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Tokenism and the question of supposed International diversity

Gareth McNamara

If I asked you to don the United States’ national costume, would you have a clue where to begin? I have my doubts that there’s a place in your wardrobe dedicated to your Yankee-ist pants and matching shirt and tie. Pilgrim hats and buckled shoes are probably out, too. In a pinch, maybe you’ve got a patriotic pair of shorts emblazoned with stars and stripes. But honestly, rather than sidling off and suiting up, it’s more likely you’d respond to my question with one of your own. Something along the lines of: “What the hell do you mean, the United States’ national costume?” After that, you might even get a couple more puzzled probes out. What exactly is a national costume? Why am I expected to know what it is? Why am I expected to own one and why do I have to wear it? All valid questions. I have another. Why are international students expected to reinforce national stereotypes?

As International Education Week approaches, I’d like to draw your attention to how frequently international-centred campus events rely on devices like national costume, national cuisine and national song and dance. It’s quite a lot. The international student community is made most visible to the rest of campus through events like these. And why not? There’s free food far more exciting than what you’ll find upstairs in Lowry. There are fancy clothes so much more exotic than the day-to-day parade of t-shirts, flannels and jeans. There’s music that reminds you of that one Bollywood film you just adored. Isn’t it so great that we’re such a diverse and accepting community?

Let’s not kid ourselves, folks. This school is overwhelmingly white American. You may have a different definition of diversity, but a college that’s over 2/3 Caucasian sounds a fair ways off it to me. We’re trying, and some of us are certainly trying very hard. I give credit to the folks in the Office of International Student Affairs and Center for Diversity and Global Engagement, as well as to others across the many branches of our administration who make diversity a priority. However, I think their noble intentions and efforts are marred by this ongoing dog-and-pony show approach to the international student community.

Contrary to the impressions you might have, Western fashion is as common in many places abroad as any local couture. Sure, some populations represented in the Wooster student body may still have their own distinct articles of day to day clothing. Does this mean individual students should be expected to wear them all and act as a living, breathing National Geographic collage for your viewing pleasure? Not at all. The idea of national costume is outdated, a lingering dreg of romantic nationalism into which we continue to breathe life. The idea of national costume seeds a far more dangerous one: the idea of homogeneity, or tokenism, to use a term that might induce a bit more wincing. One individual does not, cannot and should not represent an entire culture. Placing a huge emphasis on national costume, national cuisine, national music and national dance requires individuals to make an effort at doing just that.

I’ve seen this idea in action at Wooster. I’ve sat in classes and watched as a professor asks the one Asian student their opinion of Jeremy Lin or as rows of white heads turn to a solitary black student seeking a definitive opinion on whether racial slurs in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be censored or not. I’ve been the Irish student who’s been asked to sum up Ireland’s feelings on the Troubles in the North (oh sure, let me draw you a simple diagram) or on the European Union. The time I was asked to give “a European’s perspective” on universal healthcare remains my personal favorite to date. I hope for Europe’s sake I never have to be the lone spokesman for a continent again. This experience and this expectation has led me personally to downplay my international-ness, to make an effort to drop my local slang words (“What’s the craic lads, any schkeah?”), not to mix Irish words and phrases into English sentences (you’d probably be a bit confused if I told you to stop acting like such a liudramán and throw me my geansaí) and to soften my accent to the point it’s barely audible.

I can’t speak for how this has affected other international students or students from other minority backgrounds on campus, but if they’ve felt the need to make similar changes, I sympathize. We didn’t come here to be the poster boys and girls for our respective home countries or backgrounds. Diversity implies integration. And yes, integration certainly shouldn’t be assimilation; individuals must be allowed to express their national, ethnic and cultural identities. But these expressions shouldn’t be representative of their entire identity. Integration doesn’t mean making everyone the same, but it also doesn’t mean singling “diverse” people out.

Please don’t take what I’ve said to be a condemnation of all who choose to wear their national costume, cook foods from their home country or play their local folk or popular music this International Education Week. I will probably take the opportunity to perform Irish songs (maybe even a few in the Irish language) in the Culture Show as I have done for the past three years. But not because I have to, or because that’s just what Irish people do (trust me, lots of people in Ireland couldn’t give a toss about folk music or speaking the language). But that’s fine, because I won’t do it to embody all that is Irish. I’ll do it because it’s what I enjoy, and it’s what I want to do. I’d encourage all internationals to do the same with the parts of their heritage that they value.

In our pursuit of diversity, we have to be self-conscious and self-critical. People are complex, entire populations even more so. Stereotypes are simple and easy to revert to. Last year, the Black Student Association hosted an excellent discussion on tokenism which drew nowhere near the amount of attention I believe it deserved. If we’re serious about working for diversity, those are the types of conversations that we all need to be having. For Jesus’ sake, don’t take anyone to be representative of an entire culture. If I’m supposed to be here to give a solid representation of the Irish people, I’m afraid I’ve let the home side down something awful.

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