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Tensions simmer between American and international students

'I'm Not Racist, But'
October 16, 2012

A Chinese student at Michigan State University finds his car spray-painted, the words reading "Go back home."

Students at Ohio State University Tweet comments like “The [I]ndian next [to] me [at] the gym smells like a curry covered butt hole” and “Every Asian that walks past us in the oval wants to eat our dog.” These comments, and others, were recently reposted on a blog, OSU Haters, which aims to call attention to offensive online speech. The blog disproportionately features Tweets about Asian students. A spin-off site at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln features similar commentary. One post, from the first week of classes, reads, “I’m not racist, but one thing I did not miss was all the Asians. @UNLproblems.”

At Kansas State University, the student newspaper this spring published a column arguing that American tax dollars shouldn’t be used to fund the education of Afghan, Chinese, Iranian, Iraqi or Turkish students “who could, in the near future, become the enemy.” The column was as misinformed as it was misguided: in fact, international students typically pay full freight and their tuition dollars serve as an increasingly important source of revenue at U.S. colleges.

Such incidents may seem isolated, but experts say they are reflective of a widespread but little-discussed problem of discrimination against international students. Jenny J. Lee, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, describes the phenomenon as “neo-racism,” meaning that culture or country of origin, rather than color, is used as a pretense for discrimination. She said that neo-racism does not preclude traditional racism, but instead masks it. In interviews with 24 international students, Lee found that students from Europe, Canada and New Zealand did not report discrimination based on race or culture, while students from Asia, Latin America and the Middle East reported “considerable discrimination.”  

In a resulting journal article published in Higher Education, Lee and her co-author, Charles Rice, wrote that students faced more blatant discrimination off-campus than on-, but that even within the campus bubble they were subject to verbal abuse. This could take the form of stereotyping of their cultures or countries, criticism of their accents, and derogatory statements about foreigners in general.

 “If there was a forum where students would feel safe to report violations, I think we would all be quite surprised at the extent of this,” Lee said. “These little instances that we’re seeing scattered about are evidence of a much larger problem of U.S. colleges and universities failing to internationalize their own students.”

Integration and Discrimination

The number of international students on U.S. campuses is on the rise – up 5 percent in 2010-11 -- fueled in large part by a dramatic increase in the number of students coming from China. In just one year, the number of Chinese students jumped by 23 percent -- and 43 percent at the undergraduate level. Much of this growth has been happening on campuses that haven’t historically hosted large numbers of Asian students, such as Kansas State. And even at colleges that have long had large numbers of international graduate students, the cohorts of undergraduates from abroad are up sharply.

There's reason to be concerned about how well these new international students are being integrated on U.S. campuses: a study published this summer found that nearly 40 percent of international students reported having no close American friends. Colleges have created all types of programming to try to bring international students and American students together.  At the University of California at Los Angeles, for example, the international student office’s initiatives range from language partners to “Global Siblings” to international cooking classes to speed dating.  

All that’s to the good, said Thevi Pather, director of international programs and global advancement at Royal Roads University, in British Columbia. But he stressed that colleges also need to do work in their communities to raise awareness about the benefits that international students bring.

With few exceptions, “higher education institutions are a reflection of the community,” he said.

“And if there is a tendency towards discrimination towards people from non-dominant cultural groups, then international students will feel it.”

This topic has been-much discussed in Australia, where racially motivated attacks on international students attracted widespread media attention and led to steep declines in enrollments from India. Offensive Tweets and provocative op-eds rightfully seem tame by comparison, but experts suggest that as international students become more numerous and visible on North American campuses, there will be an increase in nasty culture clashes.

‘Our MSU’

At Michigan State, the spray-painting happened around the same time this summer that students discovered an offensive Twitter feed, “MSU’s Token Asian.” Many of the Tweets have been taken offline, but screenshots reveal common stereotypes of Asian students, articulated in broken English. There is the “Asians as math nerds” stereotype -- “I feel of angry depression, when does math start again?” – and the "Asians as rich" stereotype, too. “[W]hy no [A]mericans like when I drive my Lamborghini? I thought it cool??”

An article in the college newspaper reporting on the vandalism and the Twitter feed drew anonymous commenters, one of whom, using the pseudonym “haha,” disputed that the Twitter feed was hostile -- “you guys confused making fun of [A]sians as being racist when it is not” – and suggested that the reported problems stem from the Asian students’ own self-segregation.  “Asian International students are SO innocent,” haha wrote. “They stick together and are too full of themselves to bother connecting with the non-international students at MSU. When you purposefully, separate yourself from the other students at the University[,] [w]hat do you expect? How about you guys stop being so rude and arrogant to the rest of us and let us talk to you, maybe do some language exchange, go out for coffee... or something!”

Michigan State hosted a forum, “Our MSU,” last Tuesday to talk about these tensions. The “Our MSU” event was not only about or for international students, but was about  “reclaiming” MSU for all groups, explained Meaghan Kozar, a coordinator in the Office of Cultural and Academic Transitions. “It’s coming from the idea that if you receive an acceptance letter and it says, ‘Welcome to MSU,' this is now your MSU,” she said. “No one has more of a right to be here than anyone else.”

Maggie Zhang, a sophomore from MSU originally from China, said at the forum that she wished there could be “more respect, more understanding and more patience.”

“Lots of people were saying, ‘Oh yeah, Asians only hang with Asians; they don’t get out of their comfort zone. They only stick with each other,’ ” she said in an interview the next day. “We definitely want to hang out with Americans, but sometimes it’s hard.

 "We’re trying to fit in with this American culture with you guys,” Zhang said. “We’re trying to learn from you, but at the same time it’s probably going to take us a longer time to understand American culture.”

 

 

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