My love-hate relationship with my PWI

For those who wonder what PWI means, it stands for Predominately White Institution. If you need an example, it's Davidson College. When you look at our Instagram page, you don't see the PWI; you see is a diverse group of students. Yet unfortunately, the representation of students of color on our school’s website and social media accounts is not a very accurate representation of our student body. In reality, 67% of our students are white. Similar to other elite institutions in the country, our college is a space that was founded by and for white people, particularly white men.

Class of 2020 Demographics

And, like in most American institutions, white men have filled this space. They’ve filled it with their wealth, land, influence, legacies, and children.  

You might wonder, “How did a Vietnamese immigrant like me, who is a first-generation student and daughter of a nail worker, get here?” Some might say it’s because of affirmative action, model minority privilege, or simply, to fulfill “quotas.” The reality is: when one of us gets admitted into elite institutions, people unquestionably jump to the conclusion that our presence is due to affirmative action, quota fulfillment, or special treatments. They think our success is not a result of our intelligence, determination, and hard work, but rather, special programs designed only to benefit minorities. And yet, when one of us appears on the news in a segment about crime, poverty, or misfortune, the narrative is that our failure, lack of success, and poverty are result of lack of individualism, determination, and work ethic, not the structural inequality and disproportionate public publicly that target people of color.

To me, the hardest part is not getting into a PWI, but navigating it while being my authentic self. The reality at PWI is: as a student of color, you not only feel underrepresented among your peers but also among your professors. As a student of color, you are constantly reminded that you are a minority. Not just a minority in the way you look, but also a minority in the way you think. The only people that look like you are the people who clean the buildings, work at Commons, and take care of the picturesque school grounds. And yet, I am proud of these individuals because, without them, we couldn't have an opportunity to pursue our dreams.

If you are a black student, people assume that you got in because of a sport. If you are an Asian student, people assume that you are an international student from a rich family. If you are Latino, people assume that you are from Mexico. No matter how hard you work, your college degree is not going to be worth as much as that of your white classmates. As a student of color, your parents are less likely to have the connections to land you a well-reputed job and less likely to have their own successful business where they can offer you a job. And yes, there are poor white students. However, it is important to recognize that “black poverty” and “white poverty” are two distinct categories. In the end, we can’t deny the powerful significance of race in today’s society.

Despite all of the inherent arrangements that oblige you to work twice as hard, your success, ability, and intelligence are still subject to questioning.

Last summer in DC, I had an opportunity to reunite with my favorite professor, who left Davidson after my freshman year.  Her departure left a void in my heart since freshman year. She was my role model, someone I could look to, someone who helped me to be proud of my Asian identity. Her experience of being an Asian female professor at Davidson was not very pleasant. I could relate; as a woman of color, I experience microaggressions here almost on the daily. Despite all that, I told that I appreciate the institution for its generous assistance and its financial commitment to me. She told me: "the education that you receive here is not free. You actually paid a lot: your confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth."

When elite institutions celebrate diversity and announce their commitment to students of color, I wonder who benefits more, the students of color or the white students. In one class discussion, a white student said that she appreciates the integration since it brings diversity and different perspectives to her life. Unlike her positive remark, I have never felt welcomed for my "unique perspective.” I feel the social consequences every single time after I voice my opinion.

While strategic diversity initiatives benefit white liberal students by making them believe that they are "socially conscious" and "woke,” students of color often have to face the reality of being underrepresented and tokenized during their experience at a PWI. Too often, they have to deal with the pressure to assimilate, the pressure to be the “exceptional minorities.”

In Freshman year, I overheard my hall-mate having a conversation with other students about STRIDE (Student Together Reaching for Individual Development and Education), a peer-mentor program designed for students of color at Davidson College. She was frustrated that the STRIDE students, who arrived one week early, had already clustered and formed friend groups with each other. She said that STRIDE causes students of color to separate themselves from white students. I explained to her how important STRIDE is as it provides tools and skills for students of color to navigate this white institution, and she responded that it’s unfair for other students who don't get the same resources.

