In an effort to better understand the challenges facing some minority students at University of Oregon, the Emerald interviewed students of color and faculty who have devoted their careers to addressing diversity and inclusion. Some students have used their experiences to reflect on their own biases and have taken steps to change their own behavior. Some students on campus have challenged their instructors on issues around race. This is the fourth part of a series coming out this week examining the role of discrimination at UO.
Death by 1,000 cuts.
That’s what some refer to as the experience of feeling insecure, unprotected, offended or unwelcomed in a community that seems to resent the culture they represent.
“You wake up, you go to class, the person next to you asks if you’re at UO because you’re an athlete, then the next class you walk in, you’re in a room of 150 white people,” University of Oregon student Aleiya Evison said. “When they talk about slavery or police brutality, everyone stares at you and you might be asked to represent all black people — or all asian people — and then you go home and watch the news, and another person of color was killed. That is an average day for a student of color — on top of their responsibilities of being a student.”
Evison’s experience is something students who come from a background of privilege may not understand. Privilege for students of the majority is not financial support or positions of authority, but a life unprovoked by the consistent misrepresentation, insensitive comments and discrimination many minority students can face.
The day-to-day struggle for some minority students in communities where they are misunderstood or disregarded is oftentimes unnoticed.
President of UO’s Multi-ethnic Student Alliance Vickie Gimm says, “What students need to do on campus is believe everybody’s individual experiences. A lot of times, we dismiss it because we don’t believe it’s true and that contributes to a lot more marginalization.”
Minority students like Evison and Gimm who are inspired to pursue higher educations, feel restrained by the lack of diversity and cultural understanding on campus, she said, but some students believe this can be changed.
Evison said that, “One way to be an activist is to build community, and that’s something I’ve started to do here. [I] surround myself with other women of color and approach activism from a place of strength by taking up more space on this campus and engaging in issues of race and identity.”
When Evison talks about women of color, she doesn’t only talk about Black students like herself, but of all minority students who are underrepresented.
“I have met so many brilliant students of color on this campus that are working tirelessly to make our school a more inclusive environment,” Evison said.
One place on campus where people work to create community is the Holden Center, on the ground floor of the Erb Memorial Union. Part of the center’s mission is to promote positive change in the UO community.
Chris Esparza, the associate director of the Holden Center, said the path to alleviating the pains of discrimination starts with individuals.
“The solution is as simple, yet as complex as changing the way we form relationships,” he said.
In his own experience, Esparza has struggled with talking to his dad about racial sensitivity, although he decided the conflict is worth the effort.
His dad sent him an email years ago containing jokes about negative stereotypes of Chinese-Americans. Esparza felt that jokes like this were inconsiderate, but he wanted to make sure his dad knew too.
In a moment of courage, he sent an email detailing why those jokes were insensitive and why he felt they were unacceptable to tell.
Esparza said telling a friend or family member that the way they’re acting is intolerant is very challenging but can be necessary to push people to care for each other, not marginalize.
Marginalization is part of what Vickie Gimm refers to as “othering.” As a first generation Asian-American, Gimm notices when students assume she is an international student or assume she doesn’t speak English because of the way she looks. She recalled others speaking random Chinese words to her assuming she is fluent.
When Gimm experiences these microaggressions, she said they usually occur unintentionally, despite the offense she feels.
“It’s normalized, accepted behavior and then they go about performing the microaggression without realizing the impact,” Gimm said.
The way someone asks a question or makes a joke can be offensive regardless of whether they meant it, and although it’s an accident, those affected by the comments have to find ways of coping.
UO senior Seela Sankey has begun to have a sense of humor with comments about her skin color.
As an international student from Kenya, she came to UO with a dark tan, but in the winter, she said her skin tone lightens and she tans orange. As she recalled from her freshman year, this can lead to uncomfortable conversations.
Once a student ran up to her in the rain and asked her which tanning salon she went to.
“I didn’t want to be rude and I was like ‘I don’t remember the shop, but give me your number. I’ll text you the name of the shop’ because I didn’t know how to react to it,” Sankey said.
Rather than ask if that was her natural skin tone, the student assumed she must go to to a tanning salon. Sankey dealt with the comment with a sense of humor, but she also recommends students think before they assume.
“Let’s say I’m running to class. If you want to talk to me, be like ‘I know you’re in a hurry, but I was really attracted to your skin tone.’ And then I would explain it to you.”
Taking the time to ask someone about their culture and understand their background is what some people at UO call cultural humility.
Abigail Leeder, the director of Experiential Education and Prevention Initiatives, defines cultural humility as being willing to admit your ignorance about someone’s culture and being open minded about their values.
She said that discrimination can be diminished by listening to each other and asking questions. As Leeder puts it, “[by] being curious about other people and being more open minded to hearing different people’s perspectives, a level of connection or empathy begins and then people want to be supportive.”
Many of these students feel that it only takes small measures to ease a feeling of discrimination on campus, but Leeder said we especially need to focus on the desire to learn more about each other.
“I think we’re losing that as a culture,” Leeder said. “And I think that is pretty much the only way to move forward: to listen.”
Anna Lieberman contributed reporting to this article.