On How Students Feel About Immigration, Diversity and Education

UCLA-signLike my Professor, Dr. Berky Nelson, I am committed to the idea of diversity education as a necessity for solving racial and immigration tension in the United States, and the World. I am discouraged by the limited and selfish world view most Americans have, and the growing anti-immigration sentiment in a country which began as a refuge for the oppressed from all over the world. As an older student, my own delayed higher education really opened my eyes to other perspectives and to our country’s often negative impact on the rest of the world, and made me realize the need for greater understanding among the people of the world. With education comes understanding, acceptance, and appreciation of one another’s differences. I formulated my questions around diversity, immigration, and education.

I wanted to find out how comfortable students felt with other cultures, how they view immigration, how informed they were about other cultures in school, and how important it is to our education. I used concepts from Professor Nelson’s lectures as well as Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice, in formulating my interview questions. Allport speaks of the shifting nature of “in-groups,” and America’s changed attitude towards immigration. (p.35) He draws a correlation between strong ‘in-group’ loyalty, or “love prejudice,” and ‘out-group’ bigotry. (p.25) The issue of “class bigotry,” which is not talked about in the media, is among the issues I feel Americans, especially White people, are ignorant about. I feel our educational system, what Alvin Toffler in Power Shift called America’s “factory style school system,” is both a victim and a product of the class system, and like the media does not address certain problems in society, such as the diversity of its population and the lack of equality of opportunity in this land where “all men are created equal.”

In choosing my subjects, persons “different than myself” as we were assigned, I felt I could not simply go by ‘Race’ or skin tone. Because of the way I was raised I am very comfortable speaking to other races, especially in speaking with African Americans for example, I feel part of my own identity reflected back. In fact, I find that those whose world view differs most from mine in this country are White people, and I was drawn to interviewing them. This felt like cheating the assignment, so I decided to also interview Asian people. Fritjof Capra describes Chinese philosophy, which influenced all of Asia, based on the I Ching, with all life working together in harmony as a system (Capra, p. 35-49), versus the Western view of a hierarchal society with mankind (specifically White, Male, in practice) being on top, and it’s “persistent obsession with growth” (p. 389). Although I feel I more identify with Asian philosophy, than the Western world view, it is around Asians that I, in my white skin and American manners, feel most awkward. I decided to compare the responses I got from Asian and White females to my questions about race, immigration, and education. I chose all females in order to keep some consistency without adding the possible extra variable of ‘patriarchal fear.’ The greatest difference to myself I made is in area of study at UCLA; I wanted to speak to students whose education did not necessarily include diversity studies, so I went ‘South Campus’ and hung out at Kerkoff Hall coffee shop to hopefully hear from Math and Science majors. I interviewed 13 women between the ages of 18 and 25; 4 White students, 5 Asian American students with diverse origins, 2 Asian International students, and 2 Mexican American students, who I approached because they had brown skin, and decided to go with the flow and interview them anyway. I ended up with almost half (6) of them Science students, plus two Engineering students, 2 getting their MBA’s at Anderson, one in International Development Studies, and one Grad-student in Education, who also taught elementary school. It seemed like a focused, but still diverse group of students.

I first wanted to establish how my subjects viewed their own identity and prejudices, asking what groups they strongly identify with, nationality or otherwise, any groups they felt others put them in, and any groups they had problems with, didn’t understand, or that their family had issues with. Among the White students, only one had a strong cultural identity, stating “well, I’m Jewish, so…” without finishing her sentence, as though it was understood that it was her identity. Another loosely identified herself as “American,” and another said she perhaps identified with “Science people.” Most of the White students did however feel that other people put them in the categories of “White female,” or even by their hair color, “Blond” or “Ginger.” Likewise, the two Mexican American students had no strong connection to their parents’ nationality, but identified strongly as “Female Engineers,” and both felt other people just see them as “Hispanic.” It was in these two, who were among the youngest at 18, that I also noticed the tendency in students who were sitting in pairs, a certain amount of agreeing with one another and worry what their friend would think. All of the Asian students, both American and International, felt moderate to strong identity either within their nationality, or as an Asian in general. The strongest sense of identity seemed to be that held by a California born, Taiwanese American student Emily, who said that she and her sister are the “least Asian” in her family, all of their other relatives being in Taiwan. Even where she grew up in Fremont California, her high school was 82% Asian, and she didn’t have a single White friend. Coming to UCLA, although still “very Asian,” Emily says it’s different, having joined a sorority of 150 girls as one of only 10 Asians. Emily was also the most honest in discussing ‘out-groups’ and prejudices, perhaps because she was sitting by herself. All of the Asian students felt as Emily, that others put them into the broader category of Asians, especially as “one of the Asians at UCLA” because of the large Asian population on campus.

