Last week, Maia and Alex Shibutani, two renowned Olympic figure skaters, spoke to students and alumni on campus. The event, hosted by the Asian Pacific American Student Assembly and the Performing Arts Committee, is part of a semester-long festival showcasing Asian Pacific American history, culture and community.
While the talk was open to the public, the audience almost entirely comprised Asian students. Event attendance like this reveals a hidden disconnect between Asian students and the rest of the student body that can lead to misunderstandings of different cultural identities — this disconnect can only be ameliorated by more diverse participation.
Just last month, an incident at Duke University exhibited blatant disregard of cultural identities by its administration that jeopardized the safety of minority groups on college campuses. Megan Neely, a faculty member at the Duke University School of Medicine, stepped down amid backlash regarding an email she sent urging Chinese students to speak English both in and outside of the classroom, reported The New York Times.
The professor issued the request after two faculty members complained about hearing students conversing “very loudly” in Chinese in common areas like student lounges and study areas. In the email, she went so far as to suggest students’ career opportunities may be limited if they don’t practice English fluency. In response to the incident, medical school Dean Mary Klotman asked Neely to step down and issued a formal apology to the students in the program.
Such occurrences are unacceptable and can be damaging to all individuals involved, even to those not directly affected. Universities must be held accountable for maintaining safe and welcoming spaces for students of all backgrounds.
That said, USC has provided ample events to give students the chance to express their cultural identities. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Week and the APASA Heritage Festival are just a few recent examples of how students can become involved. Through these events, students can express their own cultural identities and reflect on their ethnic backgrounds by partaking in various activities.
The challenge that arises from inclusion events like these is the lack of impact it has on the broader community — the majority of people not associated with these cultures tend not to attend or show interest. This furthers cultural misconceptions and can lead to disparities among groups. Under these circumstances, increasing efforts to develop cultural awareness is essential. To improve upon this, Asian Pacific American Student Services Director Jonathan Wang said campus leaders need to be active role models to encourage others to participate in and engage beyond such activities.
“That’s something I hope to see more of — our leaders beyond a week, beyond a festival or some kind of easy food event, to take the step and to move into a space that can make them feel uncomfortable but, in that uncomfortableness, really be able to experience and learn what it is like for a person who doesn’t look like you or doesn’t share many of the identities that you do,” Wang said.
Although it takes extensive effort to bridge divides between cultures, it is important to note that minority groups should not feel persistent pressure to make their voices and values heard — rather, they should be accepted for who they are by the greater community. Building on this, Wang said he hopes it’s not just the responsibility of marginalized and minority identities to accommodate others.
“We lose a part of ourselves when we are asked to assimilate into different aspects of the majority culture. We do it sometimes willingly. Sometimes we fight because we want to retain that part of our culture — it’s a value to us,” Wang said. “And in that, how others are learning about who we are and not rejecting those aspects of what we are trying to keep — sharing in those experiences is a helpful opportunity.”
Above all, faculty and administration must be aware of the cultural identities their students hold. By keeping up to date on issues facing ethnic groups or reaching out to see how students’ needs can be better met, faculty can ensure that what happened at Duke will never happen on USC’s campus.
“Faculty members [need] to really understand who their students are and celebrate the differences, celebrate the diversity … to allow for a difference of experiences of languages, backgrounds, histories, upbringings and cultures to be strengthened in overall conversation because that’s where we do our true learning,” Wang said.
While the USC community has made valiant efforts in diversity and inclusion, communication errors can still occur. If we constantly enforce the notion that it’s acceptable for others to avoid minority cultural events, our hidden disconnect will only continue to expand.