Education as the tool of the oppressors

In my senior year of college, I decided to take a new job position where I mentor and assist incoming first year students who are participants of the Humanities program at Davidson. Like the reason for other projects that I have been involved with at Davidson, I came to the Davidson Humanities Program with a deep commitment to social justice. Throughout my four years of college, I have learned that my academic work, as an Africana scholar, and my career passion align with the reality that my father is an incarcerated man. My father was deported to Vietnam in 2016, where he was sentenced to 33 years in prison. His experience instills in me the importance of fighting for others and challenging injustice. This personal drive for justice manifests in the way I view education.

In my role as a teaching assistant and a mentor for incoming first year students, I want to instill in my students that their education at Davidson could be more than just a degree, but also a process of personal growth and finding their voices. From liberation from inherent social conditions that hinder them from achieving their dreams to finding their voices and passions, I believe that personal growth is a vital part of the learning process. 

Recognizing the lack of marginalized voices in the program, as a mentor to these students, I wanted to inspire them to criticize the language of freedom and recognize how the humanity of marginalized people, particularly black and brown people, has been dismissed and disregarded in society. Instead of prompting them to engage in a process of unthinking and dissociating themselves from reality, I wanted to inspire my students to step out of the Davidson bubble, as we called it in Humanities, and to think beyond the conceptual scheme. I wanted them to understand that suffering is an inevitable part of life and sometimes, to understand the world, they must suffer and face the darkest parts of themselves. 

Being a woman of color teaching assistant in a predominately white program was an emotionally draining experience for me. Though I was in a position of relative authority, I constantly felt outnumbered and isolated. My job was to help students understand the Western humanities traditions, which for years have been dominated by white philosophers.

I often found myself having a very difficult time understanding the philosophies of white men and how theirs could be privileged over the dignities and experiences of people of color. In reading about the white men’s philosophical thoughts, I often asked myself: how can someone who has never fought for their humanity nor been subjected to inhumane treatment claim to understand what it is like to be human outside of the white man’s experience? I was infuriated with the fact that race has been treated as insignificant or tangential in conversations regarding the Enlightenment scholars. Despite the “rational thoughts” of the Enlightenment scholars, they have created what historian Ivan Hannaford describes as “the color-coded, white-over-black” ideology, the enduring idea that the West is superior and the Other is savage. Professors continue to neglect the problematic ideologies of these white philosophers and place them as the pedestals in humanities traditions. Meanwhile, the works of black humanists such as Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Franz Fanon, Angela Davis, and W.E.B. Du Bois, are often treated as side subjects instead of as part of the canon of the humanities tradition. 

I was particularly interested in mentoring students of color in the program. There were approximately 80 students in the program and only ten percent of them were people of color. Of the eight professors, one of them is a woman of color, an Asian woman. Like my experience, the students of color had a very hard time fitting into the program. I was drawn to these students because I saw my younger self in them, a girl who hoped to come to Davidson with the naïve expectation that her education would free her from oppression. And then I instead see that hope destroyed with the truth and the reality of being a person of color in America. When the students of color in the program share with me their experiences facing microaggressions from their white classmates and professors, I often feel powerless. I wish I could tell them that Davidson will be a better place and their experience will be different; but unfortunately, I don’t even believe these things myself. 

During my four years at Davidson, many times when I was walking to class, I just wanted to turn around and not go. But then, I would remember that I have a mother who works at a nail shop for twelve hours a day and a father who is incarcerated waiting for me. I think about my future as a successful lawyer, and I keep walking to my class in Chambers, acting as though nothing happened, and like I don’t carry all these burdens with me.

Because of my experience, I can connect with students of disadvantaged backgrounds in Humanities on a deep and personal level. I understand what it feels like to not belong here. I understand the feelings of alienation and isolation, of never being good enough. I understand what it is like to be in a group of students of color in a predominantly white campus space where we are constantly excluded. Even though the white students do not attack or question us, we still feel like they question our presence here. I know what it feels like when one of my students comes to me to talk about her depression at Davidson and how this semester has taken a financial and emotional toll on her. I understand when one student in the program comes to me and says, “I lived in a war before. None of these things matter to me, humanities don’t relate to my experience.” I once heard a student of color in the program say: “when students of color go to college, they bring their baggage and traumas with them.” I couldn’t resonate more with that statement. Because of our experiences living in this world as marginalized people, we often find ourselves lacking the patience to understand and sympathize with people who are privileged and have been favored in society. We are scarred by struggles and generational traumas that cannot be cured. It feels like students of marginalized backgrounds go to a different Davidson in comparison to our white counterparts. 

Because of our similarities, and in some cases, shared experiences, I have learned a lot from the mentorship and friendship that I offered these students. I think that these students are equipped to define humanity on their own. Their boldness and courage to face struggles in the world inspire me every day.

