An international student’s perspective on race relations on campus

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Photo by Kaity Chaikowsky.

In the wake of the George Floyd protests and the subsequent social unrest that has arisen in response to the tragedy, it has been immensely saddening to witness the recent events that have cast a shadow over race relations and policing in the United States. My heart and prayers go out to my friends and for the future of their great nation.

I myself am not an American but have deep connections to the U.S. through my education at the University of Dallas. I am an international student of Chinese descent hailing from Singapore. I transferred to UD in the summer of 2016, joining my sister in pursuit of a liberal arts education. 

We both graduated in 2020 and are immensely grateful for the liberal arts education we received, and for the bonds we have forged with our classmates and professors in Texas. It was a shame we had to leave so soon.

As a citizen of a young but vibrant multiracial country, Singapore is no stranger to racism and social tensions, though our issues with discrimination are different than those in the United States. 

However, as many in UD have noted that the voices of our international community are often left unheard, I aim to provide an “outsider/insider” perspective about concerns around racial discussions, offer examples of racism on campus and perhaps even give a possible long term solution to help bridge differences within our small but tight-knit community.

Though a difficult topic to broach, the UD community overall is not racist at heart. 

A vast majority of my peers, professors, and staff have always been immensely respectful and even inquisitive about my life in Singapore. As an alumnus from our university rooted in the Western tradition, I am grateful for UD’s thought-provoking education that has led me to gain a better understanding of my own culture and identity as a Singaporean. Though not always the case, I am also appreciative of the willingness of our student body and teaching staff at times to tackle difficult topics such as race and culture, even if we have not always agreed.

However, many including myself feel that our community-at-large has struggled with discussions on race. Particular experiences in my time at UD have highlighted such negative tensions. 

These examples are by no means blatant acts of racism but do indicate a level of abrasiveness within the UD community when engaging in such racial discussions. Though these incidents are disheartening, President Thomas Hibbs, the recent results of our diversity poll, and numerous members of our community have rightly indicated that silence and ignorance will never be the solution to racism.

Aside from racially charged epithets from intoxicated students (a common occurrence), the encounter I remember most vividly occurred during my freshman year. I was having dinner with a bunch of newly acquainted friends, and I shared my difficulties in my Spanish core class. They questioned me about my second language, Mandarin, as they knew from a previous conversation that most Singaporeans are bilingual. 

I shared that I had attempted to substitute my language requirement with Mandarin, but could not due to complications that would arise from finding a Mandarin speaker that was able to certify my proficiency in the language. I nevertheless made it clear that I accepted the outcome, as I was more than happy to pick up Spanish as a third language. However, one of my friends seemed insulted by my attempt to use Mandarin as a language substitute.

When I probed further, he bluntly stated that he believed that I should not have even asked to use Chinese as a language requirement substitute. He argued that as I was entering a Western liberal arts university, I should have known that such an institution could not accept non- Western influences. In particular, he believed that Asian culture contradicted core Western principles such as the dignity of the individual and freedom of expression. He recommended that I leave UD if I maintained this attitude. We quickly dropped the controversial discussion and shifted to other topics.

Another similar instance occurred during a conversation in my sophomore year. A UD student brought up a social media controversy where a high school student of Caucasian descent had worn a Qipao (also known as a Cheongsam), a traditional Chinese dress, to her prom. 

Unfortunately, photos of her outfit circulated on social media, where some Asian-Americans accused her of appropriating a culture that was not hers. While I made it clear that I was not insulted by her choice of dress, this UD student argued that these criticisms were racist towards whites, as the same could be said of Asians “appropriating Caucasian culture” by wearing denim and suits, among other articles of clothing.

Personal experience has also revealed that students find it difficult to engage in discussions on race-related issues. For instance, a classroom discussion on how Hegel’s philosophy helped spur Eurocentric and dehumanizing views towards the non-Western world was met with complete silence from most of my peers. 

