Obstacles as a student of color
What does it mean to be the only non-White student in a crowded lecture hall? In short, it means doubt and impostor syndrome, the pressure to represent a whole race, and advocating for yourself because no one else understands. The beauty of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) experience is that it’s not one-size-fits-all. However, here are some common hurdles for students of color.
Not having many leaders of color to look up to
Being a student of color at a predominantly White university means having few leaders on campus who look like you. As a senior in college, I can count on one hand how many faculty of color I’ve had as professors. But mine is not an isolated case—88.4% of the faculty at my university are White, about 10% are Black or Asian, and none are Hispanicfootnote 1. None. (This didn’t feel all that different from my high school, which had only one teacher of color at the time I graduated.)
More than meeting a diversity statistic, having instructors who look like you helps you feel seen, understood, and confident. In my early business courses, I was often the only Asian-American in the room, and sometimes the only BIPOC student. I hesitated to participate in class, fearing that others would assume I wasn’t intelligent because of my race or gender. At the same time, I wrestled with feeling like I had to speak out more than others because East Asians are often seen as quiet or shy. When I was taught by faculty of color, such as my Chinese marketing professor, I felt more comfortable speaking out and going to office hours for help.
It’s just as important—if not more—to have other students of color to look up to. Whether that’s your resident assistant, sorority big, or club president, having mentors who relate to you makes you feel like, “Yeah, I can achieve that, too.” On a campus where only 8% of the student body looks like me, these relationships are few and far between. But when I find one, it makes all the difference. Coming from a small town that was even more racially homogenous, I thought the way I looked, including my small stature, ruled me out as “unfit” for leadership. This is something that I’ve had to unlearn since being in college. Now, I’m happy to say that I’m on the executive board for two clubs on campus.
Assumptions and generalizations
A common experience for students of color—whether Black, Asian, Latinx, or other underrepresented groups—is that other students and faculty members make assumptions about you. Recently, I had someone tell me, “Y’all like to change your names,” referring to how many Asian immigrants adopt Anglicized names instead of their given names for ease of pronunciation and assimilation. I was born and raised in Massachusetts, with what some might consider to be an “American” name. I had no experience with this, so the jump to assume that I did felt off-putting. However, this example is nothing compared to what other students have experienced.
A person’s cultural identity can have many layers. Though lumping people into categories might be easier for our brains, it neglects the individuality of each ethnic and national culture. I rarely, if ever, describe myself as Asian. Sure, I check off the “Asian” box when filling out forms, but I prefer the term Japanese-American, as it celebrates the uniqueness of my ethnicity and growing up with both cultures.