Educating International Students about 'Race'

By Althen, Gary | International Educator, May/June 2009 | Go to article overview
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Educating International Students about 'Race'

Althen, Gary, International Educator

U.S. NEWSPAPERS FREQUENTLY REFER TO BARACK OBAMA as "the first black president" of the United States. But observers from overseas, including foreign students and scholars, may quickly note that Obama's mother was white. Why, they may wonder, is Obama considered black? Couldn't he also be considered white?

The answer to these questions lies in Americas peculiar race-relations history.

Nearly all the countries in the world, including the United States, are racially heterogeneous. Different countries have attempted to deal with racial differences in different ways, ranging from genocide to the embrace of "multiracialism" or "multiculturalism." Each country has its own idiosyncratic race-relations history.

Consequently, students coming to the United States have their own ideas about racial differences. When they get to the United States, they will encounter a new set of attitudes and practices regarding those differences, whether or not they themselves are members of what Americans consider a racial minority group.

What, if anything, do U.S. international student offices do to help foreign students understand race relations in the United States? Not much, at least not directly, according to many advisers. Many international student offices address the general issue of intercultural relations, without a particular focus on race relations. It is usually other offices, with names such as "multicultural affairs," that address race issues. The international student office may co-sponsor or otherwise support these activities.

Initial Steps

Among those international student offices that do make efforts to educate international students about race relations in the United States, there are a number of approaches. Central Connecticut State University's international student office touches upon racial issues in the context of cultural differences. Toyin Ayeni, international student and scholar services coordinator says that during orientation, "rather than talk specifically on race, we enlighten the students on differences that exist among cultures." A faculty member with considerable international experience discusses many manifestations of cultural difference, and also "talks about race with more emphasis on cultural differences."

Christie Ward, associate director of CCSU's Muirhead Center for International Education and coordinator of the intensive English language program, says English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are the main venue for discussing race relations in the United States. Teachers use films and essays to encourage conversation about racial matters. "We try to help our students understand the diversity of the United States, its history, and the challenges that the country has faced in trying to realize the value of human rights for all," she says.

In their orientation program and student handbook, Oklahoma State University's International Students and Scholars Office seeks to convey the message "tolerance towards all people, regardless of race, gender, etc., is expected," says Tim Huff, the office's manager. His office uses materials that relate to cultural differences in general, rather than race relations more specifically. "We are not quite there yet," he says, but it is "where we need to be going."

During its orientation for ESL students, Gonzaga University's intercultural relations specialist has introduced the topic of race relations with a presentation on African American history, according to Melissa Heid, international student program assistant. The students then have an opportunity to ask about race-relations matters.

Through their orientation and other programs, Webster University tries to make the point that "Race is a very complex topic in this country," says Director of International Services Bert Barry. "[Our] goal is cross-cultural understanding and, ultimately, harmony, but that goal is far from being realized. The only reason Webster University's orientation program deals a bit more explicitly with race than others may be that orientation is the responsibility of the Office of Multicultural and International Student Affairs.

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