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A Vocabulary of Inclusion

Founders Walk

Sometimes it’s important to “get uncomfortable” and engage with challenging topics, so we can learn from one another.



Nick Sparkman, '17, School of Engineering

“So… what are you?” This question, asked by a white student, was posed to a person in my house who identifies as biracial. I watched my friend hesitantly fielding the question. I cannot truly understand what he felt as he was (under social pressure) forced to explain his racial identity to someone just because that person was curious. Moments like this make me realize that I have a huge privilege, or advantage. As an obviously white person, my race is easily accepted in social scenarios at Vanderbilt, and I am never asked to explain it to someone.

Vanderbilt is in the midst of a lot of discussions surrounding privilege; what it is, how it influences our experiences, and so on. It is critical to understand privilege in order to understand and participate fully in these discussions.

Here’s my advice: don’t be angry if someone attempts to explain to you that you have a privilege. If you’re a straight person, I may explain my experiences as a gay person to you in terms of your privilege. If straight, you can confidently walk with a significant other in public without having to evaluate the probability that you will be the target of undue scrutiny or hatred for doing so. If you rarely wonder what it would be like to be a gay person, you may not realize your own relative comfort due to your privilege. No one is bad for having privilege, and I don’t deny any of your struggles just because you have privilege.

Educate yourself on the topic of privilege, and dive into the discussions happening around you. I can promise you that your experience here will be richer for having done so.


Laurel Hattix, '16, Peabody College

“It must be nice knowing that even though you aren’t really black, you always have affirmative action to get you where you want to go.” Welcome to my first week at Vanderbilt. I was bombarded with countless “So, what are you?” questions, several unwelcomed hands pulling at my hair, and a few too many people labeling me as “exotic.” I had never been so aware of the inconvenience my racial ambiguity caused complete strangers.

Weeks later, I sat in my sociology class. The professor scrawled across the board “microaggressions.” As she explained its definition, I found myself breathing in relief. Finally, a word to explain my experiences. A word that understood the libraries in my chest, which carried my accumulated stories. Stories of being told “You are beautiful for a black girl,” “You sound so white,” and “Are you here on a track scholarship?”

For some of you, this story reads like your own narrative. For you, know that here you will find professors with open ears and cups of tea who will give you poetry, research articles, and their own narratives for solace. There will be VUceptors, RAs, and that upperclassman in your Spanish class who will handle your rants with grace and Jeni’s ice cream. People who will let you be angry without defining you as angry. 

For some of you, this story is foreign. And for you, I ask that you meet your fellow ‘Dores with listening ears rather than pre-formed assumptions. See people as people not as social issues to be dissected. And above all, seek to understand more than you seek to be understood. Our common identity is Commodores. Make it an identity we are proud to claim. 


Lauren Pak, '17, Peabody College

As the daughter of first generation immigrants, coming from a high school where over half the students spoke a language other than English at home, my transition to a rather homogenous college campus where my ethnic immigrant experience was in the minority, was often difficult.

During a discussion section in my first semester, a blonde Texan announced with confidence, “Vanderbilt has so much diversity…this is the most diverse class experience I’ve ever had.”  She turned as she said this, nodding her head towards me and the one other person of color in the room of 40 students.  In the larger lecture, a Caucasian peer came up to me at the end and said, “I completely agree with your comment about multiculturalism in class. I understand your people.”  In situations like this, I felt I and other minority students, were becoming the subject matter of learning rather than respected learners with autonomous agency. But, I’ve learned I am not a statistic nor a textbook case-study recruited to educate or be an experience for the 88.4 percent who are not ‘Asian or Hawaiian/Pacific Islander’ at Vanderbilt.

Multiculturalism has become a buzzword for people who have the privilege of choosing to engage with ‘the other’ only when it benefits them.  But it is difficult to fight politicized multiculturalism when we can say at least now we have the annual Diwali Showcase or popular K-pop dance-off at ANYF?  Can I complain when the imitation Vietnamese pho at the appropriated “Bamboo Bistro” has foreign-enough looking Korean kimchi thrown on it to make it look more exotic or “Asian” enough?  Where else would I find the socially acceptable space to eat with chopsticks and drink Sriracha drenched broth without judgment on Vanderbilt’s campus? Better these than nothing, right?

