Identity, Diversity, and the Path to Better Education

by Vea Ki-Tokelau Molitika on October 26th

The American diaspora has always been an unfamiliar territory that I have tried to maneuver since I was eight when we arrived from Tonga. My family and I settled in the Bay Area, a diverse place of mixed races and cultures. Yet when I moved to Pennsylvania for college, I felt a lot of alienation as I tried to find discourse in my shade of brown. I found myself trying to defend my story as a Pacific woman, such as the pronunciation of my name (Vey-uh Moh-lee-tee-kah) and the legitimacy of my worldview as a brown person. And that is probably why I sought out Auckland, the Polynesian capital of the world, as a study abroad destination to maneuver my sense of self, in a place where there is literature on who I am. I found myself in this culturally rich space that gave me permission to be a Tongan and a daughter of Oceania because the discourse in the classrooms and in the halls was about my shade of brown.

TAUA, the Tongan Pacific Students group I was a part of at Auckland University.

There is a thought that minorities should lose their cultural capital in order to effectively participate in white institutions. In addition, there is the idea that we have to renegotiate our identities as students of color to matter in classroom conversations. My time in New Zealand under the instruction of brown professors and learning about indigenous theories has led me to realize that I need to oust the idea that the cultural capital that I hold—  be it related to language, cultural knowledge, or gender— is irrelevant in classroom discussion. It is not only realizing that I need to perform as a Tongan in American public discourse. It is realizing that when I do this, I am also choosing to be resistant to imperialism because I am choosing to be indigenous in places of institutionalized racism.

I cannot undermine the fact that this is how I operate. Denying my cultural capital does not only mean cultural loss— it also means a loss of self. To operate with cultural knowledge as an immigrant, as a brown person, and as a Pacific woman, is to survive.

Is this another race piece you ask? Unapologetically, yes!  As a society, we often behave in a passive manner, unwilling to stare institutionalized racism in the face by not representing black, brown, and Asian students in classroom discourses. The racist conduct of past America, beginning with the treatment of Native Americans, has plagued our present, and throughout, we have set a pathetic example for the rest of the world to follow.

As the forefront of global education, Arcadia must be where the discourse on race starts. We need to establish the unchanging fact that representation matters. Those who are given a voice help define the status quo. Arcadia is one of those institutions amid many other American college campuses where representation needs to matter to drive discourse on the importance of racial identities. In addition to Africana Studies, there needs to be discourse by and for black students: for African-Americans and Africans, even those who hail from Haiti and the West Indies. The discourse in the classroom needs to be on the shade of brown: Native Americans, Middle Easterners and Oceanic people of color. In addition, there needs to be discourse for Asian-Americans or Asians in general from various parts of Asia.

There are classes already established on Arcadia's campus that open up the floor for these conversations. This semester, I’m taking Postcolonial Fiction, a course taught by English professor Dr.  Pradyumna Chauhan that discusses unfamiliar cultures through literary works that were affected by colonial influence. This course is of practical value, but we could be doing more.

It is important that, as students of color, we see diversity in our faculty, staff, counselors, even the characters in books we read for class. Professors and faculty members should encompass the many facets of their students’ lives, including their cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It is important to note that though English is the common language, students have “mother tongues” that they speak outside of academic settings. Whether we are students from the Philadelphia area or from outside of the United States, we can drive effective conversations when allowed to weave our own tongues into the papers we write.

Black and brown students feel like their voices are heard when the discourse is based on their stories and experiences. It is important that even white lecturers are aware of the cultural capital that is needed to reach their students of color. Taking a color-blind approach in educating students of color will generate an inauthentic relationship in the social and academic setting. I think it is even more important to note that not only does representation matter for me, but it matters even more for white students to learn of a discourse outside of themselves.

School, especially college years, is a time when one finds a sense of identity. Academic material that mirrors students’ home cultures or lives helps them take ownership of their learning.

- Vea Molitika

School, especially college years, is a time when one finds a sense of identity. It is crucial that Arcadia holds value for students of color as they navigate their identities. Our worldviews as people of color have been contextualised by those who were advantaged enough to write history and academic disciplines. In response to that, I feel an urgency to bring my culture to the discourse and to dismiss all that undermines me. I feel the need to fully engage in my learning and to bring my Tonganness into the Western learning context. This is how I de-colonize. And this is not a personal problem. Academic material that mirrors students’ home cultures or lives helps them more closely relate to the material and allows them to take ownership of their learning, thus improving academic achievement.

Across colleges and universities, there needs to be an effort to legitimize all cultures. There needs to be an effort to create environments where there are no pressures for students of color to disavow their own culture and assimilate to the “majority” culture. This is the potency in the word “diversity.” If diversity is plastered on a college or university’s mission statement, we all should expect the institution to hold up these ideals. It’s vital to know that our stories, our language, and our agency is not irrelevant.

This is what Arcadia must hold up to the light.