All of the students seemed devoted to the idea of diversity and tolerance, some even mentioning this as one benefit of coming to UCLA, its diverse population. Ten out of thirteen expressed no racial ‘out-group’ feelings at all, including all of the white students, although one had grandparents who “had problems with Black people” but said that she and her parents were “very diverse.” Whitney explained that as a teacher, she does a lot of work in understanding prejudice in herself and “deconstructing it.” Most of the Asian American students also did not mention problems with other races. Of the three students who admitted difficulty relating to other Races, two were born outside the U.S., the third was Emily. Emily said that though she considers herself open minded, she has trouble communicating with non-asians, “like Black people.” Emily, who was forced to deal with White people “all of a sudden like a whirlwind” in her sorority, and spoke in length of her struggle to “make friends with white people,” saying she feels the “cultural differences.” She sometimes feels “they don’t really WANT to be friends with Asian people.” Even so, Emily expressed a strong desire to communicate better and countered her assessment with “…maybe they (White people) just don’t understand us and feel more comfortable around other white people.” Emily also revealed that her parents were “more traditional,” and that they cautioned her to “be careful around Blacks or Hispanics.” She mentioned certain stereotypes that she is aware of within her, such as “Black people steal,” expressing that it upset her to know these feelings are buried there. Ivy from Vietnam was also warned by her parents “not to hang out with Black or Hispanic kids” in what she called their “not so great neighborhood” in the Bay area, but she befriended them anyway and managed to change her parents opinions. She says now they “are really open to different races, and they’re definitely okay with me dating a black guy or Mexican guy, they are totally cool now.” Kwon, a Science major from Taiwan, who identifies herself as “Asian, Queer, and Christian,” admits that as an international student she finds it harder to relate to other ethnicities as well as she would like. She also has problems with “people who don’t understand queer people.” (Personally, I was encouraged to see this quality in someone also identifying as a “Christian”) Overall, most of the students, even those who did have some issues with out-groups, seemed to have open-mindedness as their ideal.

One question I asked is whether the students consider ‘racism’ or ‘classism’ as a larger concern in the U.S., I was interested to know if they saw a relationship between the two. Four of the ten people I asked this question felt Racism was worse, three were White, out of four White people asked. The Two 18 year old (White) Science Majors felt there was no classism in the U.S. at all, stating “… if so, it’s kind of petty” and “I think people are pretty accepting of social classes.” One 18 year old Mexican American student had personal experiences with racism, which she also thinks is a worse problem. Most of the students saw classism as a problem in the United States, and felt that it was intertwined with racism, with three of them indicating that classism was a worse problem. Whitney agreed that the issues were intertwined because of “the way our system is set up,” but that perhaps racism is worse “at the moment.” Ivy put it well, saying “(the) class system … intertwines with racism, those who are on top of the majority are Caucasian, those who are at the bottom, colored.” One student pointed out that Republicans tend to be richer than Democrats, and “that has really big impact on politics,” another brought up current economic issues, “…people getting kicked out of their homes, on welfare, when others have so much wealth…people don’t need millions of dollars.” One White student feels certain Races of people inherit a lower class. Most students seemed aware of “class bigotry” and the gap between rich and poor in the United States.

Another question I asked was how they felt about eliminating questions of ‘Race’ or ‘Ethnicity’ on public documents, and found a similar disparity in the responses, and my own views changed. I support Affirmative Action, and do not feel that access to education is fair or equal, and agree that measures are still needed to overcome imbalances in opportunity in our society. However, I also feel that it is necessary to eliminate psychologically divisive factors in society in favor of a more global human loyalty, what Allport referred to as our “outermost circle of membership- mankind.” (Allport, p. 42) I feel that as people inter-marry and we become a more intercultural population, these questions become less relevant and should not be used to define us as people, and a greater “loyalty to mankind” as a whole should be fostered. (P.43) One student asked if perhaps questions regarding ‘Gender’ should be added to this, to which I agreed. Only one student held my opinion saying, “our goal as people should be to understand and value people for who they actually are … and the ideas that they bring, versus these labels.” May and June, the two Mexican American students, objected to the question of ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ often singled out on questionnaires from the other categories, an issue that is at the heart of my own concern, it seems divisive and immigration related. The only other two who wanted to put an end to these questions were the two 18 year old White Freshmen, who still had college applications on their minds, and felt these questions should be eliminated from them. A few students were indifferent or felt the questions were for informational purposes only, but most felt the questions were useful in “leveling the playing field.” Emily elaborated, “I don’t think a person better qualified should always hold the position… they might not be as qualified as like, Asian International students, their level of math in Taiwan is insane… just because you’re not as qualified to enter the school, doesn’t mean you can’t grow in this education.” She felt if a person’s Race was not considered, then “this group of people will stay at a lower level.” Whitney, the teacher, was adamant “I would not feel good about (eliminating the questions), I think it gives a lot of information about how the United States is handling money and giving out benefits and jobs.” She felt that without that information, “it would be hard to defend claims of racism or classism.” In listening to what these students had to say, I had to consider that these questions still do more good than not at this point.

