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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
The Observer

Happy new year

When January 25, 2020 came around, I didn’t know that the bright red banners and golden lanterns framing my dorm room door would cause personal affronts against me. It was my first Chinese New Year away from home, away from my LA affinity group of old ladies setting out bowls of mandarin oranges, kids dancing in lion costumes and the family cleaning the house to bring good energy into the new year. I didn’t know at the time that the same bright red banners outside Welsh Family 251 celebrating my culture would turn into a target on my back a month later. 

Over those next February weeks, as news emerged on the novel coronavirus from China, I witnessed a swell of public concern. In my classes and among friends, many worried about the virus. 

One Wednesday evening, I walked to my dorm after a Moreau discussion about race and inclusivity — all par for the course of the typically “woke” and occasionally awkward curriculum. To its credit, the Moreau First Year Experience did its best to foster discussions about identity, diversity and race. Even its existence as a requirement for freshmen is proof of Notre Dame’s steps toward racial reckoning and growth. As one of few students of color in my class, I felt particularly emboldened to share my experiences in our dialogues, if for no other reason than to shed light on the fact that despite what some of my peers believe, discrimination still exists in this country. 

Some of the lapses in our discussions on race I attributed to lack of experience. You’ve spent your whole life in a coastal liberal bubble, Alexa. Your woke upbringing is not universal. In an attempt to explain away the discomfort in my classroom surrounding issues on race, I began moving the bar ever lower on such topics. I began excusing microaggressions and even casual racism in my interactions with peers. When it came to my weekly Moreau class, that meant expecting a different level of dialogue from my classmates. 

Did my classmates agree that it wasn’t enough to be a bystander when confronted with issues regarding racial discrimination? Did they know that to really be an ally, they had to actively confront racism? Our readings of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Father Greg Boyle taught us to look beyond the “single story” of someone and to form “radical kinship” with those unlike ourselves. Do my classmates know that this means anti-racism, and not complacency, is the goal?

The row of white Mendoza boys sitting across from me did their due diligence, speaking their obligatory aphorisms one by one. “We shouldn’t make assumptions on the basis of race.” “Diversity is what makes the University stronger.” Their participation was a start in the greater racial dialogue, though I wondered if they were just playing nice for teacher. Moreau provided a platform to engage with challenging topics, so why did my classmates mouth platitudes instead of defending their positions and sharing their disagreement? Moreau incentivized the former. The latter was the only path to racial understanding. In a university dedicated to anti-racism, we as students owe it to our community to engage more deeply in these conversations. We owe it to ourselves to do better. Yet, I left those Wednesday nights wanting more. 

All the while, tensions were riding high as the threat of COVID-19 grew. The virus was spreading. Uncertainty abounded. One night one of my quadmates, who was not my roommate, had friends over in our common room while I was studying with my roommate. Through the door we heard comments: “Are you worried about the virus at all? ... You know, because your roommates are Asian?” I shot my roommate a confused look. “They might have it, you know. You should watch out.” 

I had never met this woman before. I can only assume it was through profiling me based on my seasonal decor that she had any idea of my race. My roommate, an adoptee from China, and I, a second generation ABC (American-Born Chinese), were quite shocked and uncomfortable from the comment. It opened my eyes to how my peers perceived me—as a danger. 

That night’s events did not sit well with me then, nor did they when we went home for spring break just a week later. There’s a disconnect between the level at which the University teaches about race and the level at which the students can come to receive it. Yes, we read the works of people of color and we talk about their arguments in classes. Students go through the motions of racial “wokeness” in an academic context. But when there is no mediation, no professor facilitating the dialogues, students relapse into casual racism. The University and students must work harder to prevent these relapses from occurring.

Alexa Schlaerth is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame pursuing degrees in Chinese and philosophy. As an Angeleno, Alexa enjoys shopping at Erewhon Market, drinking kombucha and complaining about traffic because it’s “like, totally lame.” Alexa can be reached at aschlaer@nd.edu over email.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.