Last week, OCA had the opportunity to sit down with the NYU Assistant Vice President for Student Diversity Monroe France and discuss issues of racism on a domestic and global scale. In conversation, France discusses racism in Asia, white supremacy, colorism and the use of humor to combat racism and racial prejudice.
OCA: What inspired you to get involved with students and discrimination? Especially before NYU, how did this begin and what led you to start at NYU?
Monroe France: Sure, that’s a great question. I think for me, in so many ways diversity, social justice, and diversity education, has always been even way when I was in middle school, something that I was drawn to, in terms of difference and looking at in a cultural engagement with people different than myself. I think it was positive curiosity for me. I think last night was an interesting conversation on curiosity, that having that name curious and kind of being gestured at. It drew me to want to explore both what is the experience with other people and how can we make sense of that. It was something which I was just drawn to. I always had friends from a native american background, that came from different experiences in so many different ways and my family would always ask me “How do you get these people? Where do you find these friends?” I always answered, “I don’t know, this just happened, this is just me.”
Way back you know one of my really good friends who’s from Cambodia, and she and I ended up dating for a period of time as well, and one of my other girlfriends was Puerto Rican in high school. It was a very interesting, in terms of how I started to explore and then in college, all kinds of different people that I dated were from many different backgrounds. I realized in college that it became most salient to me, that there was something I was passionate about and some of it wasn’t just about my own interest. It was my own way to survive being in a predominantly white college where my experiences were very different from a lot of the students that were at my university, because a lot of them were Catholic and I was at a Jesuit Catholic school and that was not my background. I was Protestant growing up and then when I went to college, I actually considered myself atheist at that time. To be able to help make sense of my experience, to help me be able to navigate that sort of racism and micro-aggression that I experienced, I felt like I needed to get involved and active around these issues.
From there, once I realized it was a career that you could actually get into, it was something that really resonated with me in so many ways. A lot of it started from service, like community service, in communities that were different than how I identify. From there, it just transformed into my idea of becoming a person that was really focused on this professionally in so many different ways. That drew me to a choice, where I moved go to graduate school in Arizona, because I wanted to learn more about indigenous communities. I had always known, going back to being younger, and then after when I started to think about it as career choices and in terms of academic pursuits, I wanted to explore something that was not part of my home, to form a sort of ally-ship, so that I could then inform myself. I went to a predominantly Native American-serving institution, Northern Arizona University, and then I went back to Ohio State to finish my graduate studies. It really focused my cultural identity and from there I always wanted to live in New York.
I also worked at a women’s college. Again, it was about me wanting to explore what I said I was committed to, committed to women’s issues, committed to gender issues. I considered myself a feminist – this was a way for me to test it. I lived in residence halls, ran a residence hall. I said I’m gonna try this out and experience what it feels like to be numerically like you’re not part of the majority, but still have majority power as a man. It was really complex and interesting experience being in that space.
Then I went to NYU the first time and that’s when I started to work more in social justice education and got a position in student activities at NYU. I worked on social justice programs and social and political clubs and my work just continued in that way, in terms of really focusing on social justice advocacy and human rights work both domestically and globally.
OCA: Do you believe that there is a difference in instances of micro-aggressions, the issues of race, gender and discrimination and prejudice that are experienced at NYU New York and NYU Shanghai? Do you believe that this is still evident at NYU Shanghai, where fifty percent of us belong to the same nationality?
MF: First, I’ll start in New York. There’s certainly so many different ways in which students because of a lot of the work we do, because of our location that we are in the middle of the west village, east village, lower downtown, midtown, where we’re mostly situated where undergraduates study, but with graduate students and staff and faculty. I can really point to yourself to have a lot of these conversations. But the interesting thing is that, because you have such a perception of being a diverse place in so many ways where we have an external perception, what its characteristics and qualities are, how it situates itself as an institution is that its a place where all students become a defined community. I would say that has some elements of truth for some students, and then for other students it’s surprising when they come up against different forms of discrimination, homophobia heterosexophobia, xenophobia, racism, all the different kinds of prejudice that people experience.
Sometimes it can be outright, but mostly it’s not. It’s more nuanced, more covert, more those things that are insidious, are more under the surface, swept under the rug that we call micro-aggressions. Where you go did that really just happen to me? Did he really just say that to me? Did you really mean it? It really is in this space of confusion and also where it’s so easy for people to say either “you know I didn’t mean it that way. You’re over reacting,” or two, when you try to share the experience with other people and they will say it to you, even if they’re not the person that perpetrated it, but you go to seek support and that can cause you to question it. It’s one thing if someone uses the n-word, biased against in you in a way that’s clear cut, but when it’s more complicated and more nuanced, finding support to talk about those issues is hard.
