I have spent the past three years studying Arts/Law at Sydney University without interacting with international students. ‘They’ are there, ‘I’ am there, but ‘we’ aren’t there.
Recently I have found myself spending more time with international students, mostly those who are from Mainland China and studying at the Centre for English Teaching before continuing to their relevant university course. USYD has expanded its international student intake, but there is still a pervasive culture of alienation that many of them experience. The dichotomy of ‘us’ (domestic students) and ‘them’ (international students) has become a shared narrative amongst many non-white international students.
This malicious dichotomy is internalised racism that ‘Others’ these people for no other reason than their ethnicity and nationality. It wasn’t until I met a Chinese student in her second year of a Bachelor of Commerce who laughed awkwardly while saying, “I didn’t realise Sydney was so… hostile,” that I recognised the discrimination many international students face. Her anecdote centred on a moment where she had apparently asked a fellow student in her class to be partners for a group assessment, but was rejected. The reason was because this other student thought they “would have to do the entire assessment because you can’t speak English properly.” She brushed it off. In her experience these explicit, and sometimes implicit, dismissals happened frequently.
Many domestic students nonchalantly dismiss this ‘issue’ with an offhanded comment – “it’s their fault – they don’t want to talk to us,” or “I can’t help it that their English isn’t that great.” Of course, I am talking about you – the average middle class white person, forced to do group assignments with these undesirables. SURPRISE! Yet again we see white people privileging their own experiences and perpetuating racist attitudes towards others in a way that is accepted, and further marginalises ‘them.’
The underlying animosity and anxiety towards international students is insidious and perpetuates a university culture that creates an offensive dichotomy. I am not saying this is the only experience international students face when interacting with local students; I am however saying that it is time to check your privilege, and recognise that the language barrier you claim as justification to avoid contact is racist.
Photo: Gordon Wrigley, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0