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Educate Yourself: Making an Environment Welcoming to ALL

Diversity and inclusion are typically hot topics for discussion, particularly on college campuses. Schools pay a great deal of attention, at least on the surface-level, towards ensuring that they have students of different backgrounds, minority groups, orientation, beliefs, and interests. But the reality doesn’t always live up.

When I graduated high school, I was thrilled to start college. I knew that college was going to be an exciting challenge for me and I was looking forward to what was to come. What I did not expect, though, was that my school environment wouldn’t be quiet as excited to have me there. As a first-generation immigrant, I am constantly at the crossroads between two different cultures. There are great things I have learned from the United States, and there are great things I have kept from my Peruvian background. Having grown up in multi-ethnic Miami, with its strong Latinx community, though, left me more sheltered me from what many Latinxs and other minority groups deal with. Namely an unwelcoming environment.

When I arrived on campus my classmates and I underwent the typical orientation program, including all the right words around “diversity” and “inclusivity”. But I quickly realized that those terms were being misused in the place of “tokenism”. Since I am white-passing, I didn’t really get blatant discrimination; instead, I experienced tons of microaggressions. Being mocked for cultural practices, comments about how “unfair” affirmative action is, questions on why should events should even be geared towards minority groups, jokes about students with accents, and the list goes on and on. There was even a situation I found myself in where a fellow student admitted to blatantly lying and checking off Latino/Hispanic on their application; justifying their actions by claiming a distant Mexican ancestor while affirming that they don’t actually identify as Latina. (Affirmative action is, of course, designed to support members of disadvantaged groups. To try and help even out the playing field for people who might have had the unfair responsibility of translating documents for their parents, or were needed at home to help provide support for their families, or had to learn a second language while acclimating in school. Not a method for people who aren’t a part of underrepresented populations to seek an advantage.) The truth was the feeling on campus was palpable – anyone who represented or looked “different” was expected to confirm or remain hidden away.

After about a year I moved back to Miami and transferred to Florida International  University (FIU). With its multi-ethnic student body (85% ethnic minorities), well-structured Disability Resource Center, and diverse religious, political, and ideological composition, FIU has done a much better job at creating a welcoming and diversity-practicing environment for me.

My personal story is just one example of what many students of color, members of the LBGTQ community, and different religious backgrounds experience. So, what’s the solution? Talking about diversity and inclusion simply isn’t enough. People and institutions need to practice what they preach. Making an environment, whether it’s a college campus, a workplace, a local hangout, etc. feel welcoming to all requires effort from us all.

Where to Start

  1. Educate Yourself

We all have a part to play in this. A person of your community (and the world) it is your responsibility to become more educated. Don’t wait or expect members of a minority group to explain things to you.  It’s an unfair burden to put on marginalized individuals. Do your research, extensively. We have Google for goodness sake! The only way for us to stay ignorant is to choose to stay ignorant.

  1. Get Involved

Research is good. Research is great even. But you know what’s just as critical? Getting out in the world and meeting people different than yourself. If we all stayed in our own comfort zones nothing would ever be learned. Take a step in the right direction, join a group on campus that supports others. Engage in respectful discussions with people from different backgrounds. Come armed with an understanding (remember to educate yourself, don’t expect others to do it for you!) but it’s important to get to know people who don’t look, feel, think, or act exactly like you.

  1. Listen

Learning is about listening. If a person of different backgrounds (ethnic, cultural, religious, ideological, experiential, etc.) is sharing with you stories, experiences, information, opinions, etc. about themselves, listen. Take a moment to really hear what they’re saying. Do not speak over them. Do not try to tell them your own stories. Do not minimize or gaslight their complaints. Just shut up and listen.

  1. Share Your Platform

Marginalized voices have voices. Do not speak over us. Do not “use your voice” to “help” us. Pass the mike and be supportive by listening while we talk.

I am grateful I was able to learn from those negative experiences. Whenever I meet someone who might have a disability, or a different sexual orientation or gender identity that I am accustomed to interacting with I take into account how I wished I had been treated when I was the odd one out. I should never have been subject to such discrimination, and the fact that other people have had similar experiences and even have way worse experiences is unacceptable. It is up to all of us to change the way we interact with each other.