The Diversity Conversation Colleges Aren’t Having

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A report by Karin Fischer for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

When Kwame Gayle first came to Macalester College from Jamaica, he didn’t understand why some of his American classmates of color were angry.

The Americans challenged college policies they felt didn’t meet the needs of minority students. During Black History Month, they pushed to invite activists and advocates to speak. Gayle, one of the organizers, wanted to feature Black performers instead.

“I cringe now,” said Gayle, thinking of himself at 18. “I can see how ignorant it was.”

Now in graduate school at Worcester State University, Gayle said it took studying in South Africa his junior year for him to see more clearly the parallels between apartheid and the systemic nature of racism in the United States. “It was literally my moment of being woke.”

Many students from overseas have an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of race and racial identity in America. Their perspectives can be shaped by stereotypes of African Americans and other minorities in popular culture or reflect very different perspectives on race and ethnicity in their home countries. For some, coming to the United States is the first time they are told they are “Black” or “brown” or “Asian.”

Yet, few colleges pay specific attention to the gaps in international students’ awareness of race or to the culture shock they can experience at suddenly being viewed through a racial lens. Of more than a dozen international students or graduates who spoke to TheChronicle, none could recall having substantive discussions of race as part of their international orientation. Though their institutions may have offered diversity education broadly, that did not take into account the differences in foreign students’ backgrounds or experience. Instead, students said, they were left to figure things out on their own.

This could be a critical blind spot for colleges as Black Lives Matter protests bring new attention, nationally and globally, to America’s struggles with racism. International students make up about 6 percent of the American college population — and at some institutions their share is much larger. If they are left out of the diversity conversation, they may hesitate to speak up about race for fear of being misunderstood. And, since education isn’t solely about what happens in classrooms, they may be denied an important learning opportunity.

Shontay Delalue, who is now vice president for institutional equity and diversity at Brown University, studied the experience of African and Caribbean students at American colleges for her dissertation. Many struggled with being racialized in the United States. “They saw themselves as being African, or they had a tribal identity — and all of a sudden, [they find] ‘I’m Black in America,’” Delalue said.

Abigail Smith, who is from Jamaica, said that when she was the only Black student in some classes at Randolph College, in Virginia, other students would turn to her for the African American perspective. Being asked to weigh in on an experience that wasn’t her own sometimes made her uncomfortable. “That’s not my culture,” she told them.

In countries that are racially homogenous, race is not an identity marker or a social distinction. For that reason, adjusting to the new reality in the United States can be dislocating, something the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes about in her novel Americanah. While Delalue’s work looks at students from Africa and the African diaspora, students from East Asian countries, like China and South Korea, can go through a similar adjustment, she said.

Other countries may simply have a different approach to talking about race. In France, the constitution bars differential treatment based on “origin, race, or religion,” and people don’t publicly discuss racism or racial identity, said Ilyssa Yahmi, a doctoral student in comparative politics at Temple University who grew up there. That doesn’t mean discrimination doesn’t exist. “In France,” said Yahmi, who was born in Algeria, “people look at your name and your ZIP code.”

She sees the ability to embrace hyphenate identities — to identify as African American or Asian American — as a strength of the United States, whereas in France, citizens are expected to adopt a single national identity.

But other students can view Americans’ racial lens as oppressive and confining. Delalue said many students she spoke with found it “overwhelming. They said you talk about race too much.”

The experience of international students who are Black can be affected by their exposure to American popular culture. In the movies and television shows that are projected around the world, African Americans are frequently portrayed as drug dealers, criminals, and welfare mothers. That can affect how international students see their classmates — and how they themselves wish to be seen.

Smith, who earned a graduate degree at the University of Connecticut and now works in residence life at Pace University, sometimes second-guesses her decision to assert that she was Jamaican. She wonders if by making such distinctions, she sent the message that she wanted to be seen differently from Black Amercans and in that way was “othering” them.

Still, Delalue said international students’ identity frequently evolves as they spend time in the United States. That’s true of Gayle. When he first came to Macalester, he saw himself as Jamaican. Now, after his time in the United States and teaching abroad in Botswana, Japan, and Myanmar, he uses different terms of identification: Black Afro-Caribbean or pan-African.

He also has been grappling more with discrimination back home, where people can be advantaged or given more opportunities based on the lightness of their complexion.

In the United States, Gayle has suffered firsthand from racial profiling. He was twice stopped by police while a graduate student at American University, in Washington, D.C. The officers told him he “fit the description” of the suspect they were seeking, he said. Attending primarily white colleges had, at one point, given Gayle a sense of security and safety, but the incidents cemented the idea that “regardless of my heritage, when I walked in these streets, I was Black,” he said.

Black international students are not the only ones who find that in the United States their race becomes an issue. The largest group of international students in this country is from China, and they, and other Asian students, have been singled out for discrimination. Kelly Wagner, a program manager for global engagement at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said when Asian students, alarmed by the coronavirus outbreak in their home countries, began early on in the pandemic to wear face masks, they were attacked and taunted.

May Lopez, a graduate student at Michigan State University from Ecuador, wishes her college orientation had included discussion of what it could be like to suddenly be a minority.

May Lopez, a graduate student at Michigan State University from Ecuador, said she and her husband, a Ph.D student from the Czech Republic, are often treated differently. “He actually has more of an accent than me,” she said, “but he has blond hair and blue eyes. He looks more American.”

When Lopez first came to Beloit College as an undergraduate, in fall 2011, orientation leaders at the Wisconsin liberal-arts college talked about culture shock, but they didn’t tackle what it was like to suddenly be a minority.

