Diversity and the Institution: Questions of Being and Belonging as An International Student

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I had the privilege of hearing Sara Ahmed speak in person for the first time last Thursday. For me, her talk on the complaint as diversity work reinforced the necessity of thinking through the many ways in which the brick wall of the institution can simultaneously appear and disappear for different people depending on their subject positions in relation to the institution. My first encounter with Sara Ahmed’s work was in my Intro to Grad Studies seminar during my first semester at Lehigh. In the introduction to her book, On Being Included, Ahmed talks about the relationship between identities and institutional spaces, “about how some more than others will be more at home in institutions that assume certain bodies as their norm,” and how this sense of belonging (or non-belonging) characterizes and affects diversity work (3). A question that has stuck with me since then is the extent to which my identity as a non-White scholar coheres with the university as an institution, and the complexities of navigating this space as an international student from a postcolonial country.

I am ethnically Chinese, but a Malaysian citizen. I have only been in the U.S. for five years on a student visa, yet I belong in this institutional space as the child of college-educated parents with white collar jobs. This sense of institutional belonging decreases, however, because I am a woman and an ethnic minority. But even as a person of color, my experience “goes with the flow,” to borrow Ahmed’s phrase, in certain ways that differ from other international students for whom English is not their primary language: I don’t speak with a discernible accent and I am comfortable with many aspects of Western culture, having grown up in a cosmopolitan environment. Do these qualities make me more effective as an advocate for racial diversity or do they reinforce institutional “holding patterns?”  

I don’t know that I am offering a solution to this question as much as highlighting the possibilities and limits of diversity work as an institutional project through my experience as an international student—an experience of describing “the world from the point of view for those who do not flow into it” (On Being Included 176). For me, the institutional diversity agenda is limited by the ways we take a racial binary as its primary point of reference and U.S. nationality as a given in most manifestations of institutional diversity projects.

For starters, I was hesitant to use the term “person of color” in reference to myself for the longest time because I had only ever seen it being used to reference Black Americans. I did not see myself reflected in the work on intersectionality and diversity, so I questioned my right to claim the term for myself. In making blackness, and blackness that is tied to a U.S. nationality, the sole referent for diversity, we risk eliding how other ways of “not being” can manifest.

In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed asserts that to “To be in question is to question being” (134).

My name, for example, is a question for some.

“Hi, my name is Cherise.”

“But what is your real name?”

(The assumption: You look Chinese, and Chinese people should have Chinese-sounding names, certainly not English ones)

“Cherise,” I repeat, “it’s on my birth certificate.”

My name becomes a question of existence, my real-ness. The question of my existence haunts my presence, makes me both present and non-present. “Questions can hover around…an arrival. Perhaps we come to expect that murmur…we might come to question ourselves. Do I belong here? Will I be caught out? Do I fit in here? ‘I am becomes ‘am I?’” (Living a Feminist Life 131).

There is another question that plagues me, and that is one of claiming the English language as my own.

Every time I fill out any kind of institutional documentation and there is a question of my native language, the question of “am I?” spirals into a frenzy. I want to check “English,” but feel like a fraud because for all institutional intents and purposes, I am not a citizen of an English-speaking country. And yet, I feel more at home expressing myself in this language than any of the other ones I speak. (British colonialism, goddamnit!)

In many ways, this space is mine and not mine.

I grew up consuming British and American culture. I spent many hours as a child reading Peter and Jane, Nancy Drew, and the Harry Potter series. For years, watching American Idol was a weekly family ritual. My dad is obsessed with the Bee Gees; he sings along to The Beatles’ songs. My mom loves ABBA. Still, I sit in conversations inside and outside class now sometimes not knowing half (or all) of the cultural references to songs, movies, slang, socio-political movements, etc. I understand this kind of “not belonging.” And yet, I can speak the language of the academy in ways many of my international friends cannot. I know that being able to use this language makes a difference when I communicate concerns about diversity as an outsider. I see the looks of relief on the faces of university administrators and government officials when I open my mouth to speak. My American accent mitigates the impact of my physical “foreign-ness.”

What I do not know is whether using this ability translates into benefits for the institution more than the international students themselves. I resisted being put on promotional posters for the international office at my alma mater for this very reason. I refuse to have my story used as evidence of the office’s success in diversity recruitment when I came up against all kinds of walls during my time there. I roll my eyes when professors ask domestic students to interview international students for a “cultural assignment.” I cringe at existing for these students only in the narrow parameters of this assignment, and ceasing to exist once the interview is over. Sometimes, I am less cynical and concede to doing such an interview, knowing that there can be benefits in cross-cultural encounters. But benefits for whom?

According to Ahmed, diversity workers are essentially “institutional plumbers” who not only “point out what is getting blocked,” but in doing so, are themselves “experienced as the blockage point, as the ones who are getting in the way of a flow” (On Being Included 186). If so, speaking the language of the (Western) institution and adhering to its norms would thus reduce my ability to some degree as an effective “blockage point” for those who do experience the wall as solidity (On Being Included 186-187).

I remember the self-doubt that plagued me when I stepped into my classes as a first-year undergraduate student in the U.S. I felt the weight of being classified as a non-native English speaker despite scoring in the 99th percentile on the reading section of the SAT. I remember sitting in the office of the English Department chair asking why I had been placed in a remedial ENG 22 class – a prerequisite most “native” students don’t have to take before the standard introductory composition course – despite a 93rd percentile score on the writing section of the SAT, only to have her condescendingly reply that this was a requirement for “all international students.”  Consequently, I worked hard to acquire an American accent quickly, paying attention to differences in pronunciation and word choice – “trash,” not “rubbish;” “trunk,” not “boot”. These differences would not have mattered as much if I were White and had a British accent. Seven years into my stay here, I no longer have to work as hard to maintain this new accent, but I’m still conscious of saying new words the “right” way.

In some ways, I admire other international students who own their “foreign” accents. They own their “otherness” in ways that I dare not. They insist on mixing up their “Vs” and “Bs”; they persist in saying “lift,” not “elevator.” I realize I am guilty of practicing and embodying “institutional passing” (Living a Feminist Life 131). And then I feel shame: shame at speaking about gender dynamics, and intersectionality, and microaggressions. In talking about concepts that do not register outside the Western diversity project, I am conscious of how I am displaying (Western) institutional knowledge, and the ways in which this in and of itself distances me from other international students who do not possess this knowledge. But there are also times when I want to raise hell for having to ease the burden of my own difference (Living a Feminist Life 131).

In some ways, I have been included. I am in the U.S. due to an academic scholarship from my undergraduate institution, awarded because of the ways in which I do not flow. But there are also many other ways in which I remain excluded.

The paradox of the diversity project is asking to be included while coming up against the wall of the institution and becoming a wall yourself in obstructing institutional flow (On Being Included 186). At the same time, however, I recognize that participating in this project comes at the price of exclusion from other spaces such as the international student community.

More questions arise than answers in the meeting between my body and the institution. Sometimes these questions make me angry; sometimes, they make me laugh. At times, they make me cry.

All I have to offer in response to these questions is my “stranger experience” (On Being Included 3) to provide a glimpse of how these walls operate for someone who does not exist in the binary of black and white.

Sources:

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

On Being Included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Duke University Press, 2012.

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