OPINION: How we view diversity at Princeton


The week we, the freshman class, marched through FitzRandolph Gate, we were bombarded with activities that initiated the four-year-long journey that will be our Princeton careers. Some of them instilled the expectations the University has of us, some set the tone and others acknowledged the problems that exist on Princeton’s campus.

The diversity talk — “Reflections on Diversity” — falls under the third category with its discussion of sexual and racial differences and the challenges differences present here on campus. While the University did a good job with the former, I found the latter to be rather flavorless due to its emphasis on polarity.

I was born in Seoul, South Korea, but I moved to New York seven years ago. Since then, I have been living in a beautiful, middle-class suburbia that is noteworthy for its homogeneity and WASP-yness. There was not a single black person in my high school, and there were only 10 Asians, including myself. I still loved my one square mile of a town. But I am painfully aware of the fact that I have not been exposed to the full spectrum of the American experience. It is a continuing struggle for me to expand upon my limited interaction with diversity, especially racial diversity. I wanted the diversity talk to introduce the wide variety of experiences at the University. In this respect, the diversity talk did not meet my hopes.

I listened to speeches that were, literally and rhetorically, very much focused on the black and white. Literally speaking, there was a glaring underrepresentation of any race other than white or black. All panelists discussed the African-American experience. (There was one white, Jewish panelist, but she too spoke about her work on the topic of what it means to be an African-American male in America.) In favor of discussing the dichotomy, they neglected East Asians, Indians, Hispanic, etc. It was as though only African-American and white students existed at Princeton, as though the struggle of an Indian-American in this country, let’s say, isn’t every bit as legitimate.

Then, I was reminded of a comment my good friend had made a year or so ago. Racism toward Asians just is not in fashion, he argued. Asians, or so his argument went, have assimilated successfully into the American culture. He even added, all in good humor, that they were whites for all intents and purposes. And he pointed to me — the living evidence of his argument. An Asian girl who lived in Korea until the age of 12, fully assimilated into the stereotypical American suburb. I did not agree with his assessment back then, and I do not agree with it now. But I realized that many people must agree with him, consciously or subconsciously, and view the racial struggle as a clash of two groups, white and black. All other groups are observant nonparticipants.

But I want to give a voice to other stories. There are those of us who are not black or white at Princeton. There are also those of us who hail from other backgrounds. There are those of us who struggled. There are those of us, myself included, who were far from the majority in our towns but still felt at home there. My slight Korean accent, my stubborn refusal to eat Pop Tarts (“It’s so gross,” I would exclaim) or, more seriously, my friend’s Hindu beliefs didn’t automatically translate into a struggle. The point is that these are all valid American experiences that should be acknowledged when we talk about diversity.

No single person’s experience is representative of a whole group’s. Just because I was blessed and did not face any discrimination even while I lived in one of the more WASP-y towns in the nation doesn’t mean that every Asian girl will feel at home there. I don’t claim to represent the whole; similarly, the diversity panel should not have asserted that the University is a certain way when it comes to a certain race.

I want to make it clear that it was through no fault of the panelists themselves that the diversity talk was so lacking in the end. They discussed their valid, personal experiences. But in the future, the University should organize the event in such a way that not all panelists focus on the different experiences of one racial identity.

Perhaps what was the most uncomfortable was that in the absence of this acknowledgement, the University missed the entire point of diversity. It didn’t focus on what really matters. Diversity should cover the whole range, not just a couple of points on the spectrum.

Erica Choi is a freshman from Bronxville, NY. She can be reached at gc6@princeton.edu.

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