Nohemy Johnson

I’m quietly searching for bread in the aisles of a small grocery store when I round the corner and run into a man and a woman. I’m there before they are. I think that they will move over to let me slide by, but that doesn’t happen.

The woman looks at me in disgust and rudely asks me to move. I am so taken aback by her tone that I just stand there, dumbfounded by her attitude towards me. She leans over to her husband and whispers loudly, “the Mexican can’t understand English.”

At this moment, I feel like the woman has just slapped me across the face. What had I done? I had no idea that moving from a city to a rural community would create such a drastic change in my life.

I don’t know the lady in the grocery store’s story. Neither did I know what she’s been through, but she also knew nothing about me. The sad thing is, my story is not unique. To her, I was the unknown, and in this community the unknown was scary. She probably saw me and didn’t know what to think. Perhaps she had never interacted with the “other.”

She had a chance to make the unknown known. However, she didn’t try. I left the community. She didn’t. Perhaps she is the victim and not me.

This small, Kentucky town I visited is like a bubble. Everyone knows each other and if you’re born there, there’s a good chance this town is where you’ll spend your life and later die. Not surprisingly, my dad is still friends with the people that he knew in elementary school. There are many rural communities that function this way.

Principia shares many similarities to this town in Kentucky. Students have the same friends from camp, middle school, and even the Acorn school. So how does this community of close-knit groups and friends impact those new to the Principia community?

Entering into a community of established friendships and definitive cliques is hard. It is even harder if you are a minority. One student says, “I never knew I was black until I came to the United States.

“It’s not that I didn’t know I was black. My skin color is obvious, but I just didn’t realize my color had such a negative stigma. I was no longer just me, but me and my color. My color was not just a color, but all these negative stereotypes behind it,” she explained.

Since being in the states and having an acute awareness of her skin tone, she has become hyper-aware of her accent. “How does it sound? Am I mispronouncing something – [is that] why people are giving me blank stares?”

The student explains, “No student wants to repeat themselves multiple times.”

Adjusting to a new culture and country is not easy. It’s difficult, scary, and lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. I can only imagine what many of the international students feel when first arriving in the United States.

Domestic students wonder why there is a divide within the student body at Principia.

“I think international students of color at Principia should first understand that US students are generally institutionally ignorant about any other culture outside of the US,” says Professor Billy Miller.

“Indeed, most are ignorant about their own culture. Consequently, for the most part, too many are incapable of empathizing with the cultures of others. So, international students should not take the insulting and embarrassing cultural stereotyping personal when some domestic students engage in the horrible episodes of racialized behaviors.

Miller goes on to explain, “International students should engage with domestic students notwithstanding their ignorance about the global ‘other.’ They should go forward with the greatest love and empathy for domestic students and take the highroad to loving them notwithstanding themselves.”

I must confess my own ignorance at this point. I roomed with an international student my first semester freshman year. We didn’t have the option to choose roommates and, I have to admit, I didn’t know how to meet her halfway. We didn’t talk for the majority of the semester, even though we both spent a lot of time in the room.

Then one day, we began talking. I couldn’t tell you what specifically we discussed, but we discovered how much we had in common. It’s odd looking back and realizing how afraid I was to be vulnerable. I was determined to hide my ignorance from this person.

In an attempt to get to know more about my roommate and her culture, I used Wikipedia and Google Maps to find information about her country. It wasn’t at all what I expected. Her country seemed, to me, normal. Today, this woman is one of my best friends.

This article’s purpose is not to look down on or ridicule domestic students, like myself. Rather, it is meant to persuade you to take moment to think about what the real issue is. We have an opportunity at Principia to enrich our lives by getting to know the “other”: that international student or person who you don’t normally interact with – someone that might not only look different, but have a different political ideology.

Interacting with and getting to know the other doesn’t mean compromising your identity or beliefs. It means loving your neighbor. To learn from one another, we must all be willing to break barriers. We are all a little ignorant at some point in our lives. But we have the opportunity to change that. At Principia College, we have over 80 international students from six different continents; engage with the people of this diverse and unique community as an opportunity to express unconditional, unerring, and selfless Love.