Slouching Towards Apartheid
By Elena Yee
The magic number is 2050. In 2050 the demographics in the U.S. will change dramatically from being majority White to majority people of color. In fact I’ve heard it many times over that 1 out of 2 U.S. Americans in 2050 will trace their ancestry to either being Hispanic or Asian. The truth is that some states have already seen a major change and most particularly California.
Now, I’ve also heard as a result of this change that racism will come to a halt. Some say it’s out of pure practicality and others say it’s just inevitable. Yet I’m not convinced of either sentiment especially since the power brokers in the US continue to be White, Non-Hispanic and male. In fact our nation may very well go the way of Apartheid South Africa if we’re not intentional about shifting power and privilege in the arenas of business, politics, education and religion.
Just over ten years ago there was a kerfuffle at Westmont College in chapel. I won’t go into it as you can easily google it and find out about it. As a result, letters to the school paper ranged from supporting students of color who felt hurt by the situation to being essentially told to leave if they didn’t like it at the college. One former student had said, “Diversity is not an issue, it’s me” in that she was not an issue to be dealt with or a topic to be discussed. She was a student of color who felt marginalized and unheard by her peers and by college administrators.
It didn’t help that the former president of the college wrote an editorial in the local paper with the overall message that the college was doing students of color a huge favor by teaching them to assimilate into the majority albeit White culture on campus and in US Society. Even though his editorial had some points that I agreed with, much of it was overshadowed by the assertion that assimilation was what Westmont College needed to teach students.
Being who I am, I decided to take initiative and meet with him to get more clarification about what he wrote. After a short conversation he concluded that it was simply a practical matter that the numerical minority becomes like the majority in order to succeed. He wrote, “Yet this is one of our key challenges within American higher education, to enable students from other cultures or sub-cultures to become proficient in dealing with the majority culture of our country. Only then will they have access to the jobs and leadership roles they desire. This doesn’t seem fair or ideal, but it is the way societies and cultures work.”
During our conversation he also asked about my family and proceeded to prop up their success as proof that the “American Dream” is true, that assimilation works, and that I should be happy and grateful for this reality. I countered that to attain this so-called dream I lost who I was in this process of becoming White. Loss of culture and loss of language meant a loss of identity not only for me but also for future generations in the Yee family.
Additionally what this former president did not recognize was that no matter how much I assimilated and succeeded, I will always be seen as a foreigner, i.e. someone who doesn’t belong here. I once had a former co-worker on campus who told me that “true” Americans spoke English. I was floored by what she said and didn’t know how to counter her assertion. What I wanted to say was that my grandmother who hardly spoke a word of English was a true American, who was widowed at a young age, raised a family of five children and worked in the sweatshops of Boston’s Chinatown. Her inability to speak English didn’t make her less of an American. Most likely she wouldn’t have had the time to learn English as she was working backbreaking hours to support her family or there were no such classes offered to Asian immigrants like my grandmother who was living with the on-going repercussions of Pearl Harbor and anti-Japanese fervor. Of course the ridiculousness was that my family is Chinese but stereotyping has a way of lumping people together without differentiating.
I ended our conversation by asking him if he, a White male, was to become a minority in the US, would he be willing to learn another language, e.g. Spanish or assimilate into the new culture by adopting its customs and habits. He definitively said that he would, as it would be fair to do so. In that moment I didn’t have the heart or the “cojones” to tell him, “Sir, you are the minority.” What he didn’t seem to realize that the so-called minority, i.e. people of color had just over took the birth rate in California and now were just over 50%. Was he learning Spanish? Was he celebrating Dios de los Muertos as his own?
Even though this conversation was over ten years ago and the demographics have definitely changed in California, Santa Barbara and Westmont, the experiences of many students of color, and faculty and staff of color are still painful and marginalizing. Add to it that speakers, programs and such are still dominated by White males at the college and it’s 2015. Then there continues to be glaring lack of racial diversity at the highest levels of leadership in at the college as well as faculty hires when it comes to African-Americans and Latinos/Hispanics.
Westmont College could either go the way of South Africa in the days of Apartheid or become a campus that truly embraces their collective future as being diverse in all the ways that’s broad and deep. By removing institutional barriers based on race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic class, those who work, serve and learn at Westmont College may take full advantage and make use of their God-given gifts and talents that exist among them. In the end, the hope and desire is that as individuals and in community they are better able to contribute to society and the world with imagination and innovation as the Creator intended from the beginning.
Written by Elena Yee
January 22, 2015
Director for Intercultural Programs 2002-2011
Coordinator for Student Ministries and Missions 2000-2002