top of page

What Makes an Activist : The Averse Effects of the PWI

I remember having a conversation with one of my Asian-American friends about a mutual white acquaintance of ours where we discussed something this acquaintance had asked my friend regarding their culture and background. It was a question of ignorance, prefaced with the phrase ""I don't know if this is offensive..."" - an all too familiar phrase we had both laughed at. In my conversation with this friend, she had said something along the lines of, ""I let her ask these questions, even if I do find them offensive, because how else are they supposed to learn? I'd rather she ask me instead of someone else. She could live with that bias her whole life if I didn’t correct it.""

This struck a chord with me. I found her sentiment to be valid, but it certainly wasn’t a simple subject. In observing this bias correction, I found myself with many questions - sure, I felt a similar responsibility to confront ignorance, especially when it occurs right in front of or towards me, but why should I feel this obligation? Why must I be the one to confront implicit bias?

Part of having white privilege must very well be that non-white people are obliged to politely confront your biases and prejudices. As such, being that non-white person - in other words, playing that role of the “educator” - is exhausting, and it's led to many reflections on my own personal values. In this piece, I'd like to discuss my experiences of existing in a predominantly white space, which, in many ways, has made me hyper-aware of my own racial identity.

Existing in White Spaces

I recently finished my first year of university - I attend a small liberal arts school in New Jersey. It was a place far from my home in Texas, a complete departure from the dry heat and rapidly growing suburbs that I had exchanged for a sleepy East coast college town. This was a fresh start for me, through and through.

In high school, I kept my circles small. It was easy to exist in small bubbles. The same groups of kids took the same classes year after year, but in starting my journey in university, I set forward, as many bright-eyed freshmen do, with the goal of putting myself out there. Stepping out of my shell and breaking those pre-constructed bubbles.

In reflecting upon my freshman year experience, I certainly think that this goal was achieved. I believe that socially, I’ve improved in strides. This did not come, however, without its hurdles. These were things that I had been initially wary of even when I had first applied to the school.

My university is a predominantly white institution (PWI), where a little over half of the student population is white. Truthfully, the entire institution of higher education in America is a predominantly white institution.

Ethnic minorities have experienced decades of inequitable distribution of educational resources, and though the proportion of minorities enrolling in higher education has been rising, it still lags behind the attendance rates of the national norm. Something I noticed in many formalized studies is that the heightened enrollment of minority students is often framed as a massive stride from the decades past - while this is, indeed, an advancement, much of the language used in these studies refers to minorities as a monolith. A short summary of a report by the American Council on Education reads, “In 2015–16, approximately 45 percent of all undergraduate students identified as being a race or ethnicity other than White, compared with 29.6 percent in 1995-96.” It feels, at times, that is all there is. White and non-white. No specifici