Multicultural organizations are a major part of campus life for a large portion of students at GW. These organizations facilitate a strong community between students who care about a particular culture. But at the beginning of the fall and spring semesters, I’ve found that multicultural organizations focus on recruiting students who are from the same culture rather than students who are interested in learning about that culture.
As an executive board member of the Philippine Cultural Society, I’ve seen this method of cultural recruitment first hand. And regretfully, I’ve perpetrated it. If I realize that a student is Filipino, my immediate reaction is to tell them about PCS, our culture show and all of the “bahay,” or family, events we do. I don’t even stop to ask if they’re interested in hearing about the organization. Multicultural organizations should respect students’ cultural autonomy by not assuming they’re interested in that group just because they come from a shared background. In that same vein, organizations should look to recruit more members who don’t come from that background.
To me, cultural autonomy means individuals have the right to embrace their culture as much as they’d like, whether it’s being active through an on-campus organization or just celebrating their heritage with family. Although it’s easy for multicultural organizations to recruit or talk to students based on racial background or culture, it’s also important to understand that students might be more interested in sports, job opportunities and academics rather than a group that celebrates their background.
Whatever the case may be, there’s no wrong way to embrace your culture, and multicultural organizations need to remember that when they’re recruiting and meeting students.
Whatever the case may be, there’s no wrong way to embrace your culture, and multicultural organizations need to remember that when they’re recruiting and meeting students. Choosing to not be active in a cultural organization doesn’t mean that a student is ashamed or embarrassed of their heritage – instead, it might be a personal choice that has nothing to do with the cultural organization at all.
There’s also a cultural shaming phenomenon that I’ve seen far too often. I’ve seen members from a multitude of cultural organizations become irritated or upset that a student who comes from the same cultural background doesn’t want to be active in that multicultural community. But culture doesn’t have to be central to a person’s identity or outwardly expressed through participation in multicultural organizations. This thinking is close-minded and can alienate students who didn’t grow up in a household where their culture was central to their family but may be interested in learning more once they get to GW. This can be especially applicable to students who were adopted or grew up in biracial or multiracial families. I grew up in a home that celebrated my heritage with cultural food, but I wasn’t aware of the rich history or many ethnic norms associated with the Philippines. Due to this upbringing, I knew I wanted to join a student organization that celebrates Filipino culture.
If cultural organizations don’t take opportunities to reach out to students who don’t know much about their culture, those students may end up feeling ignored and even isolated. In extreme cases, cultural organizations can develop reputations for only recruiting students with certain pre-requisites in regards to background and cultural knowledge. Although I haven’t noticed complete isolation from cultural organizations, I’ve noticed that people tend to not reach outside their comfort zone when it comes to recruitment. If that doesn’t change, cultural organizations won’t be able to hear new voices and that will thwart the group’s growth.
It’s easier said than done for these organizations to change the preconceptions they have. But the first steps towards change start with redefining what it means to be in a cultural organization. It’s simple to recruit people who share your cultural background or heritage, and organizations should still do this. But multicultural organizations also need to be more proactive when talking to people who don’t come from the same background. There are different types of students who are interested in what an organization is doing to better the community and learning more about a new culture.
Celebrating culture and diversity is a beautiful thing, but pushing a cultural agenda does harm to everyone.
Although the Multicultural Student Services Center does a great job talking about inclusivity, ultimately it’s on the shoulders of each of these cultural organizations to initiate change. Multicultural organizations should hold a meeting once or twice a semester to educate the public about what heritage and culture means to that specific group. Once that happens, more productive conversation and recruitment can happen.
In a melting pot like the U.S., identifying with a community based on skin color or ethnicity isn’t the only way to embrace culture. Celebrating culture and diversity is a beautiful thing, but pushing a cultural agenda does harm to everyone – the cultural organization and the rest of the student body. No one has the right to tell you how involved you must be, and a lack of involvement in an organization can’t take away your heritage.
Renee Pineda, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
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