I asked the students how they felt about opening borders between countries, and allowing people to migrate more freely, and was a bit discouraged by their lack of vision in picturing a world without borders. Most felt it had “a lot of pros and cons” and I perceived ambiguity and varied perspectives regarding this issue. Many thought “theoretically” it’s a nice idea, but were not optimistic about it’s practicality. One MBA student began by saying opening borders would not be very practical “Government is meant to address the needs of the people, and if people do differ significantly as their opinions do…” but ended with “I think that the incentive to start businesses and things like that would change if people were allowed to migrate, at first there might be a huge influx or out flux of people, in America, or other countries that are considered better or more well off, but as time went on business and stuff would start to equalize that. So I really don’t know.” Some expressed difficulty in responding, or felt unqualified to even answer. There was a lot of concern about “safety,” “regulations,” and “not letting the wrong people in.” It made me wonder what they were all so afraid of, and why there was not a lot of talk about WHY dangerous elements would come into the country. Ivy, reminding me of her major in International Development studies, was one of the few to elaborate on this, “there are a lot of pros and cons to migration, but I think there are more cons than anything, like how people view immigrants… (Worries about them) stealing peoples jobs.” She thinks it’s okay “in some circumstances” to let people in, but there should be “some kind of system where we are helping them at the same time, instead of just letting them… We can’t just keep that many people in the country.” Ivy, herself an International student, also suggested that if we would help people outside of the US, (to which I would add, “or at least stop hurting them”) maybe there wouldn’t be as many people trying to come in, and I agreed with her assessment that “It’s an issue of us being less selfish.”

When I asked if they thought the immigration and border laws were fair now, only one (White) student felt it was, and responded rather uncertainly with “um… I think it’s kind of fine now, I guess, yeah” Most of the other students felt the rules for immigration were not fair, the criteria for admittance too strict and financially based. Those with parents who became or are trying to become citizens, pointed out that many of the “tests” for becoming a citizen were on information that they as a citizens (and most of us) don’t know. One student expressed “I wish all my family could come over, and live a better life, I think I just accepted that that’s how things are.” May and June’s perspective, as the only Mexican American students having personal experiences with people living “illegally” in the country, was that they try to “keep the wrong people out.” May expressed concern about the common use of the word “illegal,” emphatically stating that “If you’re a criminal, that’s illegal, immigrating is not.” June added “there’s a stigma to immigration, people automatically see it as a bad thing.” Even so, they were both still concerned with border “regulating” and “safety.” Only Teacher Whitney, echoed my vision of unfettered open borders with “That would be awesome! I would really like that, especially immigration reform between Mexico and the United States.”

As I moved on to the topic of ‘Diversity education,’ I first asked the students an open ended question of what they saw as a solution or aid in helping ease racial and immigration tension in the United States. The two young (White) Science students had “no idea…nothing I can think of,” and the two (Asian) MBA students felt it would just take time, “several generations.” A few indicated it was up to the younger generations, as older people have prejudice “ingrained.” Three students felt better immigration laws would help, including May, who feels “…if it wasn’t so regulated people wouldn’t mind so much.” Whitney was also among those who mentioned better immigration laws, “that weren’t so stringent” especially for young people. Five of the thirteen students mentioned “education” as key, including of course Whitney, a teacher, who stressed “more equitable education, more equal access, making sure everyone has access to universities, and that requirements are more equal.” Two others mentioned “dialogue” and “open-mindedness” and when questioned further, agreed education would encourage these qualities. Ivy responded “maybe just educating people about other people’s pasts, like that’s why we learned about slavery, we know where people come from and why they’re here and the struggles they been through. Now people are educated about Angel Island and the Chinese coming in and their struggle. And what we do here at UCLA, like culture nights, teaching people about our culture, and what has happened in the past. I feel like educating people is the best way for them not to be ignorant anymore.”