That leads me out here, to Shanghai, where I had a dinner with students from the Breaking Barriers Initiative and we talked a lot about the experiences they’ve had being here from other countries in Shanghai and the Chinese-speaking students not speaking as much as other students. We discussed the experiences they’ve had in terms of intercultural engagement and how there needs to be more structured experiences for a student to engage in this way. Also, the challenges that arise when these have been set up and they’re being taken advantage of it, but it’s completely human nature, to some degree, lean into your communities that you identify with. We talked a lot about the importance of finding you want to be around people that are like you in some way, that also like sports, where people who are in the band and that tends to be their social circle sometimes. That tends to be the same way about your social identities, your nationality, race, ethnicity; where you’re from in the world. Often, it should be a place where you feel more at home, where you don’t have to explain as much, so naturally without even thinking about it, you’re drawn to people like that where you can just use your language.
I think for students from other places, especially who don’t speak Chinese, it’s easier to be around people who speak English. Language plays a huge role and that’s even an experience we’re having in the U.S. at NYU, as our student body is becoming more and more international. We’re trying to figure out how we create a bridge among students from other countries, primarily Asia, China and Korea, with students who are born in the U.S. and speak English as their first language or have a strong command of English. It’s here that it’s stronger: there’s 50% chinese, and we’re in China. I think that is the way that it’s even more profound, that language difference is huge.
OCA: From someone in your position, how do you think NYU Shanghai can build as a community and where are we currently lacking? What is your biggest concern for the NYU Shanghai community
One of the things that I talked with the staff about most recently is leveraging this is what our value is here at NYU Shanghai is the makeup of the student body. We need to showcase that in a way where we are constantly, consistently talking about how to leverage that as a value, not as a deficit. Then, these people are all within it. If you’re going to be a student leader, one of the recommendations I’ve made is that this should be built into the leadership models. If you’re going to apply for an RA job or an orientation person, work for a club, or try out for athletics, or a staff position on campus, you should have to go through some sort of cultural leadership experience that is all about building bridges.
[This leadership activity would be some sort of] cultural engagement activity, to learn more yourself and about others and to build a community of leadership into these roles, with an expectation that you’re going to be intentionally thinking about it your relationship outside, your social identity groups, how are you connected to straight students, how are you connected to the LGBTQ community, students from china, students from other places, how are we connected to women. We need to be thinking about moving outside your own identity groups and learning about your own identity. We’ve spent sometime going leadership experiences through cultural identity and based on diversity that should be a prerequisite to be able to be a part of these groups or as part of the orientation.
OCA: In the modern day, certain institutions, such as the entertainment industry, have used humor to address ideas such as racism. Is humor an appropriate way to address things, and concerning the right to equally offend, can certain groups use derogatory words, such as the “N” word, and humor, while others cannot?
I think humor around these issues is very tenuous and very murky. And so, it often times makes me very nervous. I think what makes me feel most comfortable when humour is used is when you can use it as a teachable moment, not when people use it to make others feel less than about their identities. So, I think if humor is used as a teachable moment around how we talk about race and xenophobia, in how we interact based on our different forms of ethnic identities, then you know, I think it’s fine and usable. But, if you are using to continue to perpetuate a cycle of oppression or use it to perpetuate stereotypes about people, I don’t find it appropriate in an educational environment. Our goal in an educational environment is to educate— it is not to make people feel isolated, especially is underrepresented communities. Even the use of the “N” word in China where there are nearly no black people to speak of. Is it appropriate to use it? It is not. It has such a historic understanding of how it’s been used that when you have such a fraction of a community that is almost nonexistent.
I think it was a blurred and murky conversation about curiosity vs. being exotic-fied. So, when people are exotified people know nothing about you, so they begin to make jokes about you. That’s where it begins to blur from exotification to straight up racism. You have conscious racism and unconscious racism. We are biased. It begins to blur into unconscious because, this is all you know about that group of people, you have been given no other form of education about them. Given that there is no education about black people in China, it is unacceptable to me that the word could be used her or abroad either. It has a historical stigma that can be used to hurt people.
I would say that publicly no one can use the n-word. If it were me, and I heard that word being used on campus I would engage in a conversation with the students about it. I would say, “hey listen, I feel uncomfortable with that word being used around me”.
OCA: Often, the word racism is directly linked to African-Americans, or other groups of color. How do we group communities into different ism’s, such as racism, and how do we know who it applies to?
