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Students chronicle minority experience

Nicole Michels | Thursday, March 7, 2013

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a three-part series about the Call to Action movement and the experiences of minority students within the Notre Dame campus community.  

For sophomore Demetrius Murphy, the hour-long drive separating his home in Gary, Ind., from Notre Dame’s campus meant much more than some time behind the wheel.  

The transition to college was relatively smooth, Murphy said, but the range of questions friends in Keenan Hall and at Notre Dame asked about his African-American identity quickly made him realize most of his peers did not come from diverse backgrounds.

Murphy said he found the explaining the customs of African-American communities to his peers to be challenging.

“That can be a heavy burden to bear because whenever you say something you have to be very conscious about what you’re going to say,” Murphy said.  “You are representing the whole race with that one comment you’re about to make.”

Murphy, a native of Gary, Ind., spent two years at the Indiana Academy, a boarding school on Ball State University’s campus in Muncie, Ind. His encounters there with students of many different backgrounds enabled him to better answer his friends’ questions, Murphy said.

 “If I came to Notre Dame straight from Gary, [Ind.], this would have been a completely different experience,” Murphy said. “I don’t know that Notre Dame would’ve been the place for me.”   

Singled out
Some moments in Murphy’s college career have been stark reminders of racial prejudice, he said. When a friend discovered some of his food was missing and decided to find out who had taken it, Murphy remembered his shock at another student’s response.

“When he asked who ate his stuff, I said I didn’t do it,” Murphy said. “Then he asked the kid who actually ate it, and he said, ‘I didn’t do it, I’m not the black kid in the room.’ I looked around thinking there had to be another black kid in the room, he can’t be talking about me because I wouldn’t take anything, I always ask first.

“This wasn’t [because I went] in there and took stuff all the time. This was ‘Oh, Demetrius is the only black kid in the room so he has to be the thief.'”
Murphy said he responded by telling that student exactly why his accusation was groundless and why he found it offensive to be singled out.  

“I also told him that another thing I don’t like is that every time I’m around, the conversation has to be about black people,” Murphy said.  “It’s almost like they practice their black jokes on me to see if they can say them in mixed company, like they save up all the weird questions [about black culture] they’ve ever wanted to ask in life for when I walk into the room – the conversation always becomes racialized when I walk in.”

Sophomore Amanda Peña [Editor’s note: Peña is a columnist for The Observer] had also experienced a wider range of diversity in the community around her home in Los Angeles. She had never felt like a minority until arriving on campus for freshman orientation, she said, and then she became very aware that her Mexican heritage made her different.

“I got here, and I felt like a minority,” Peña said. “I can’t really describe how that feels, you really just feel like you stick out. From a racial standpoint, [during freshman orientation] you notice when the guys go to sing to the girls, they don’t serenade the minority girls.  

“At first I wondered if it was my weight, if it was because I’m brown or if it was because I’m not outgoing enough – you get really self-conscious and try to assess why people view you a certain way and why other people are indifferent [to you] because they don’t know how to interact with you.”

While walking to the College HAS Issues presentation with some friends she met during Spring Visitation Weekend who were also minorities, Peña said she was shocked by a passing remark directed her way.

“One of my black friends was walking with a white girl, and they came up to us and as I said hi to them, the [white] girl just stared at us,” Peña said.  “Then she just stared at us and in this sarcastic tone looked at us, kind of smiled and said, ‘Oh you guys are minorities, right?’ … My [black] friend sarcastically replied, ‘No we’re Caucasian.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I’m a sophomore and I can say these things.’
“That was my first impression of people [at Notre Dame.]”

A new culture, a new conversation
Junior Denver Lobo joked with his roommates upon arriving to Notre Dame that his first impression of the campus and freshman orientation was distinctly similar to the world portrayed in “American Pie,” he said. But as the antics of Frosh-O subsided, Lobo said he was excited by the chance to immerse himself in a culture less restrictive than in his home, Kuwait.

“Kuwait was a lot more conservative … The real reason for shifting from Kuwait to the freedom of America was the glass ceiling you hit when you’re in a business,” Lobo said.  “You can only go up to a certain point and then you have to be Arab or Kuwaiti to move forward, but [in America] if you’re good you go forward.”

Lobo said he loved meeting people at Notre Dame from different cultures and sharing information about his home.

“When I meet a person from a different culture, I love to learn more about their culture [and] I love allowing people to ask questions about my own,” Lobo said.  “I love it and completely eat it up.

“I know I’m a minority here but there’s not one time I felt that was a downside to me,” Lobo said.  “I always felt it was an upside because people were more interested and inquisitive about my different culture and I’m more than willing to tell them about it.”

Though she wanted to engage her peers in conversation, sophomore Secilia Jia said she struggled to find common threads connecting her Chinese home to the lives of her American peers.

“I didn’t know what to talk about with the girls in my dorm [during freshman orientation],” Jia said.  “They would start a conversation and when I say I’m from China the conversation just stopped.  They didn’t relate themselves to a country far away, they don’t know much about it or how to continue the conversation.  That’s the biggest problem I faced when I came here, because I didn’t know too much about this country and its different regions and places.”
Jia said she found Notre Dame’s Catholic character an added challenge in a new place.

“I knew I was going to have a culture shock,” Jia said. “I am an international student from China and I’m not Catholic, I don’t have any religion. It was definitely frustrating at the beginning, but it got better as I learned more about [American] culture.  I feel like I tried to learn more about the culture here, and that [while I] did that [my hall mates] learned about what I did as I grew up too.”

Sharing her life with her hall mates and learning more about their lives helped her to begin to settle in at Notre Dame, Jia said.

“I tried to watch more TV with them so I would know what their daily lives are like and what they did in their spare time, so we had more talking points and something to share,” Jia said.  “There are more Chinese Festivals that they don’t have, and I will explain to them what a spring festival is and what we eat for that – I feel like it’s a two-way experience.”

Lobo said continually engaging in these conversations helps to bring the focus deeper than racial differences.
“When you keep a conversation going, it [shows] two levels of diversity,” Lobo said.  “One is the racial, ethnic level and then there is the deeper level of diversity where you’re thinking at different capacities and that’s when I think people could care less about your ethnicity, your color, your race – it’s about the thought process.”

Finding a home
Peña said she also believes encouraging personal conversation between students will help to institute a change in racial attitudes at Notre Dame.
“I would tell my [freshman self] to stand up, to say something, because those things aren’t okay,” Peña said.  “I know that if I talk to someone I can touch them personally, but I don’t know if these people at the top levels can be effective at making changes unless they personally talk to students – changing it at the ground level first is the most important thing.”

Empowering minority students from Day One to address discrimination will allow them to alleviate the pressure on themselves to educate their peers about their culture, Peña said.

“If we were told the first week of school that race is an issue here, that these are things students feel but we want you to know that you can talk to any person about these things even if it’s not racial discrimination, even if it’s just because someone looked at you a certain way and you wonder, ‘Was it because I’m brown?,’ even if it’s not to get someone in trouble – say something.”

If his Keenan Hall peers had spoken on his behalf in uncomfortable situations, Murphy said he would have felt more at home in this community.
“It would have completely changed the dynamics of the situation if someone had come to my defense or even just asked him if that was really how he felt,” Murphy said.

As a minority student, Murphy and others face challenges at Notre Dame – from unknowing and unconscious prejudice to  stereotyping. But he still said he is grateful to attend Notre Dame.

“I can paint this picture [of Notre Dame] very positively, and not be lying,” Murphy said.  “But I can also tell you it was a struggle and it’s a struggle to go to Notre Dame and be a diverse student.”