Hi APC! My name is Clara Mangali and my pronouns are she/her/hers. A mentor of mine once told me not to think of myself in halves, so I like to describe myself as multiracial: a granddaughter of Filipino immigrants trying to figure out what it means to be a womxn of color while also use my light-skinned privilege to amplify the voices of my BIPOC sisters. I am a rising junior at a private school in LA where I am involved in studio art, cross country, stage crew, and my biggest passion, working with the campus affinity groups and DEI department. I spent two weeks writing this essay which is essentially a brain dump of all the things I’ve learned about what it means to be a marginalized student at a predominately white institution and a promise to myself to hold the people in charge accountable for making the change that needs to happen.
Regressive: Changemaking at PWIs
To be a student of color at a predominately white institution is to be a part of a unique legacy of inequity. My high school is a predominately white institution – a private, independent, affluent school – and I’ve been thinking a lot about the opportunities that a post-COVID world holds for this narrative to be changed. As I reflect on this unique point in time and the potential it holds, I find it hard to admit to myself that I’m petrified. Just speaking from my own perspective, being a minority student at a PWI means that I’m well acquainted with feeling alone in my experience; I know there are many other students for whom this feeling of isolation is far worse. But I know I’m not alone in my desire to create substantial, meaningful change beyond virtue signaling and performative action. I’ve made a promise to myself to remember four things that I will bring into every space I lead or participate in this year– four pieces of advice to help me hold myself and others accountable.
- You are allowed to feel.
Social justice work is intimidating! Before high school I had no prior experience with DEI work, advocacy, or organizing and I remember how esoteric it all seemed to me. I was always in awe of my role models, many of them teachers, who were able to remain composed in the face of ridicule and attacks on their credibility, and still were able to respectfully articulate how to resolve conflict or unpack an issue. I think that sometimes the perceived “eliteness” of DEI work can alienate potentially interested students. Being a good leader in the area of diversity and equity isn’t about your ability to effortlessly throw around vocabulary like “code-switching” or “intersectionality” (although such language can be helpful tools to articulate your experiences). It’s about the willingness to be vulnerable and invite others to do the same. Discussing something as personal as your identity and the experiences you have had because of it is inherently emotional work. Too often we make students feel as if only the people who articulate their points eloquently and use all the “right” words are worthy of being listened to. As long as you are not hurting yourself or others, you are allowed to have genuine expressions of grief, anger, or sadness. It can be scary, especially when there are so many negative stereotypes attached to womxn and people of color who express anger, but if we want to have productive conversations we have to put energy into building spaces where honesty is celebrated. We need to move away from a mindset that is critical and exclusionary because oftentimes the authenticity of an emotional response can be more impactful than words that are carefully measured.
- While we’re at it, let’s rethink how we use the word “diversity.”
I might come off as a hypocrite by critiquing the word “diversity” because I use the initialism “DEI” so often (if I’m being honest I probably will keep doing so because it’s so widely used). But its ubiquity aside, I believe that it’s important to look deeper at the word itself. Let’s be real – be it in schools, workplaces, or casual conversation, nothing makes people roll their eyes more than talking about diversity. I find that it tends to conjure up images of hand-across-America-esque displays of racial unity and uncomfortable workshops that no one likes to go to. And perhaps their reactions to the term itself are justified; we have to confront the limitations of a word that focuses only on who is in the room but pays no mind to who may be outside of it. Dafina Lazarus Stewart puts it best:
Diversity asks, “How many more of x group do we have this year than last year?”
Equity responds, “What conditions have we created that maintain certain groups as a perpetual majority here?”
Inclusion asks, “Is this environment safe for everyone to feel like they belong?”
Justice answers, “Whose safety is being sacrificed and minimized to allow others to be comfortable in maintaining their dehumanizing views?”
Recognizing this difference is crucial for PWIs because all too often our schools are satisfied with numerical diversity without adopting the equitable approach to teaching that acknowledges the inequity inherent to being a student of color at an institution historically only accessible to those who were white and wealthy. It’s not flattering to be the only POC in a space – it’s othering. In order to make actual lasting, systemic change we have to not only understand the limitations of diversity but truly understand that it is through invoking inclusion, equity, and justice that we can make the reforms necessary to actually set up students for success.
- Realize that the advertised culture is rarely the actual one.
It’s hard not to take note of how private, independent schools tend to treat enrollment charts and official diversity statements as selling points. However, we cannot ensure a safe and supportive environment for marginalized students if we never stop to wonder what experiences lie beyond picture-perfect images in the admissions brochure. Schools need to face the inconvenient reality that a culture of casual racism and homophobia can still persist even if they have marketable features like a designated DEI department or an official inclusion statement. It’s taken a lot of raw, honest storytelling from students and alumni of color for schools to even start to consider the possibility that their existing practices have done little to specifically address the things that perpetuate a hostile environment for marginalized students. The question of how to create a cultural shift is not an easy one by any means, but based on my experience I believe an essential first step is to ensure an open channel of communication between students and the administration; this is especially crucial to creating cultural change when you consider how the minimization and refusal to listen to marginalized students’ experiences is what often causes such an environment. I really do believe that the first step towards actual change can come down to something as simple as a school’s willingness to readily affirm, without hesitation, that they support and value their marginalized students.
- Harness the power of intersectionality.
These past few months for me have been one desperate search for a silver lining after another, so I want to end on a positive note. It brings me hope to see how more and more students, teachers, and even parents want to be involved in making radical change to disrupt privilege at predominately white private schools. Who’s to say if it’s motivated by deep-seated guilt at not having listened to marginalized students for so long or the promise of a chance to set a new precedent of love and acceptance at a time in which the idea of “returning” to a sense of normalcy gets farther and farther every day. What’s important is people are showing up. The more involved I get the more I realize that I can’t claim I am truly invested in showing up for social justice if I only show up for myself. All of the oppression that marginalized people experience is enabled by institutions that are rooted in white supremacy, racism, ableism, classism, sexism, and homophobia. But this also means that a win for one of us is a win for all of us. My biggest promise to myself this year is to show up for other people. To ask for help. To find the areas where I can collaborate and to challenge people who are really resistant to change. In the words of artist Lilla Watson,
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you have come because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together.”
Follow me on Instagram @clara.mangali