Having Hard Conversations on Campus: Professors and Faculty Discuss the Dangers of Xenophobia
- Katherine Jossi
On March 3rd, a panel convened in Richardson Auditorium to discuss stereotyping and xenophobia on campus and beyond. The panel was a discussion amongst three professors and one faculty member. We were joined by Hicham Mazouz (French), Jennifer Esperanza (Anthropology), Beatrice McKenzie (History), and Daksha Joshi Howard (Office for Student, Success, Equity and Community.)
The panel was organized and moderated by the Office of International Education student worker Yashodhara Kundra’20. The conversation began with some words from Yashodhara about her experiences as a woman of color in America and on Beloit’s campus. She also explained to the audience the definition of xenophobia and its origin. Her remarks were followed by a lively discussion about being faculty and staff of color on campus and their experiences in academia more broadly. From their experiences growing up to being profiled as adults, each had unique stories to share with the audience. Yashodhara also provided the audience will a helpful diagram displaying four definitions for different types of stereotyping that can occur. The discussion was followed by a short question and answer period, where students were allowed to ask panelists questions.
After the panel, I met up with Yashodhara Kundra to discuss what inspired this panel, and why it’s important to have these conversations.
Katherine Jossi: What inspired you to host this panel?
Yashodhara Kundra: I was deeply troubled by the representation of brown bodies in the media. There were many cases on the news of brown individuals being profiled as “terrorists” or “illegal”- cases like the one of a brown professor being taken off a plane because he was doing math or people being told to go back to where they came from for speaking a different language were enraging. Even around me, on campus, I saw microaggressions being committed every day. There were instances of people asking, “Where are you really from” or “How do you speak such good English?”, discrediting the person’s history and putting them in a pejorative box. Hate crimes had become rampant; it was getting tougher to explain to people why xenophobia and stereotyping were harmful. That is why I decided to bring together a group of knowledgeable individuals who could speak about these topics from academic as well as personal perspectives. My hope was that hearing their stories coupled with knowing the history of these topics would lead to a wider acknowledgment of why these biases are harmful.
KJ: Why is it important to have these conversations on campus?
YK: We are committed to being an anti-racist institution, so just being non-racist isn’t sufficient. We need to strive to create a more equitable environment so everyone can thrive. This college attracts a diverse set of people, and I think it’s unfair to intentionally invite someone into a space that’s unsafe for them. Brown individuals on this campus, especially international students, are usually underrepresented because of the lack of conversations around stereotyping of brown bodies. It’s our job to work together to make Beloit College a welcoming and inclusive space for everyone.
KJ: What was your biggest takeaway from the panelists?
YK: There were some invaluable lessons I took away from the incredible panelists.
- Professor Hicham Mazouz, originally from Algeria, told us about a time he was questioned by an FBI agent about his reasons for entering the US at the airport, even though he had a green card. The FBI agent asked for his wallet and began to scatter his belongings on the table. Professor Mazoz stated that this was an attempt at making him feel inferior and at enticing a response out of him. He explained how acts of profiling like these affect brown individuals’ sense of self and wear down on them. He also talked about having to explain his identity repeatedly. From him, I will take away the idea that you don’t have to be only one thing. You can be a brown individual and so much more than that, at the same time.
- Professor Jennifer Esperanza talked about her roots and about being a Filipino woman in the US. She talked about her “elevator speech” which explained her background when someone asked her about her life. This quickly can turn into the person offering the speech feeling tired of explaining things about themselves. She offered some invaluable advice to the persons of color present at the panel- she said that it is not your duty to educate people who ask you ignorant questions. She asked them to ask them in turn, “how much have you tried to learn about this? How much have you researched?”
- Daksha Joshi Howard spoke about her experience growing up in different places- she was born in Uganda in an Indian family, and they moved to the UK as refugees. She has faced instances of discrimination ranging from being told to “go back to Mexico” to being told in a Walmart check-out line how great her English was. To the latter, she replied, “Why thanks, I speak the Queen’s English”. From Daksha, I take with myself lessons of perseverance and hard work, irrespective of circumstances.
- Professor Beatrice McKenzie talked about the history of immigration to the US. She talked about cases of violence against brown bodies happening around the world and the US currently and why it’s dangerous. When asked about what we can do to empower brown voices, she gave advice to the white members of the audience to sit back when these conversations come up and listen to what people of color have to say intently. She suggested that sometimes the best way to support one another is listening and stepping back when necessary.
KJ: What do you hope audience members took away?
YK: I hope members of the audience took away the idea that solidarity among different groups of people is important when it comes to creating a more inclusive environment. It is important to show up for one another. When different groups of people listen to the stories of another’s experiences without discounting or invalidating it, that’s when we grow as a community.