Whether it’s your first time coming here or not, studying at college in this place is quite an…interesting experience.
Now, I know that during your first few days here you will be bombarded with information regarding funky English idioms, how to deal with homesickness, really important visa shenanigans, etcetera. Those re all important and you should try and pay attention no matter how tired you might be. Trust me on that.
I will not repeat those things here. Instead, I’ll tell you about something that no one told me when I arrived. In fact, people might actually avoid the subject altogether. Are you ready?
You will face discrimination.
Now, if you have followed the news from the U.S. lately, this might not be that big of a surprise. After all, it is hard to ignore some of the most atrocious things that people have been done and said lately. Thanks to people like Donald Trump, I imagine you might be mentally preparing yourself to face the ugliest and most blatant forms of discrimination.
People will probably leave you alone. When interacting with others on a day to day basis, they are not very likely to use racial slurs or attack you simply because you look or speak differently. Heck, most people will probably be very friendly and nice (though, this might depend on exactly where you go to college.)
The bad news is that, when someone discriminates against you, you might be very confused, and maybe even wonder if it just actually happened. This is because the kinds of prejudice and discrimination that are more common and “acceptable” have changed. Now, it is not cool to go the way of old-fashioned prejudice and scream slurs at people on the street or keep them from going into public bathrooms (although, there’s a few sad exceptions for this last one…). Instead being egalitarian and talking about freedom, equal opportunities for everyone, and respect is the cool, new trend. Because of this, many people will probably act in very respectful and non-prejudiced ways. In fact, a lot of them will genuinely be kind and accepting people who are doing their best to be non-prejudiced.
But during your-day-to-day experiences, things will still happen that will make you feel weird, uncomfortable…and maybe even just plain bad. Perhaps others might comment on your accent. Maybe they will praise you for speaking “good English,” adding that they wouldn’t expect this from someone who looks like you. Sometimes others will simply avoid you for group projects without any obvious reason, making you wonder if it’s because of your English or because they have friends in the class. Perhaps some people will ignore what you just said, or talk over you. Maybe others will assume you are “supposed” to be intelligent because of where you come from and disregard your hard work. Some others will assume the opposite and treat you accordingly. Your classmates, and maybe even your professors, might seem as if they can’t acknowledge your presence in the class, only to later on ask you to speak about your country’s complex economy, politics, or history. Because, obviously, you know everything there is to know about your country…
All of these things have a name. They are called microaggressions, and they all come from prejudices, stereotypes, and attitudes that people in the U.S. have about foreigners. Sometimes they are more obvious than the examples I gave you just now; sometimes they leave you wondering if you’re just being too sensitive. In Psychology, this fun feeling of uncertainty is called attributional ambiguity because, simply put, you will never be sure if the other person is actually trying to be hateful and prejudiced. Heck, they might not know either. (Sue, et al., 2007)
Now, I want to make something really clear.
These things are not your fault. You are in no way responsible for these kinds of behaviors towards you. These behaviors come from the way people see and organize the world. We all try and categorize people into neat little boxes to make life easier. This means that, if we don’t understand someone, we will try and put them in a box or category that we do know. This is, generally, useful for our brain, since it keeps us from what we call cognitive overload. So, for example, if your English is even slightly different from theirs, they might put you in the “can’t speak well” category. Which, might save them some cognitive resources/brain power. But we both know that in reality it is really complicated to come up with a reasonable argument, translate it, and then deliver it exactly how you want to.
The categorization, microaggressions, and just general discrimination can, and probably will happen in many different ways, in many different occasions, and because of many different reasons. But they will never be about who you really are. People will hear you, see you, and think about you in ways that match their own perceptions of the world, without acknowledging your complex personality. This is the way their brains work. But also, it is the way your brain works. We all want to understand the world in simple ways, and that sometimes can lead us to make incorrect assumptions about others and then act as if they were right.
I know this whole thing makes it sound like everything will be horrible…but this is not true. I’m telling you all of these things because I believe knowing them beforehand can help you deal with them in better ways. After all, it’s easier to deal with people implying that you’re not smart if you know that that is more about their brains and less about you. And just in case, I’ll leave you with a few more things that can help you deal with all of this mess.
- Not everyone is like this. I know, I know, I might have sounded like everyone in college is going to be awful, but that’s not quite it. As I said, some of the people around you will actually be friendly, and respectful human beings. Or, at the very least, they might try really hard. You will find amazing friends, people who will appreciate you for who you are, and who are willing to get called out for saying stupid things. Because we all say stupid things once in a while.
- When someone says or does something that hurts you or makes you feel uncomfortable, you can speak up if you want to. You don’t have to do it right away, and you don’t have to say it face to face. Heck, you don’t even have to do it every single time it happens. But you have the right to say “Hey, what you just said made me uncomfortable,” or “That was not very nice of you.” You can and should speak up if you feel it’s the right thing to do. Also, bring a friend along if you can, having someone to back you up always makes it easier.
- Trust your gut and take care of yourself. If you feel uncomfortable or angry because someone said or did something terrible, that’s all you need. Your feelings are yours, they are real, and they matter. If you want to speak up, do it. If you don’t, then don’t. But don’t forget to talk about it with people who will hear you out. Having others to support you throughout your time in school, including people who face similar things as you do, can be very helpful.
- Try and learn from these incidents. I know discrimination is not a fun thing to endure, and that depending on who you are, where you come from, and where you end up, your experiences will be different. But try and learn to be mindful and respectful of others and their differences. This might seem unimportant, but believe me, it matters to those who face this every day in your country.
I hope that your time here is amazing, and that you can grow stronger and be more mindful of the world around you. Have fun, and don’t let others make you feel bad.