Racism has always been and will be a controversial and delicate issue. But when international students on campus are consistently offended and inappropriately talked to because of stereotypes, is that still racism or a more intense form of ignorance? Who is to be blamed? Parents, education, society?
“As soon as I say I’m Indian and a Sikh, I’m asked if cows are holy to me. No, they’re not. I’m Sikh! All life is holy to me— including and not limited to cows,” says Jasmine Mann, a Politics major at New York University. “This doesn’t really offend me, it’s just ignorant. (Cows) are a religious thing but to others, it applies to all Indians. But there are many religions within India!” NYU prides itself as a liberal institution and a global university. The global network is what attracts international and domestic students alike, but this does not mean that cultural barriers are that much easier to break.
Curiosity and learning is always encouraged, but some questions and comments come off as more racist and ignorant than genuine interest. “I was once asked if Sikhism is a sect of Islam,” states Mann, as she shakes her head. “I tried explaining that it wasn’t. I was definitely very upset when I was asked, but didn’t show it. I just tried my best to get rid of this misunderstanding.” After the 9/11 attacks, Sikhs living in America were targeted and bullied, attacked and even killed because they were thought to be a part of Islam. “It is because of assumptions like this, that Sikhs are victims of hate crimes and horrendous murders,” Mann continues. “I was also once asked if Sikhs are a Native American tribe and honestly, I was so dumbfounded to even respond to that coherently.”
According to the facts and statistics published by NYU, international students make up about 20% of NYU’s student population, and 90 countries are represented within this 20%. This year’s freshman class alone has about 21% Asian Americans and Asian students. While the exact percentage of South Asian students has not been published, they are an established minority within the NYU community. There are numerous groups and student organisations on campus that are centred on fostering a community for south Asian students and holding events that are unique to South Asian culture which are open to all NYU students. Organisations like the Indian Cultural Exchange, Shruti and the United Sikh Association host events often with food, dance and performances all related to South Asian culture so as to educate the rest of the student population about where their peers come from.
There isn’t a lot of friction or tension between south Asian students and the rest of the NYU student body, however this issue of ignorance is more noticeable at a personal level. Some south Asian students have just encountered with uncomfortable situations where they’ve been asked by peers and sometimes even friends, jarring questions like, “So are you a dot Indian, or feather?” or rather, “Are there Muslims where you come from? Are they just as scary as they are here?” and sometimes, students are met with comments like, “Why are you speaking in your native language? Speak English. This is America. You need to learn.”
Mallika Shah, a sophomore student at SUNY in Geneseo, New York has had a similar experience. “I live with three south Asians and one American girl and we’re all friends. A few weeks ago our white roommate came up to us and told us she’s uncomfortable when we speak to our parents over the phone in our native languages.” Shah and her roommates asked their friend why it bothered her. “She said it was because she thought we were planning something… like a terrorist attack. I was appalled and frustrated.” While this sort of racism stems from homogenous societies in rural America and the representation of terrorists and other religions in western media, it is still inexcusable for such generalisation.
International students are actively recruited and pursued by American universities to generate revenue in difficult economic times. Not only do they generate revenue for the U.S. economy but also increase diversity on campuses and are a great source of cultural exposure for domestic students. In 2011 alone, international students contributed $21.8 billion dollars to the U.S. economy. 70% of this primary funding for international students comes from outside of the United States. Shouldn’t this mean that these universities should provide a safer experience especially since they’re increasing the diversity on campus and helping the economy. If such ignorance spreads more and if it turns more violent and more racist, international students will be discouraged from applying to universities in the United States.