Race workshops exacerbate the problem they seek to eliminate

Compulsory sessions are just an excuse for inaction, writes Sandra Xu

Be it the Civil Rights Movement, the recent conflict in Charlottesville, or the constant protest against the lack of ethnic representation in elite universities, problems of racial inequality and misrepresentation persistently plague our daily life.

The creation of so-called ‘race workshops’ has become a somewhat popular trend in universities (and, in our case, individual colleges) for raising awareness about equality and diversity as well as promoting understanding between people of different races.

Suggestions have even been put forward to make them mandatory, so that students could learn to reflect on their own biases and talk about race in an open and informal setting. At first blush, an idea with merit, and one which we could say would necessarily lead to transparency, understanding, and tolerance. However, on closer inspection, what does the existence of such workshops truly entail?

The issue of race is a sensitive one. So prone are we to employ words and expressions that might be mistaken for discrimination and abuse that it can pervade our every thought. Students of colour are already differentiated from others in regards to their backgrounds and cultures. The mere notion of race workshops further amplifies the problem, positioning them under a magnifying glass with the following message implicitly understanding that these students are different from ‘us’.

They have a special identity that makes it necessary for ‘us’ to understand them in a particular way. That’s why ‘we’ are taking the time to talk about ‘them’. Race workshops serve more to divide than unify, presupposing the differences in identities and placing an invisible label on students of colour that would later prove hard to remove.

Preconceived prejudices will not be thrown away. Instead new ones will arise. The fact that many of the workshops are set as a part of freshers’ week timetable serves to prise students apart from each other, even before the start of the course, by reminding them that they all come from different places.

On the other hand, the creation of workshops sends an implicit message that the University administration is taking an active part in raising awareness of racial inequality. In other words, because of the existence of race workshops, less responsibility needs to be taken for the actual integration of students of colour.

Though this is certainly far from the intention of creating such workshops, it does provide an excuse for the administration to wash its hands of the issues of racial diversity. As an international student myself, I have found it far more helpful talking to access officers such as the Junior Deans or international representatives than partaking in any official inductions on racial awareness or potential bias, when it comes to the issue of cultural integration.

The latter is simply neither the correct, nor the appropriate format. The problem of racial differences is an inveterate one. Differences in culture and disparities in values acquired through the formative years of one’s lifetime will not be easily dispelled within the course of several weeks or months. Assimilation and the breaking down of cultural barriers should be a gradual process accomplished through the frequent exchange of intellectual ideas, the pursuit of similar interests and passions as well as the discussion of common dreams and aspirations, not one that could be achieved through the attendance of infrequent race workshops.

The truth is, the more emphatic people are about the issue of race, the less likely it is that students of colour are treated equally. The whole concept of ‘race’ is already overly emphasised. What we need now is a de emphasis of the issue and, in turn, a putting of everyone on the same line. A more effective alternative would be to expand the creation of societies or weekly workshops that focus on the specific cultures of a particular region, such as the origins of Hindu art.

Through the universal media of art and music, students are more likely to be genuinely interested in and appreciative of the virtues of foreign cultures, and thus cultural exchanges and the increasing of diversity will be facilitated. After all, from wherever we originally come, whatever our secret passions or deep desires, we are all bound together by the ties of humanity, which transcend issues such as race.

University is a good place to start breaking down barriers, as we explore the world and endeavour to carve out our path to the future. Every experience we live through alters our outlook on life, every person we encounter reveals to us the diversity of humanity. Racial diversity is one of the many things that shall shed infinite light on our perceptions of the world, contributing to the formation of even our most basic opinions.

Thus, a truly efficient way that would enable us to understand the depths of other cultures should be devised in the place of race workshops.