In the cafeteria, many of the workers were Latinx; they looked like Lopez, but their backgrounds were very different. “I’m not like them, but I am,” she said. At the local Walmart, sometimes other customers would mutter something about “speaking in English” when Lopez passed by — though she had learned the language as a small child.

What Lopez didn’t know was how to talk about race. In Ecuador, she had attended an American school, studying an American curriculum. Still, she said, the United States’ struggles with race were framed as history — she learned about slavery, the Underground Railroad, and Huckleberry Finn. “Racism was sad, it was upsetting, and it was super in the past,” she said she was told.

In her senior year of college, the original Black Lives Matter protests began, and vandals wrote racial slurs on the Beloit campus. In town-hall meetings in the incidents’ aftermath, Lopez finally felt like she had been given the right words: microaggressions, macroaggressions, systemic racism, equity. “I remember feeling relieved that I finally had the language to talk about the things I saw happening around me,” Lopez said.

For Smith, studying sociology gave her the tools to talk about identity. Randolph was small and tight knit, but the international programming focused more on food and culture, not race and identity. If she had been a STEM major, she mused, her understanding might have stopped there.

Other students look to friends or classmates to help fill in the gaps. But that can put the burden of education on those who already must grapple with the impact of racism in their own lives. Salome Apkhazishvili, a Fulbright scholar from Georgia, has been living with her African American boyfriend’s family since earning a master’s degree from the University of Southern Indiana. Despite the protests dominating the news, Apkhazishvili rarely brings them up, fearing she’ll say the wrong thing.

Instead, she listens to podcasts and reads articles and books, like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, to try to become a better ally. “I am not prepared to talk about inequality, especially about race,” she said. “I consider myself almost as a kid who has to learn.”

Apkhazishvili said events such as the death of George Floyd, whose killing by police in Minneapolis sparked the protests, have punctured her image of the United States. While she is grateful to have gotten to study in America, “you see poverty and inequality, and that is a painful disappointment.”

The inequities exist in higher education as well, said Gijung Kim. Growing up in South Korea, he had little experience with racial diversity. But when he came to New York City after completing his mandatory military service, his English-language classes drew students from around the world. At Stony Brook University, where he transferred to finish his degree, the student body was less diverse. And by the time he enrolled at Columbia University, to earn a graduate degree in social work, he was the only non-white student in many of his courses.

“I realized that the higher I get, the less diversity I see in American society,” Kim said. “And for the first time, I felt uncomfortable.”

Still, others see good in Americans’ current willingness to reckon with racism. Yahmi, the Temple student, went to a protest in Philadelphia. Her parents were frightened, but it was peaceful. “It is not just a protest, but a real movement,” she said.

Yong Li, a Chinese graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said the events of the past few weeks, however difficult, have spurred him to make a change. He plans to go back to college to study diversity education so that he can help educate other international students about diversity and inclusion in the United States.

Experts such as Delalue say that colleges must do a far better job educating international students about race. At Brown, she has worked with the international recruiter focused on Africa to talk with prospective students about social issues, including race, in America. Talking frankly early on can help ease students’ transition so it’s not so much a “shock to the system,” Delalue said.

On campus, one of the most significant challenges is organizational: At many colleges, international offices, with their roots in study abroad and global research, are housed on the academic side, while diversity offices may be located within student affairs. This structural issue can hinder collaboration — and in some instances, the two offices may compete for scarce resources. “There should be synergies between diversity education and internationalization,” Delalue said, “but too often, they are seen as different, separate tracks.”

A decade ago, an American Council on Education program attempted to narrow that divide, emphasizing the offices’ shared goals of bridging difference and fostering greater understanding. One of the participants in the ACE program, the College of Wooster, has brought international and multicultural programming together under a single Center for Diversity and Inclusion. The joint center — which also includes religious life and sexuality and gender inclusion — ensures that the college takes an intersectional approach to all its work, said Ivonne M. García, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer.

Wooster has been more intentional in its efforts to help international students in their transition to college life, such as including more anti-bias training in orientation. The joint center has also helped staff members gain a greater understanding of the diversity of international students themselves, rather than seeing them as having a single perspective on issues like race. “We want to bridge that gap on both sides,” García said.

Some institutions have hired staff members within the international-student office to focus specifically on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. At the University of Wisconsin, Sharece Bunn, assistant director for international student engagement, leads a team focused on building more diversity training into programming. It’s not enough to give students one-time exposure to ideas about race and culture, she said. She compares that approach to making a New Year’s resolution — it doesn’t stick.

At Michigan, Wagner was hired as part of a broader push to add staff members focused on diversity and inclusion to “underserved” offices. Being part of a cohort has helped with coordinating plans and sharing ideas, she said.

During international orientation, Wagner organizes “social justice 101” sessions, and throughout the year, she holds lunchtime workshops on topics such as the history of Martin Luther King Jr. Day or coded racial language and blackface. The goal isn’t for students to embrace a particular perspective but to have a deeper, more sophisticated understanding of American diversity and inclusion.

Yuezhong Zheng, an international program coordinator at Arizona State University, saw Michigan’s approach up close as a master’s-degree student there. In the wake of the protests, she was alarmed to see narrow views of the demonstrations crystallizing among international students on social media — some students, for example, characterized them as “disruptive and violent” without seeming to understand the root of protesters’ anger.

She quickly organized an hourlong online chat to give students a safe space to ask questions, even ones they might worry are dumb. Turnout was strong, and Zheng, who is originally from China, plans to continue the discussion about social justice during regular sessions in the fall semester. “It’s hard work, and it’s difficult to have this conversation,” she said. “But I hope this doesn’t stop international education from taking it on.”

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