 

STRIDE students during the 2018 Orientation Week

Her belief is not an individual belief; it’s a belief shared among many white liberals in today’s society. In this liberal bubble, we often fall into a naive belief in meritocracy, that everybody has an equal chance to succeed. Indeed, some white students don’t view STRIDE as a program that abbreviates the opportunity gap between white students and students of colors, they view it as “special treatment” for students of color, a form of reverse racism. And yet, they ignore the intergenerational impacts of past and contemporary discrimination on the social, economic, and educational status of people of color. Unlike white students who were given tools to succeed from a young age, we are given tools to assimilate and be subordinated. STRIDE fosters a sense of community among students of color; it remains the only space where we can be proud to be ourselves. Programs like STRIDE, sororities, fraternities, leadership development initiatives, HBCUs, student organizations, and students movements that are dedicated to the advancement of people of color, and especially black students, pay the debt that PWIs, as well as America as a whole, owed to people of color after years of exploiting and suppressing their voices. These programs allow us to mobilize our people, form our communities, restore our identities, and preserve our cultures. From there, we gather the tools we need to survive in a white man’s world.

Like James Baldwin says: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

 

The conditions of students of color will remain the same as long as the institutions of inequality remain powerful. The hierarchies that are embedded in our institution and the lingering racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and ableism that pervade this space still have enduring effects. We cannot go anywhere when academic disciplines such as science, economics, and political science continue to exploit their "objective" rhetoric to perpetuate colorblind racism and ignore matters of the social justice. History has shown us how "science" has been used to expand the ideas of genetic, racialized difference, and race as biological, in an argument for the racial inferiority of black, indigenous, and Asian people. It has been demonstrated time and time again that the system of "laissez-faire" economics exploits those from the bottom to enrich those on the top. We also know how our “colorblind” Constitution has been used to perpetuate discrimination against black people for nearly 300 years. And yet, many academic disciplines continue to treat these facts as irrelevant, tangential, or unimportant for students to learn.

Too often, we mistakenly believe that ignorance is a product of poor education. In a study conducted by the University of Virginia, a significant number of white medical students and residents still subscribe to an ideology of biological difference between black and white people, believing myths like the one that says black people feel less pain than white people. You might think I am joking. Indeed, it doesn’t matter if this narrative is factual or true. The matter is this powerful, distorted, and racist narrative has maximized its impact and continued to advance the idea that people of color, particularly black people, are “biologically different”.

The lack of intersectionality and social justice in our curriculum also prevents us from reaching our full academic potentials. When we learn about history, we learn about white men’s history. When we learn about politics, we learn about white men’s political thoughts. Yet, nobody calls it white men’s politics because we are socialized into learning and paying attention to the politics of the elite. The politics of women, people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, disabled people, and immigrants are often considered as too “subjective” or not complex enough to be the center of scholarly research and study.

As students of color, we are constantly reminded that our history, politics, innovation, and arts are not worthy of academic inquiry. We are socialized to study from the lens of white folks. When we voice our opinions, our professor singles us out, saying that we are being prejudiced or unfair to people who share different beliefs than us. We must remain politically impartial even though our daily life experience is often the product of unjust political system and inequitable public policy.

In the classroom, in Commons, in the library, and even in our dorms, we are constantly reminded that we are in the minority.

And don’t get me wrong, I truly appreciate and love Davidson. I still remember the tears my mom and I shed the moment we saw my college acceptance letter. I think about how overwhelmed I was when I first stepped onto this beautiful campus. I value the friendships that I foster with people from all walks of life. I treasure the relationships that I have with my professors who truly believe in me and want me to succeed. I appreciate the care that I have received from the Deans, who treat me as an individual, not as a number. After four years of being undocumented and living in a country that criminalizes my existence, the closest thing I ever have to freedom is receiving my Davidson College acceptance letter. 

The institutional changes that to which I am referring might takes years, generations, and struggles to be made. Meanwhile, it is important that we students of color use the resources that we gain from our community as vehicles to reach out to other communities. We can always learn from each other. It is important that we remind ourselves that we deserve to be here, and no matter what people say, we must believe in ourselves. We must invest in our mental, physical, and emotional health. Most importantly, we can never let the microaggressions, the ignorance, and the colorblind racism define who we are.

Dr. Ernest Jeffries, STRIDE founder, and mentors during Orientation Week 

American institutions have caused a lot of losses in potential because of their academic racism and exclusion. They have failed to defend the moral values of that past generations have claimed to hold, perpetuating intergenerational inequalities that still affect people of color today. Indisputably, individuals who pursue higher education are the future of this country as they have access to American political institutions. Because racism is most effective when it's perpetuated by those in power, it’s important that our institution, as well as other American institutions of higher education, challenge the system of oppression. 

The only way we can move forward is to confront our flaws and our history of marginalization, exclusion, and inequality.

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