure what it was.  “Why do you wear your headscarf?” I asked, out of the blue, to someone who I had really only exchanged the usual orientation platitudes with. She didn’t know how to answer, and I immediately realized that it was awkward and moved away. To this day I still remember who it was, and it still makes me cringe to think of it.

I realized later that  questioning someone without any context never leads to good results (no matter how sincere your intention is to learn) because it’s hard for any one person to explain their entire culture at the drop of a hat. These conversations are possible, but often require familiarity with a person, or a group setting that encourages such discussions. In my second year I found a group called Faith and Feminism where intelligent, diverse women from my school met to talk about their lives. This was the type of setting that I could learn from others, and I ate it up, returning every week until the school year ends.

[bctt tweet=”These conversations are possible, but often require familiarity with a person. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

I also became aware of group voices demanding to be heard. Midway through my second year of college with the Black Lives Matter movement in the wider world and the push for a new multicultural space on campus many of the minority groups on campus began to get a lot more vocal. This was a new experience for me, and this time I found myself in more of the position of a listener, and learning how to acknowledge my own privilege in racial and economic matters. These were not cultural differences I was learning about, but racial wrongs that had been and still are perpetuated today. This larger process of listening and learning involves a lot of uncertainty and guilt, and is still something that I’m working on.

[bctt tweet=”I found myself in the position of listener, learning how to acknowledge my own privilege in racial and economic matters.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Learning through online interactions is often not ideal, but it also became another way that I learned about diverse perspectives during college. Some things were positive things: thought-provoking art and stories that friends would share on Facebook. Other times Facebook pages such as the Humans of New York page would open my eyes to perspectives and experiences I’d never had before.

One day I stumbled across my university’s class confessions page. Here students could talk about how coming from low-income backgrounds impacted their time at school. “Second week of classes, and let me tell y’all something: I don’t have to worry about food for the first time, ever. I can’t even fully describe what this means to me and what it will mean for my education…” someone wrote anonymously on the site. I had never had to seriously worry about whether my family would have food, so for me this was a new perspective, and knowing that it was one of my siblings at school made it  hit that much closer to home.

Others online perspectives were much more negative. I’ve never had YikYak, for example, but now and again word of anonymous racist or classist comments that the app easily enabled would surface.

[bctt tweet=”Learning through online interactions is not ideal, but it became another way that I learned about diversity during college.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I’ve learned so much about diversity, and both how to engage with individuals in conversation and how to I am by no means done learning. In the end this learning has been part of the college process and just as important to me as the academic learning I’ve done.