Race and the St Andrews experience

No man – or woman – is an island.

And yet, that’s often how I feel – like an island, like a little spot of land in a monochrome ocean. Being a person of color in a sea of white faces is nothing new to me. Despite attending diverse, urban-area schools throughout my childhood, I ended up at a not-so diverse college. My college boasted a class made up of 11 per cent Hispanic/Latinos and 16 per cent African Americans (currently 11 and 10 per cent respectively for the class of 2016). I soon learned that it could have been worse – that this was diversity in higher education. I counted my lucky stars that I had always been comfortable crossing racial boundaries. I wasn’t afraid to ignore self-segregation in high school and that was something that, thankfully, carried over into my college experience.

Still, it took some getting used to. It was during my undergraduate career that I really began to struggle with the feeling of being the only minority in a classroom. Sometimes, I would be hyperaware of it; other times I would barely notice. Nevertheless, I felt more comfortable with TAs who were minorities. I was not so alone then. Despite all the personal growth, my understanding of myself – of my race and how that influences who I am and what I’ve experienced – did not really change in those four years. I was aware, but I could never articulate what things meant. That was okay, because I didn’t need to articulate those meanings. There were other people like me there, people who just knew.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t until I arrived at the University of St Andrews that things really changed for me. Since I arrived in September, I have become more aware than ever of the divide between me and everyone else. Spotting a person of color on campus makes me smile (because, yes, I can go a whole day without seeing someone of color), and finding someone who speaks Spanish is always a treat. Mostly, I think about race, privilege, and power structures a lot more often. I feel uncomfortable more often. I feel suffocated, sometimes, in a way that I never felt in college. I feel aware.

For months now I’ve been trying to pinpoint the source of my confusion and unrest. It didn’t seem okay for me to say I just know. I could have said it was the small town environment, or the adjustment to being back in school. But that wasn’t it. It took me longer than it should have (and yes, I am embarrassed) to realize that the racial experience in the United Kingdom, in Scotland, is just different from that of the United States. At home, there’s a dialogue. Here, I’ve never felt like that’s been allowed. People don’t want to talk about race. And that’s (arguably) okay. I respect people’s choices. But those who say that people don’t want to talk about race because it’s irrelevant, or because they see past it, or because it’s just simply unnecessary, are really missing the point.

This is not an attack on St Andrews. It is not an attack on any individual. I have met wonderful people, wonderful friends, during my studies here. And yet is it really so bad, or surprising, that I want to meet people who don’t feel the need to ignore a large part of who I am? Or people who simply accept it? Or people who aren’t afraid to have a discussion about it? Why is race still a taboo when so many people are affected by racism?

Exactly five days after the Boston Marathon bombings, a classmate made a joke. He said, “When I heard about the bombings, I thought the terrorist was you!” It wasn’t funny and it wasn’t a joke to me. Aside from it coming much too soon, I didn’t feel it was okay to have a white man call a brown girl a terrorist, even jokingly, days after a Muslim woman had been attacked in Boston in response to the bombings – merely for walking, for existing. Sometimes it’s dangerous being brown, but for some reason it doesn’t feel okay to acknowledge that in what St Andrews students call “the Bubble”.  A part of me feels silenced and that’s one of the reasons I chose to write for this blog. I both want and need that dialogue that feels so foreign to St Andrews, because the only way to change things is to speak up.

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3 thoughts on “Race and the St Andrews experience

  1. […] Race and the St Andrews experience (unidiversityblog.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Rob Wherrett says:

    Lorena

    You highlight an issue that is common in the UK – namely an aversion to talking about race, since to do so is seen as exhibiting racial prejudice. There are a few exceptions and I count myself among them.

    One of the chief reasons for engaging with foreigners (of whatever ilk) for me is the fascination about learning about them, their culture and to compare in friendly ways the differences and similarities between us. But then I was brought up in a house in England where over my teenage years there was a constant stream of foreign visitors from Europe and Africa – all friends of the family or friends of relations who needed somewhere to stay while visiting. About half my current close friends are non-British (irrespective of their racial origin), which is pretty unusual.

    I think that your experience showing the difference between the US and UK is likely to be a function of the scale of the different countries. Plus also the rather more obvious racial mixture in the US as compared to Fife.

    But St.Andrews is rather unusual. Even in my day, in the 1970s, 50% of the university was non-Scots (unheard of in the other ancient universities of Scotland) and roughly 50% were female (also unheard of at the time).

    Having said all that, I’m saddened that you have felt isolated as you have described. In my experience the only way to change others is to change how you yourself behave – so how about organising a Spanish evening with open doors for all-comers? Once you have breached the taboo – it makes everyone else more comfortable in opening up the dialogue.

  3. […] Race and the St Andrews experience (unidiversityblog.wordpress.com) […]

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