Shouldn’t You Be Flipping My Burger? The Big “D” in Academia

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My student is Hispanic.  Correction, he’s El Salvadorian.  I’ve discussed him before. He’s awesome.  No matter his skin color, he is one cool kid.  He and his mom arrived on the bus with all of his stuff at 4:30 a.m., went to my house, slept for a few hours, and then we made our way to campus with his belongings to check him into this dorm, get his financial aid done, check with the bursar, head to a big box store for random school supplies, and get his mom back on the bus back to NYC at 2:30 p.m. Trooper doesn’t describe these two people.  His mom wouldn’t get back to the city until the next afternoon.  My student and I finished the day by unloading/unpacking the rest of his room and I think we both crashed like the Exxon Valdez that night in our respective houses/dorm room.  I checked in with him the next day to see how he was and he was making friends, writing cover letters for part time jobs, and was on his way to get his computer set up for the university system.  He is a champion. Not for doing these things independently, but for enduring his move in.

While moving him in, we went to the lounge to set up his computer system and a man (a parent I assume) popped his head in and asked us, “aren’t you supposed to be flipping a burger for me?”  He made a point to walk through a closed door just to cause trouble. That takes balls. Big ones. With a giant helping of idiot on the side. I hope his child doesn’t model that behavior. We were shocked, I didn’t even respond and my student merely smiled and waved at him. Who the eff was that guy?  Why would anyone make a point to enter a room just to throw a racial slur?  I’m sure we could wax on this all day and I’m sure it would be a waste of time.  Needless to say, I was furious and I could not believe that within an hour of moving this student to campus, someone was throwing racist prose his way. Since he clearly came in to cause a stir, saying nothing was the best course of action in this case.  You may disagree but in that moment, arguing wouldn’t have accomplished anything, this man wanted to get a rise out of us. Not giving him one was the smartest thing to do at that time.

Discrimination in academia is something that I’ve been plagued with. In real life, I’m 100% Korean and was adopted when I was six months old.  I am an American citizen.  I can speak English.  I have a name you can probably pronounce and no, I don’t need to renew my I9 to be in this country.  My teeth are the same as anyone else’s and in case you were wondering, I am supposed to be here (although in blogger world there’s really no ‘here’ but that’s here nor there at this time).  Why the qualifiers?  Because since moving to XYZ university I have been asked on more than one occasion if I’m American, if I can speak English, if I have a name you can pronounce, and yes boys and girls, I was refused service at a dental office because of my skin color.  I overheard the hygienists in the hallway bickering about who was going to look at my perfect, white, not a cavity in sight teeth and they so nicely used the descriptor of “the yellow skinned lady.”  I left immediately and no, I don’t have jaundice.

What is happening in this country?  I feel as though we’re going backwards instead of forwards.  Without making it too political we’re arguing about abortion rights, women in the workplace, and now race.  Is it over sensitivity?  Is it just plain stupidity?  Is it a life force bigger than you and I?  I continue to struggle with my own skin color and identity and have never had more trouble than I have in the past four years.  Why is this?

Academia is an area where there should be no discrimination.  We are all here for a few things:

  • Ourselves (if we’re being selfish and brutally honest)
  • The field we’re studying
  • The benefit to the knowledge base
  • And once in a while you make some money

That’s it.  Simple things.  You could throw tenure into the mix but I feel like the vast array of colleges, universities, and other educational institutions all do the tenure thing differently.  They ARE in business to teach, educate, transform, research, publish, mentor, and maybe even build a retirement fund.  No where in that previous sentence is there any tone of “let’s be mean because you’re not the same color, religion, value, moral, or any otherwise silly predictor different” but for some reason, this country is worse than ever about differences.  The slices are so small. Silly things are getting in the way.  It’s oozing out of my tv every day, nit picking, back biting, it’s like two old female hens having a pecking fight in the barnyard.  It’s trickling down to our younger generations, it’s making our older generations look foolish, and most of all, it’s discriminating against people who are just as smart and deserving as anyone else.  I know my student deserves to be at this university.  He is one smart cookie and it doesn’t matter what kind of cookie, he’s really effing smart.  He’s a baller and I mean that in the best sense of the word.

When did discrimination get back into the drivers seat?  Some would argue that it’s always been there, but from where I’m standing right now, it seems to have become much more amplified and I think some tolerance should be on everyone’s grocery list.  Even my own family member was watching the Olympics with me and said, “those athlete’s don’t look very American.”  My reply, “what does that even mean, we’re American and we’re Asian.  I can’t believe you just said that.”  Their response, “I guess you’re right.”   So, what does an American look like?  If we lined up 100 people of different races, ethnicities, religions and so on, what would they look like?  In my mind, all 100 of those folks would have been American’s but not everyone thinks so. I believe that we have the right to have an opinion, but at what point does that opinion become more damaging than good?  While it might not be my place to judge that, discrimination in academia is something that can get it in grave and get buried anytime.

As a faculty member, I struggle with discrimination, I feel the side effects of it, and it breaks my heart to see my students be treated like lesser humans for things they cannot change about themselves.  I seek out mentoring opportunities for minorities, I go the extra mile for them, but I know as an educator, I cannot save them all.  If I could, I would, but the best I can do on most days is support the ones I do come in contact with.  I try and nuture them, mentor them, and give them concrete life experiences they can grow from.  I hope that as you go out into your own classrooms you are aware of discrimination in academia.  It’s still happening between races, religious beliefs, and everything in between.  Educate yourself and your students. I had to have a long talk with my student about the incident and help him make sense of it.  His final comment to me, “does this happen a lot?”  For his sake, I sure hope not.

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