By Donna Mathew:
While selecting a grad school, one of the few criteria I had in mind apart from the school’s reputation was the level of diversity on campus. The University of Southern California (USC) seemed liked the perfect fit, being one of the most diverse universities in the world. The opportunity to meet people from culturally varied backgrounds, different from my own intrigued and excited me. However, last week, a racial attack on the USC Undergraduate Student Government (USG) President Rini Sampath, who is of Indian origin, made national headlines bringing into the forefront the issue of racism on US campuses.
While walking past a fraternity house post the USC vs Stanford football match, a member of a fraternity hurled a drink at Sampath through his window and yelled “You Indian piece of shit!” One of the other members on recognizing it was her apologized immediately which according to Sampath stung even more! “I couldn’t quite figure out why their after-the-fact apologies deepened the wound. But one of my friends explained it to me the best this morning: ‘Because now you know, the first thing they see you as is subhuman.’ And that’s the first thing some students on our campus see when they look at anyone who looks like me,” she wrote on her Facebook account.
Sampath, having immigrated to the US at the age of 6 is no stranger to racial epithets and micro-aggression. Growing up in Arizona, she would get called names and even got asked if her mother was from Mars because of her brown skin. While running for the post of USG President, she was told she would never win as she is a woman and belongs to a minority community. Proving her critics wrong, she became the first woman President of the USG in almost 10 years.
Sampath took to Facebook to narrate the incident and garnered support from numerous students, some even going as far as describing their own personal struggles with racism on campus. She however, did not identify the fraternity or the person in question in her posting but a statement by the USC Interfraternity Council later in the week, stated that the individual responsible for the attack has been evicted from the fraternity house with his membership suspended. University officials have expressed their support to the student leader and have condemned the incident, highlighting the USC Trojan family’s zero tolerance policy towards racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and Islamophobia.
Sampath since the incident has filed a formal complaint with the campus public safety office and according to Varun Soni, USC’s dean of religious life, the incident would be thoroughly investigated by the appropriate university committee and suitable sanctions would be placed on the individual in due course of time.
Incidents such as these are not isolated events. The struggles faced by non-white students in US campuses are very much a reality. Educational spaces are not devoid of biases and racial stereotyping. Our universities are a microcosm of the society at large and race is an ever present problem of American society even in the 21st century. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson or the brutal attack on Inderjit Singh Mukker in Chicago is testament to the fact that struggle for racial equality is a long road ahead and racism is not something that will disappear overnight. As Coretta Scott said, “Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”
As an Indian studying in the US, I am more aware of my race and my skin colour than ever before. It is always the first thing people notice about me and conversations always start along the lines of “Where are you from?” rather than “What is your name?”. I echo a similar sentiment as Sampath in wondering whether non-white individuals are simply reduced to nothing more than the colour of their skin in the eyes of our white counterparts!
Just because an African American man was elected the President of the United States or an Indian-American woman was elected the USC USG President does not necessarily mean we live in a post-racial society. The issue rests within institutional barriers and systemic obstacles that keep people like Sampath from achieving personal success and happiness.
Sampath has made it her mission to open a dialogue with the student community to focus on equality and diversity issues. The Undergraduate Student Government plans to hold a forum in the coming weeks to facilitate discussion on the topic and come up with tangible solutions that can be adopted for racial and cultural sensitization.