By Jinni Thuy Hang Tran
The recent protests on college campuses, including at Missouri, Yale, and Claremount McKenna amid racial tension in the US are re-igniting the flames of fire that has been waning inside me. As a college student of color who have experience and being exhausted by racial discrimination in higher education, at first, I was filled with a mixture of indignation and doubts. Would calling for the resignation of the president and deans resolve the overarching racial issues? Are the students at Claremont McKenna misinterpreting the dean's email when her intention was to help the students? On the other side, I also understood the indignation and marginalization felt by the students when reflecting on racial issues at my university. Talking it out with friends who are more directly involved with these protests as well as my social movement professor made me re-evaluate the means for creating institutional change on race. I came to a conclusion that regardless of how one feel about this movement, this an opportunity to speak out, not be silent. Here is my story.
I grew up in a small village from an underdeveloped region in Vietnam. My home is where the spirits of dead soldiers from the war tantalize children as we play hide and seek at night and where our grandmothers often recall the days of French colonialism while plowing rice fields. It was beautiful, sublime, haunting. Back then “race” had no significance. The only two types of people I knew were my own: the Vietnamese and the “other” which were the whites whom I only saw on TV. In the mind of a child from a third world country, my people were real and the “others” were merely a figment of fantasy. Such thoughts were challenged when I boarded the plane to America. Life as I knew it gradually faded as the American life took over.
Arriving in Atlanta, I grew up in the suburban neighborhood with students of color and the diverse climate that nurtured me remain unchanged for the next ten years. The glamour of the American lifestyle did not drop its gold glitters in our community. The majority of my friends (an ethnic mosaic of Blacks, Latino/as, Asians) and I were poor and have relatively uneducated working parents. My peers and I from Buford highway shared a humble upbringing. Some of us had our mother selling tamales in an apartment across the school while others, including I, would sometimes walk three hours home just to save our precious dollar for a Taco Bell meal. Whether we were the truly disadvantaged or blessed, we were ambivalent. Although we were aware that our school (predominantly blacks and brown) was segregated and underserved, we really couldn’t pinpoint the source of injustice. The dramas of adolescenthood overshadowed the systematic oppression that our parents face in which we have inherited. Race and class was something I felt but not fully understood until college.
College marked a critical juncture in my life, especially my perspective on race and its pervasiveness. Shockingly, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by an overwhelming number of white people. That was when I realized that there two Americas and I have been living on the other side. Lost and unfamiliar, I was uncomfortable being the only Asian/Asian-American/personofcolor/minority/immigrant in the majority of my classes. I walked from place to place, class to class, struggling with the coexistence of the invisibility and visibility that I possessed as a person from a “diverse background.” Furthermore, waves of disappointment crashed in when I see a lack of cross-cultural staff working as administrators, staff, and mentors, with a few exceptions such as the multicultural center. My relationships and interactions with most of the students here stood in stark contrast to my engagement with those back home. At a privileged institution, there was a veil separating the others and I, an invisible cloth constructed by the apparent demarcations of race and socioeconomics. Worst, I was hurt and often blame myself because racist and discriminatory practices are more than often neglected, downplayed, and considered solely internalized. I often question the growth of my personal development and the complexities of my racial identity. Questions continuously and repeatedly arise: Did I make a Faustian bargain when deciding to attend a school in which students of color has traditionally been underrepresented? Is seeing interactions through the prism of race affecting the way I approach others? Is my racial identity a privilege and a disadvantage at the same time? To be or not to be: a silent loving assimilated model minority or to be an angry dissenting Asian-American? How should the future generation of Americans approach race in a society that [erroneous] prided itself as “post racial?”
In my attempt to overcome the struggle of the first generation minority dilemma in college, the past three years, I’ve anchored myself to words of my mother: be a resilient and independent. With empathetic and supportive mentors of color, I learned to channel my enriching and humble background for leadership, academic, and professional endeavors. Understanding poverty, race, and immigration in my poli-sci classes still remains excruciating when learning about the struggles of people in my communities through the lens of the privileged because it justify the reality that education and the tools for change are largely unavailable to those who are most oppressed. However, the recent protests at Missouri University, Yale, and Claremont College are reminders that we as students are the vessels of the heart of social change. The unfettered energy and admirable restless efforts made the students are motivating students to challenge the hegemonic culture that reinforces structural and social inequality under the race masterframe. When thinking about race, I reflect back on my life journey in from living in a homogenous society in Vietnam in which the minds of most people have not been decolonized to the urbanhood of Atlanta in which race and class have been associated with our future pathways. There are many institutional inequalities that needs to be subverted, but from my third world experience, only in the US is this possible. I hope that addressing racial struggles and vestiges will help us redefine common grounds and to ultimately cultivate safe, diverse, and productive communities.
Stay positive. Speak up.