While concerning, I would wager that a vast majority of the UD community is aware of the inherent immorality of racism. Catholic social teachings have always vehemently rejected any form of discrimination as dehumanizing and immoral. 

In recent years, both Pope Francis I and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI have decried all forms of racist sentiments. Our current Holy Father has responded to the George Floyd protests, condemning racism and violence. Cardinal Ratzinger shared similar views in a 2008 speech in the Vatican. He noted the continued prevalence of racist sentiments in modern societies, and that no conditions exist for such views to be justified. Not limited to the highest order of the Catholic Church, the condemnation of racism from countless lay people throughout the United States is indicative of Catholicism’s desire to see a world free from all prejudice. 

Furthermore, while not a well-known document by most Catholics, the Nostra Aetate declaration from the Second Vatican Council indicates the Church’s immense respect for other faiths across the globe. While it does not directly address the issue of racism per se, Nostra Aetate reiterates the Church’s position against “discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion,” and recognizes our shared humanity through man’s search for a higher purpose – as seen throughout all civilizations. Our Catholic identity clearly condemns any and all forms of prejudice. 

However, personal experience has indicated that as UD is a liberal arts university rooted in the Western tradition, one could argue that any recognition of the negative aspects of Western civilization (in this case: racism and the legacy of colonialism) could be interpreted as critical of the West, and hence antithetical to UD’s mission. 

While not the only obstacle in engaging in discussions on race at UD, I would argue that this conundrum has led to a “no man’s land” in racial dialogue on campus. Even though the brutal legacy of colonialism justifiably remains an unavoidable stain on Western civilization, any critique of the West and/or the introduction of non-Western influences could be interpreted as an attempt to undermine the very principles that UD is based upon. The occasional racist epithets I have heard on the Mall in response to the playing of Korean pop music is an example of such sentiments. 

Compounding this issue is an emerging hostility towards any form of racial dialogue in the United States. The real-world consequences, like losing your job from espousing views that could be deemed as racist, have led many to dismiss the expression of anti-racist declarations as merely “pandering” to US mainstream society. As UD is an institution that often prides itself on its counter-cultural principles, some members of our community share similar sentiments with regard to racial issues.

In keeping with that spirit of counter-culturalism — in contrast to the fatalistic perceptions of race relations in the U.S., evident in the rise of “cancel culture,” I believe that UD is in a unique position to potentially be a standard-bearer for race relations on American campuses. As a small liberal arts university, we have a level of social and administrative flexibility that other colleges do not have, and as such can experiment with introducing changes. While I recognize that change can be a taboo subject in our community, I believe that small incremental steps to improving racial dialogue need not distort UD’s identity. 

I humbly suggest we consider the introduction of a class on racial dialogue. Given the potential controversy that such a class might generate within the UD community, it need not be a compulsory addition to the Core, but rather an optional one-credit class to engage with cultures within and beyond the United States. The aim of this class would be to foster mutual respect between the various beliefs and identities within UD, without compromising our Catholic and Western foundations. Mutual understanding of other cultures need not translate to a complete dismissal of our own. 

Strongly rooted in the Western tradition as we are, I believe that UD should place equal emphasis on the positive and negative aspects of Western civilization. Though I acknowledge the unwillingness to engage in a critical analysis of one’s own history, the importance of self-reflection has always remained a crucial exercise per our Catholic tradition. 

As Americans celebrate their independence, they can be proud of their great nation. Though issues like slavery, internment camps and mass incarceration (among others) indicate that the United States has not always recognized the dignity of all peoples as inherently equal, most Americans have always valued their nation’s declaration of the equality of all human life through its founding documents and ideals, an aspect of the American identity that its people do and should continue to hold dear. 

As an institution and community that embraces the pursuit of truth and justice, UD should always strive to combat racism. In doing so, we acknowledge an unalienable truth: our shared commonality through the struggle of the human condition, indicative of our equality as God’s people.

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