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TOKENISM

Posted by on Wednesday, March 29, 2017 in Cultural Awareness, Many Voices, One VU.

Lauren Pak, ’17,
Peabody College

As the daughter of first generation immigrants, coming from a high school where over half the students spoke a language other than English at home, my transition to a rather homogenous college campus where my ethnic immigrant experience was in the minority, was difficult.

“I rejected the notion that my identity is divisive”
“I rejected the notion that my identity is divisive”

During a discussion section in my first semester, a blonde Texan announced with confidence, “Vanderbilt has so much diversity…this is the most diverse class experience I’ve ever had.” She turned as she said this – nodding her head towards me and the one other person of color in the room of 40 students. In the larger lecture, a Caucasian peer came up to me at the end and said, “I completely agree with your comment about multiculturalism in class. I understand your people.” In situations like this, I felt I and other minority students, were becoming the subject matter of learning rather than respected learners with autonomous agency. But, I’ve learned I am not a statistic nor a textbook case-study recruited to educate or be an experience for the 88.4 percent who are not ‘Asian or Hawaiian/Pacific Islander’ at Vanderbilt.

Multiculturalism has become a buzzword for people who have the privilege of choosing to engage with ‘the other’ only when it benefits them. But it is difficult to fight politicized multiculturalism when we can say at least now we have the annual Diwali Showcase or popular K-pop dance-off at ANYF? Can I complain when the imitation Vietnamese pho at the appropriated “Bamboo Bistro” has foreign-enough looking Korean kimchi thrown on it to make it look more exotic or “Asian” enough? Where else would I find the socially acceptable space to eat with chopsticks and drink Sriracha drenched broth without judgement on Vanderbilt’s campus? Better these than nothing, right?

Attending Vanderbilt has not been my only challenge. Upon my return to my immigrant enclave, I was rejected by my Korean peers. They pointed at how all my college pictures were with ‘white people,’ that my English sounded ‘more white.’ By attending Vanderbilt, I had turned my back on my culture. In their eyes, I was the ultimate example of assimilation.

Similarly, my Asian American peer group at Vanderbilt reacted viscerally when I decided to join Panhellenic Greek Life. It seemed as if I could not exist without picking a side – Asian or white. In the White-determined “Asian America”, our visibility is only permissible through the rejection of our cultural heritage.

Multiculturalism is not about cultural education nor engaging those who normally wouldn’t talk to you—the true meaning is the fact that we have a space to celebrate our cultural identity. Diversity is the celebration of what makes us different. Inclusion is building relationships through each partnership and growing to care for each human being where they are. It is about being vulnerable about our differences and loving each other still. Today, I am a student leader in both majority and minority organizations on campus. How so? Because I rejected the notion that my identity is divisive. I am thankful for the contrasting opinions and that one blonde girl in my HOD class. Without such encounters, I would never have felt the value of my identity or learned to challenge my worth as an individual and not a token or trope.

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