Cornellians Discuss Identity, Challenges, and Allyship

A screenshot of Gustavo Flores-Macías speaking during the November 2021 Building Allyship Series session, and a screenshot of Natalia Lopez Barbosa moderating the session.

Associate Vice Provost for International Affairs Gustavo A. Flores-Macías spoke during the November 2021 Building Allyship Series session, which chemical engineering doctoral candidate Natalia Lopez Barbosa moderated.

December 20, 2021

When Associate Vice Provost for International Affairs Gustavo A. Flores-Macías migrated to the United States from Mexico, he brought with him an understanding of his identity that did not align with perceptions of race and ethnicity within the context of the United States. This misalignment is not uncommon for Cornell’s international graduate and professional degree students, who comprise almost half of the Graduate School student population.

Prospective international students may first encounter U.S. ideas of race and ethnicity during the application process when they are asked to indicate their race and ethnicity and check one or more boxes indicating whether they identify as white, Black/African American, American Indian or Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Asian, and/or Hispanic/Latina/o/x, or with none of the above. These U.S.-based social constructs are often confusing especially without a contextual understanding of these complicated origins and complexities.

“When I first came to the U.S., I didn’t really view race as my primary form of identity. Nationality was more important to me, so I identify as Afro-Trinidadian. When I came here, I realized I’m Black, so I suddenly became a minority within the racialized environment in the U.S., so that was something I’ve had to process over the years,” said panelist Asher Williams, Ph.D., a Cornell presidential postdoctoral fellow in the Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Like Williams, city and regional planning doctoral candidate Seema Singh was familiar with identity in her own cultural context, but entirely unfamiliar with how classifications and stereotypes function in America. “Race was such an alien concept for me until I literally landed in the U.S.,” she said. “In India, it’s a very diverse country, so we talk along the lines of gender, caste, class, and other things, but coming here introduced me to this world of race and how broadly it has been categorized.”

Not only are most international students and scholars asked to adapt to U.S.-based ideas about identity, but they are unfamiliar with assumptions that others may make based on their appearance, language, or ethnicity. Many in the U.S. may assume these international students and scholars have insights into race issues based on the assumed identities they might correctly or incorrectly attribute to international students, asking them questions for which they do not have contextual understanding.

“I’m from Colombia, and in my department for a long time, I was the only Colombian,” said Natalia Lopez Barbosa, a doctoral candidate in chemical engineering. So I felt the responsibility that everything that I do or everything that I say is going to be ascribed as ‘the Colombian thing.’ It felt like I was walking on eggshells because I had to be really careful, I didn’t want to reinforce a stereotype.”

A recent panel composed of Cornell’s international students and postdocs shared their insights into identity and offered advice on how to support the international community during a Building Allyship Series session, “The Marginalization and Racialization of International Scholar Identities within the U.S. Context,” on Nov. 18. Flores-Macías opened the panel discussion with Barbosa moderating.

Key takeaways from the session are below, and the event recording is available for viewing.

How are international students and scholars marginalized and racialized at U.S. institutions?

  • International students and scholars may face multiple forms of discrimination based on their phenotype, accent, and/or social or cultural practices.
  • International students and scholars may feel less important than their U.S. domestic peers if assumptions are made about their experiences and perspectives or if their unique voice is not valued.
  • U.S. institutions appreciate international students and scholars but may be unaware of how they are affected by U.S. ideas about race and ethnicity.
  • International students and scholars might identify as white, Black/African American, American Indian or Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Asian, and/or Hispanic/Latina/o/x, or with none of these racial or ethnic identities that may limit their identity.

How can U.S. domestic peers and colleagues be good allies to international students and scholars?

  • Avoid making assumptions about an entire group of people based on one individual. Individuals do not represent the entirety of their countries, cultures, societies, or social identities.
  • Step in if you hear someone make a comment grounded in a stereotype, assumption, or implicit bias to an international student or scholar.
  • Recognize individuals for who they are, rather than mistaking two students from the same ethnicity or with similar phenotypes for each other.
  • Provide opportunities for international students and scholars to share their individual perspectives and experiences.
  • Avoid making assumptions about an individual based on their language, written or spoken, and refrain from commenting on accents.
  • Help raise awareness for the challenges that international students and scholars face, especially those whose identities have been racialized within a U.S. context.
  • Instructors can use global examples to illustrate points, rather than focusing solely on the U.S. context.
  • Check in with international students and scholars about their well-being after hearing news involving their home countries.
  • Get to know your peers, rather than gravitating toward students from regions or countries similar to your own.
  • Check in on international scholars during the holidays. While many domestic students return home, many international students remain in Ithaca, which becomes much quieter, and can feel isolating to some, in winter.

Where can I learn more?

Session panelists included Williams; Singh; Janani Hariharan, soil and crop sciences doctoral candidate; Motasem Kalaji, communication doctoral candidate; and Nancy Ruiz-Uribe, biomedical engineering doctoral candidate.

The Building Allyship Series will continue in the Spring 2022 semester.

Initiated by the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly Diversity and International Students Committee, the Building Allyship Series is a collaboration of the Graduate and Professional Student Diversity Council and the Graduate School Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement. Graduate and Professional Students International was also a lead partner for the Nov. 18 session.