Unanimously across the board, all students agreed that increased diversity studies and a more ‘World’ view of history in K-12, would create more open-minded individuals and help ease racial tension, and that it was needed in our educational system. Most answered enthusiastically with “Absolutely,” “Definitely,” and Teacher Whitney’s “Yes! That’s something I’m very much in favor of!” Only one of the young (White) Science students showed the slightest hesitation about it being a “requirement,” but ended with, “um, I guess yeah.” Even those who grew up in very diverse areas felt that they didn’t learn enough about other people and cultures. Many of the non-White students expressed frustration at learning “only about White people.” Emily explained, “…when all the people around you are the same race as you, you don’t really understand other races.” She remembers the reactions of White students in her mostly Asian school, to the smell of the dumplings many Asian students ate for lunch. Most students felt that cultural and diversity studies in school could even override, or at least balance family cultural prejudices, and created more open minded human beings. Emily put it well, saying “Kids don’t have prejudices, except from their families, and if you reverse that through school you can kind of get a balance through that.” All the students agreed that teaching diversity in K-12 was the best way to overcome prejudice and create more open-minded people.

When I asked if the students felt there should be a University requirement for diversity studies and brought up the lack of a General Education requirement for diversity studies at UCLA, nine of the thirteen felt there should be, including all those for whom some sort of intercultural studies WAS required. Whitney told me “I didn’t go here for undergraduate I went to UC Berkeley, and there was an American cultures requirement, you had to take.” She feels it’s a very important requirement, “especially at UCLA,” where a lot of people are pre-Med and pre-Law, and that it’s “an important background for them to have… they should probably be aware of these things.” Emily, a Science major, feels there is not enough diversity taught in “South campus majors.” She did imply that because UCLA is such a diverse campus, perhaps it’s not as necessary as at other Campuses, but “if you’re going to make a rule, then yes. It should be a requirement.“ Three other Science students, on the other hand, felt University students should not be required to take diversity studies if they didn’t want to, as did Ivy, who enthusiastically approved of teaching diversity in K-12, but was less sure if University students should be forced. She worried that “people wouldn’t be happy,” and pointed out that she had chosen to take “Southeast Asian” studies because she already knew a lot. Ivy had the benefit of a diverse primary education in Oakland, and even a high school teacher who added curriculum for studying other cultures when students wanted to learn about them, though she still claims that at times she “didn’t learn enough.” Pushing the subject, I pointed out that for my G.E. requirement I was forced to take more math than I wanted, and hated every minute of my Statistics class. I also reminded them that UCLA is the only UC without a diversity requirement. Only one Science student persisted in justifying it, saying that Math “helps you pay taxes,” though it was obvious taxes were a big concern for her, as she had mentioned it several times. Had we continued our dialogue, I would have challenged her implication that learning “to pay taxes” is of greater importance than learning to get along in this diverse nation of ours. To the above I would like to add the experiences of a classmate of mine, a 20 year old transfer student in my Major (WAC), who identifies as “Gender Queer.” She says she finds an disturbing lack of sensitivity on campus regarding sexual identity, and wishes there was a “Diversity Awareness class” required in the same manner that ‘Drug and Alcohol Awareness’ was required upon our admission to UCLA this term, and even met with the Chancellor to discuss it.

Observations: UCLA is seen as a diverse campus, with many different cultures coming together. There was a strong sense of identity among the Asians, and significantly less among the White students, the exception being “Jewish.” Though there appeared to be a connection between strong in-group identity, bigotry, and difficulty relating to other Races, a diverse education in one student over rode and even changed her parents bigoted attitudes. The differences I detected in student responses were, for the most part, not segregated by Race, that is to say ‘White’ and ‘non-White.’ Although the two students whose opinions differed most from mine were White, they were also Science majors and 18 year old Freshmen and the one person I identified with the most was also White, Whitney, a Teacher and Grad student in Education. Overall, it was the Science students, both White and non-white, who I least identified with, as I had presumed. The one topic everyone agreed upon was that greater diversity education would be an effective way to instill open-mindedness in people and combat Racism, and that our education system as it is fails at this. With UCLA’s reputation as a diverse campus, it seems unreasonable that it is the only UC without a diversity requirement. As Ivy put it, “I think it’s important, especially in America where we take in everyone, in the classroom we’re sitting with people of all different colors, so we shouldn’t just be learning about Columbus. It should be ingrained in (America’s) students that this is a country of diversity, and that we should accept everyone.”

Works Cited:

Allport, Gordon. The Nature of Prejudice. Doubleday. New York. 1954, 1958

Toffler, Alvin. Power Shift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century. Bantam Books. 1991

Capra, Fritzjof. The Turning Point. Simon and Shuster. 1982

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