While enjoying the relationships that I fostered with students of color, I was getting a lot of attention for having small gatherings with these students. Other fellows in the program accused me of isolating these students of color and turning them against the others in the humanities program. The extra attention that I gave to the students of color raised a lot of eyebrows. 

Society has taught us that learning about Western philosophies will give us access to power as well as the ability to be knowledgeable and civilized. This phenomenon resonates with some students of color at Davidson who come here in hopes of improving the conditions of their parents and communities. Our experiences are filtered through racial traumas, and we often feel that we are not welcome to bring these experiences into the classroom. We are told that speaking about our experiences with racism will make our white counterparts feel bad. We often feel that we are not a priority for this institution. If the education of marginalized students is the priority to this institution, why do our needs for diversity and inclusion, for more faculty of color, for more resources continue to be neglected? We must exist in relation to white students. What I always tell students of color is that we deserve to be here. We need to take up space. During my time as a Humanities Fellow, I encouraged the students with marginalized identities to speak up in discussion.

It is crucial for students of color to remember that even if we are outnumbered, our voices are powerful and our experiences, traumatic or not, give us the language to describe freedom and what it is like to be human. We can change the world. 

Even though the professors in Humanities have put in the effort to make the students of marginalized backgrounds feel included and welcomed at Davidson, the lack of representation of marginalized people in the faculty, group of fellows, and the student body does have an emotional impact on the students of color, especially the Black and Brown students, in the program. We constantly discuss race, but not in a productive manner due to the lack of ethical guidelines and input from faculty of color. It makes me question if white students are only comfortable taking cultural classes that white professors teach or white professors are only comfortable talking about race when they are in control of knowledge production.

When we discuss race and racism in the classroom, white students often put the burden on the students of color to teach or correct them. On some occasions, some white students frame social problems such as racial inequality as individual pathologies.

In contemporary America, some white students are indoctrinated with the idea of individualism and “meritocracy.” They often end up believing in the idea that everyone is equal and has the same privileges. They are conditioned to not see race and how it impacts the experiences of their marginalized classmates.

Under this ideology, when students of marginalized identities do speak about their experiences with poverty, discrimination, and powerlessness, white students dismiss these struggles as an individual problem since they see America as a meritocracy and a post-racial society. Some students are under the impression that racism is a past problem and that we live in a just society where everyone is guaranteed equal rights. In these conversations, students of color often feel more excluded and marginalized since they often find themselves in a difficult position, either challenging their classmates directly or self-silencing and not sharing their own opinions.

White professors, who hold authority and power in the classroom, often remain silent when white students express ignorant thoughts, despite the fact their opinions and privileges have the potential of invalidating the experience and humanity of students of color. In these moments, I wish professors would stand up for students of color and use their power to explain the realities of racism to the white students. 

While it is a disservice to the white students as they are allowed to maintain their ignorant perspectives and continue to be misled, it is also a burden for students of color when they have to correct others instead of being able to focus on their own learning. It is imperative that our institution puts social justice-driven people in positions of power and authority and oversee knowledge production. To make students of color feel included in Humanities or any other academic programs at Davidson, we need to have resources and programs that are specifically tailored for students of color and those of marginalized identities. We need to invest more in these students to alleviate the gap (in most cases, not education, but wealth and privilege gap) between them and their white counterparts. We shouldn’t put double the labor on one person of color or on students of color to educate white students about racism. Racial tensions not only exist in the real world, but also at Davidson.

To have productive conversations about racism, we must first address the existing racial tensions in our community and recognize the painful history of racial discrimination at our institution that continues to haunt students of color, specifically Black and Brown students, today. 

Looking back, I am grateful for the relationship that I fostered with the students in the program. And yet at the same time I understand the double-edged sword of being a token minority and the only person white people look at when it comes to the conversation regarding diversity and inclusion. 

Uyen Nguyen graduated from Davidson College, class of 2020, where she pursued an education in Africana Studies and Economics. As a former undocumented immigrant from Vietnam, she is committed to promote social justice and challenge the injustice that immigrant communities face. Uyen received the Spencer-Weinstein for Community and Justice Award for her work at a criminal justice organization called Campaign for Youth Justice. Outside of the classroom, Uyen promoted social justice by advocating for marginalized students as a Senator in the Student Government Association. Witnessing the brutal injustice that her father, an undocumented man, experienced in immigration custody changed the direction of her life and inspired her to work in the criminal justice field. She was recently named the 2020-2021 Davidson Impact Fellow at the Georgia Justice Project. With a vision for social justice, Uyen’s long-term goal is to become a lawyer who advocates for individuals who are wrongly accused of crimes and treated unfairly in the criminal justice system.