I don’t have enough time to cover all that, but I will try to do this justice. Firstly, I would say that there are certain ways that racism is executed, or there are certain ways we think about it. But, anyone that deviates away from whiteness can experience different forms of racism. White people can experience racism by being in a culture of racism, but in terms of directly experiencing racism, power equals racism. I think that white individuals can experience bias and prejudice, for sure. Then, there is also something that we can call the color hierarchy, or colorism. You can experience this, especially across different groups. For myself, I think this comes back to the fact that some groups are closer to whiteness, which occurs as a result of white supremacy. I know that these terms may hurt your head, or muddle you up, but I think in order to have these conversations, we need to define these terms and use them. At least, we need to able to contain the ideas, which the terms help us do. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain specific situations that happen.
So, with colorism, it happens within all black communities and within all non-white communities. The fairer skin you are, and the finer features you have, the more beautiful you and your community are considered. Usually, the most beautiful, even here in China, are those with white skin, European features, a thin nose, full eyelids – all of whom fit into that notion of beauty. You look at all the advertisements here, that’s what those people look like. This is how white supremacy permeates the globe.
So when people talk about how racism doesn’t exist, well if they don’t want to use that term, let’s talk about the term white supremacy. White supremacy exists globally. It’s no big surprise that most of where global poverty happens is in places where people have brown or darker skin. But when you look at where most of the wealth in generated, its in places where the people have white, European descent. Also, within countries, the people that hold the most wealth, for example in Mexico, are people who have lighter skin. This all goes back to white supremacy. From my perspective, white supremacy is universal. This is something that all people experience, including white people. If you’re a white person who does not fit into this ideal of what whiteness should look like, that is, you have money, resources, thinner features, then you may also feel less than. Just because you don’t fit this idealistic image. Those are the kinds of conversations that need to occur and we need to create solidarity around these conversations, these ideas and people’s experiences.
For me, I want to see how these things are showing up in Asia, for people in the Middle East or for people in Africa – how these experiences occur for people in different ways. Now going back to the idea of black racism, this occurs in the fact that people don’t want to be black. The reason why that I push for people to think about racism through a lens of black people, is because of this identity we learn about – if you’re not black, at least you’re a little bit better. That’s a hard pill for many people to swallow. But it’s the truth pill.
This goes back to the idea of culture. There are parts of black culture people might want to take advantage of, and that really is about how this benefits me and how I can experience something. This doesn’t mean you want to be black. Chris Rock had this joke once, where he said “I’m rich. I’m really rich. But, if you ever ask a white person if they want to wake up and be me, they’ll be like hell no.” That’s where white supremacy still exists. These conversations are interesting and rich to have. There’s a lot to explore, think about and learn from, in terms of human nature.
OCA: In light of the recent documentary in India, with the interviewed rapist, there has been a lot of conversation around the concept of socialization. How do you think that socializing within environments that teach you to act or behave a certain way leads to the cause of sexism, racism or other forms of discrimination?
I think that’s where we need to start looking at how these things play out on a personal, individual level. So we have ideas, and some of the these ideas are internalized within individuals as facts, and how people should be treated – as a second-class citizen. For them, they start to believe that this is what their status should be in the world. This perpetuates a certain socialization cycle. For example, I speak to people of color, and I can say that for women, and other disenfranchised groups, when you are taught something about yourself, you wish you could be different. But because you’ve been socialized, and you start to hear that this is the way things should be, you start to internalize that and pass that on to other individuals. Even though, if you could close your eyes, you wish you could change, but when you open up your eyes, reality sets in. It becomes, when I have a chance to socialize, I’m going to socialize. Unless you’re conscious about breaking the cycle. So that’s where I think socialization is huge and I think we have to look at it from many different facets, the types and the levels. From the internalized, to the ideological, to the intrapersonal: how it all plays out one on one.
However, we also have institutions that influence this. If we didn’t have institutions that were teaching us these things, that were perpetuating these things, that were creating values based on these ideas – for example, rewarding those who perpetuate misogyny, or patriarchy – socialization would be less of a problem. We look at extremities of these issues and say that they’re bad, but then we don’t look at ourselves. This is where we should use this as a moment to look at our own behaviours and not be complicit in it. So then, we can look at how we got here. There’s something called the pyramid of hate, and it shows us where we have come in society, and instances where people have annihilated groups of people and here, we can see examples of outliers that are bad. But it starts from a mindset in people, or from when people use words against people. That’s where we need to intervene and cascade it out. That’s why we need to work on a universal level and teach individuals. We need to change laws and we need to change practices, workplace policies, institutional policies – all across the board. We also need support systems, so we can support people that have internalized ways of thinking. I think we need to think holistically if we are to see true change.
This interview was conducted by Alhan Fakhr. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Sunyi Wang