James Zarsadiaz: Time for GW students to address the race issue

Last weekend, my cousin Sandra was driving my family and me to a baby christening in suburban Maryland. There we were: five Filipino-Chinese Americans driving along a quiet country road. A few miles later, a cop stopped us. A male Caucasian police officer in his mid-to-late 30s walked up to the driver’s window and condescendingly said, “It would help if you accelerated your speed at the top of the hill instead of the bottom. You were driving 40 on a 25 road.” Sandra, though, was driving no more than 30 miles per hour. While the policeman was writing up the ticket, the entire time I kept asking myself, “Was Sandra stopped because she was speeding or because she was Asian?”

Would this have happened to us had we been white? The fact that this question ever came up displays the varying perspectives we all have. Whether one is white, black, Latino, Asian American or Native American, the shoes we walk in are much different from those of another ethnic background.

Sociologists, psychologists and other social scientists have long argued that race is a key variable in determining where a person works, where a person lives and how they live. Race matters. Cornel West said it. John Howard Griffin wrote about it. I, myself, live with the notion that my complexion and ethnicity can help or hurt my future. Some may say that America’s current perspective on race has come a long way in the last 50 years. For people of color, tolerance has increased, disparities have decreased and opportunities have broadened. However, despite the progress, our society still has miles to go.

National, local and campus news has showcased a lot of stories lately regarding race. The coverage has been on subjects ranging from a noose hung on an black professor’s door at Columbia to anti-Korean rhetoric at Virginia Tech to Muslim bashing right here in Foggy Bottom. The media has yet to cover post-incident responsorial events. Accordingly, there has been little discussion on how to respond to such actions. News releases and a handful of town forums help alleviate some of the stress and anxiety brought on by such incidents, but it does little to assuage fear.

While at GW, I’ve been privileged to work with a number of student organizations and initiatives. My involvement with the multicultural community has been rewarding, but I have yet to see a healthy and open discussion on race. The uncomfortable subject is taboo to this day. Yes, the topic is uncomfortable and highly sensitive, but in order for all of us to live in a just society, we must be able to freely talk about race. No matter your views, race is something we should all acknowledge.

Race is a social construct. Skin tone, eye color, body shape or hair texture may vary, but as children of Generation Y, it is our responsibility as a collective body to respond to such events with tact, respect for others and an enthusiasm to keep the discussion of race active. Race and ethnicity should not be talked about only when major acts of discrimination happen. Race is constant and is something influential in our every day lives.

As curious, intellectual and educated college students, now is the time to learn more about your culture and other cultures. For you to better understand yourself and your life, you must understand the views of others. Help promote diversity and tolerance by going to multicultural events, taking a class on ethnicity, lobbying the university to sponsor tolerance initiatives or by joining a student organization. Whites and non-whites, liberals and conservatives, and men and women are equally responsible for making this world a more accepting and harmonious place. There’s no better place to start the mission than right here in Foggy Bottom.

– The writer, a senior, is a founder and chair of the multicultural Leadership Council and council member of the Dean’s Council on Multicultural Recruitment.

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