When I first arrived at Duke, I noticed something that surprised me.
A lot of people at Duke are NOT white.
Now this may surprise those who grew up in more diverse neighborhoods, but my high school demographics were probably 90% white and 10% other, which effectively became 99% white and 1% me if you narrowed down the sample size to only kids in honors or AP classes.
In fact, as the only Latina, my racial and ethnic background was such an anomaly that I barely even noticed I was different the majority of the time. In that setting, embracing my heritage as a major part of my identity was not an option. That identity was not a way for me to make friends. So I embraced the nerd part and hung out with the nice, cool, smart kids and forgot about being a Latina outside of my home.
But Duke was different, and something about it spoke to me.
It was probably through Latino Student Recruitment Weekend that I realized that there was such a thing as a whole community of nice, cool, smart kids – but this time, nice, cool, smart, Latino kids – who shared things in common with me that none of my high school peers ever could. For once in my life, I acknowledged that my heritage was special and something to be valued. Something that even a world-renowned university valued.
I met people of so many backgrounds at Duke – so many that even my definition of what constitutes a “background” changed dramatically. In a few short years, I became in tune to how every element of a person’s identity impacts their life experience. Best of all, there were groups of people on campus who taught me to respect and value identities that I was previously taught to be prejudiced against.
In fact, I was so busy embracing positive messages of tolerance and diversity that I almost forgot to pay attention to all of the intolerance and oppression around me.
That’s the problem with a university like Duke – there’s just enough diversity to let you selectively choose friends and activities that are in line with your ideals while allowing you tune out much of the racism and harmful exercise of privilege that occurs on campus.
It wasn’t always avoidable – offensive costume parties, inappropriate jokes, the rich and white-majority Greek scene, trips I couldn’t afford, being on financial aid, etc. – and I spoke out against them when I could. But even so, I did not speak loudly enough. And worst of all, I didn’t do everything I could to unite with other voices to collectively bring more attention to these issues.
When I first arrived at my office building, I noticed something that surprised me.
A lot of people at my company ARE white.
But there’s no multicultural center here, no racial affinity groups, no conversations about diversity. Just a few faces of color here and there to remind me how far we’ve made it.
And just how far we still have to go.
*This piece was originally submitted to Race Speaks!. Race Speaks! is a printed publication developed by Center for Multicultural Affairs at Duke that aims to increase self and social-awareness regarding the role that race plays in everyday life.