Janki Patel has found herself lumped in many different categories during her time as a student at Coastal Carolina University.
None tend to get under her skin more than when she’s questioned about her race, which is often met with confusion, misunderstanding and disrespect.
“I’ve been asked whether I’m half-black or half-white, Spanish or Latino,” she said. “But when I tell them I am Indian, I’m asked about arranged marriages and other stereotypical questions that make me uncomfortable.”
Last week, Patel and other Coastal Carolina students, professors and staff opted to approach the uneasy topic of race during an hour-long forum.
Never miss a local story.
According to Nils Rauhut, director of the Jackson Family Center for Ethics and Values at Coastal Carolina University, such dialogue occurs every other semester.
“Part of talking about race and ethnic experiences as a college student, I think it is part of getting a good education,” he said. “And we’re not saying the discussion is going to solve all the issues, but at least it raises awareness of what perspective and experiences are.
“Very often when we look at colleges – and college campuses have a variety of problems – because we see them as diverse, it doesn’t mean we have a mutual recognition of what the problems are.”
As part of the event, a diverse panel – including members who were black, Latino, Native American, Indian, gay and white – talked about their respective experiences on campus.
“(Coastal Carolina) is definitely an integrated college campus,” said Franklin Ellis, the college’s assistant director for multicultural student services. “But due to our diverse identities, we often tend to live in our own pockets. As a result, people don’t want to start this difficult conversation … this is definitely a good start.”
Approximately 9,898 undergraduate students enrolled in courses at Coastal Carolina for the Fall 2017 semester, according to numbers offered by the university. Of that, white students make up the large share of the student population at nearly 67 percent, with black students at 19 percent.
We see people changing, fighting against cultural ignorance. It makes me feel I can do it too. And it doesn’t matter about the color of my skin … I can do it as well.
Coastal Carolina philosophy professor Dr. Julianna Oxley
Native Americans are among the smallest racial subsets at the school, with only 22 students currently part of the undergraduate population. One of those is Rose Holden, who said the conversation regarding her racial makeup often turns into a “black versus white” issue.
“If I’m not being asked if I’m ‘Indian,’ I’m often being lumped into a category,” she said. “Because of my complexion, I’m sometimes categorized as white. But because I don’t have the typical look, it opens the box for other questions.
“I’m a Native American … the best question for me and others like me is ‘what is your tribe affiliation?’ ”
Holder brought up President Donald Trump’s use of “Pocahontas” to describe Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as an example of how she and other Native Americans have dealt with subtle degradation. “It’s may be a joke to you, but for us it is an insult of our culture,” she said.
The panel also looked into how Coastal Carolina can better emphasize matters of inclusion, particularly when it comes to college faculty.
“Right now, I don’t think there’s enough diversity in faculty,” said Dr. Julianna Oxley, a Coastal Carolina philosophy professor. “Most are white, and largely female.
“Something else we’re dealing with has to do with a lot of students being first generation college students. … It is a cycle of inequality, an institutional problem perpetuated over the past 150 years.”
According to communication major Brendan McPherson, the conversation isn’t for one group to have, but rather should involve everyone.
“We all have a part to help and heal,” he said. “This isn’t a color issue. All of us have a part in making change.”
Said Oxley: “We see people changing, fighting against cultural ignorance. It makes me feel I can do it too. And it doesn’t matter about the color of my skin … I can do it as well.”