Racial Challenges of Olin

Dear Olin community,

I’m writing you to express my concern with the way Olin’s culture addresses race. In the two years since graduating in the class of 2012, I’ve been living and working in New York City. I have also spent a lot of time reflecting on my college experience, including the role that race played on the Olin campus. To avoid being verbose, I’ve summarized my concerns in the following three key points.

1. As a Chinese-American student, I felt like I had to tone down my “Asianness” in order to fit in and be successful at Olin. Since its inception, Olin’s student body, administration, staff and faculty have always been predominantly white. Although I never experienced any overt racism against me on campus, I believe that Olin’s “white” culture made it difficult for me to fully embrace and express my lived experience as an Asian-American student. Olin’s curriculum emphasizes empathy for others, but for whatever reason, I found that many Oliners seemed to completely overlook the fact that I was Asian. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I began to truly understand and embrace my identity.

2. Olin’s student body lacks racial diversity. A glance at olin.edu’s “Consumer Information” section identifies how (in fall 2013) “30% [of Olin students] were non-Caucasian”. Although I couldn’t find a more specific breakdown, I am certain that most of this 30% is Asian. This leaves an embarrassingly low number of students from other races on campus. Unlike most American colleges or universities, Olin seems reticent to openly disclose the racial diversity of its student body. This stands in stark contrast to the focus and pride we place in our gender balance. Prospective students are made to understand that Olin is great place for women, but is it really also a great place for students of color?

3. Olin’s administration has a troubling approach to race. As a student, I never felt comfortable having an open discussion on race with the administration. This was partly because I didn’t want to be perceived as an angry Asian student, but also because the limited interactions I had with the administration left me with the clear impression that race was not a topic open for discussion.

One troublesome interaction I had as a student was during a lunch meeting for an organization I was involved in. During the meeting, I mentioned another student’s name and appended it with her race as a way to dispel confusion over who I was referring to (there were multiple students with her name). The administrator in attendance immediately chided, “There are enough diversity issues as is on campus. You shouldn’t be referring to other people by their race.”
I was taken aback. As an Asian-American student, I would have no problem if another student clarified which Matt they were referring to by calling me “the Asian one.”

I believe a major issue the administration needs to address is this kind of purposeful color-blindness that I experienced as a student. Ignoring an individual’s racial identity is not being sensitive to “diversity issues.” Rather, it undervalues the role that race plays in the lives of students of color as a nod to being sensitive. When a dominant group-in this case, white people-make an effort to avoid conversation about anything related to cultural/racial differences, it makes it extremely difficult for people of color to share and talk about the things that matter to them.

Another uncomfortable interaction was during my first-year orientation, when the Office of Student Life brought in a professional diversity consultant to teach my class about diversity. While I personally found this training useful, insofar as it gave me a framework to understand the role that race has played in my own life, many of my classmates felt uncomfortable and singled out due to the trainer’s forceful approach to having students of color speak about their experiences with race.

While this consultant was thankfully never invited back to Olin again, the experience left my class with a sour taste-both to how out of touch the administration was as well as how emotionally overwhelming racial differences could be. Perhaps, as a result, we spent the next four years willfully overlooking each others differences rather than making the effort to embrace them.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t know the solutions to the issues I’ve raised above. After all, Olin is not the only school struggling with racial issues-on the contrary, race nowadays seems to be a regular topic in higher education news, but due to its small size, unconventional culture and limited resources, our school can’t merely adopt practices that have been instituted at other schools.

Instead, I believe change can only happen if we look inwards and start to examine and embrace the values that make Olin a unique institution. We need to foster a campus environment where conversations on race don’t happen only behind closed doors. Until we can start talking about race in the dining hall, I question our ability to address any real challenges.

If you’re still reading this, thank you. I’ve often questioned whether to write about my experience, but one of the good things about living in the real world (and getting older) is you start to realize what’s truly important to you, while worrying less and less what others think of you.

Regardless whether you are white or a person of color, I urge you to share your experiences with the broader Olin community. As an alum, I’m interested in hearing how things on campus may or may not be different from what I experienced. And if you’d like to have a conversation with someone who will really listen, please don’t hesitate to reach out: matthew.huang@alumni.olin.edu.