Attending Vanderbilt has not been my only challenge.  Upon my return to my immigrant enclave, I was rejected by my Korean peers.  They pointed at how all my college pictures were with ‘white people,’ that my English sounded ‘more white.’ By attending Vanderbilt, I had turned my back on my culture. In their eyes, I was the ultimate example of assimilation.  Similarly, my Asian American peer group at Vanderbilt reacted viscerally when I decided to join Panhellenic Greek Life. I could not exist without picking a side - Asian or white. This is the problem surrounding Asian America - our visibility is only permissible in relation to the Black or White.     

Today, I stand a sorority sister and a student panelist for the Asian American Student Association.  I am a leader in majority and minority organizations on campus.  How so?  Because I rejected the notion that my identity is divisive.  Diversity and difference do not automatically mean hate or repression of another group.  I am thankful for the contrasting opinions and that one blonde girl in my HOD class.  Without such encounters, I would never have felt the value of my identity or the need to claim my worth as an individual and not a token or trope.


Farishtay Yamin, '17, School of Engineering

I tolerate a fly buzzing around a room. I tolerate an electricity outage. Maybe I complain, but I’ve learned to become patient. The fly irritates me, but I have to deal with it. It’s a fact of life. 

My freshman year I prayed somewhere in the stacks of Peabody Library, because I didn’t have time to go back to my room. I carefully chose a secluded spot with no traffic—on the top floor in a far corner. I made a prayer mat out of notebook paper, took a black scarf out of my backpack, and prayed as fast as I could.

“No one comes up here; you’ll be fine. But what if someone sees me? You don’t have time to pray the second half; get out of here fast and take your scarf off.” 

I breathed with relief when my prayer ended. The day before, a man had wandered into my corner, stared at me, and ran out before I could say something. The previous day I saw two girls grimace as they watched my friend pray in a study room. And another time, a girl smirked when she saw me wash my elbows in the sink before I prayed.

Sure, they exhibited tolerance. They were displeased. They were amused. They were condescending, but hey, they let me pray, right? As long as they didn’t rip my scarf off, they were tolerant.But tolerance and acceptance are two different things. When you see someone doing something different, that may be strange to you, don’t smirk. Don’t laugh. Ask questions. You can ask me why I’m praying in a corner of Peabody Library or why I washed my elbows. But I ask that you accept me as your equal. Don’t make another student feel scared to pray in the library. Don’t simply tolerate them. Learn about and accept their identity. Accept their differences. 

Malaysian student

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Kenya Wright, '18, College of Arts and Science, VUcept Executive Board

I am a Black Hispanic. That is who I am, who I’ve always been, and who I’ll always be. My culture is a mixture infused with Latino and Caribbean elements. Growing up, my home was filled with a tangle of accents and languages, an assortment of music and dance styles, and an equally diverse and flavorful menu. But as an individual, my identity is much more. Dynamic and intersectional are words that come to mind, but neither could ever fully describe who I am.

When I arrived at Vanderbilt, it seemed many people saw a racial identity before they saw anything else about me. My family’s rich history and unique culture were erased, so I could be checked off as “Black.” Growing up in an Hispanic and Caribbean home, there are huge cultural differences between me and my Vandy friends from culturally American homes, even if our skin colors are the same. My brown skin and kinky hair disqualify me from fitting the stereotypical image of a Latina woman with long dark hair and olive skin - and because I am the darkest of my Hispanic friends, no one assumes I am Hispanic, and rarely do they think to ask or to look beyond my outwardly “African American” appearance. This left me at times feeling isolated and without a place at Vanderbilt.

If I could go back, I would tell first-year me to fearlessly embrace all pieces of my identity, especially during a time of change and growth like the first year of college. I would tell my first-year self to commit unwaveringly to individuality and to be unafraid to correct people who need to be corrected, to educate people who need to educated, and stand up to people who are disrespectful.

I would tell many people I met during my first year, friends and strangers included, to avoid assumptions about people’s background, culture, and interests. In a place like Vanderbilt, assumptions are often wrong, stereotypical, marginalizing and hurtful.

I would also assure myself that I would find communities at Vanderbilt willing to embrace my culture, heritage and perspectives, irrespective of what I look like, as well as people who understand that no single trait or identity can define me. But, also that finding my place at Vanderbilt would take more than joining groups - it would take a journey of persistence and patience, reflection and introspection, of finding and following my interests and passions. As it turned out, having people challenge my identity helped me explore and understand who I wanted to be.

As a first year, pressured by a desire to get past the awkwardness and fit in, it can be easy to accept labels that are given to you and assimilate to behaviors that are expected of you like hanging out with people who look like you or joining organizations for people of your background. But, I urge you to take risks - get to know people who are different from yourself, physically, religiously, ethnically and ideologically. Challenge others’ assumptions and advocate for your identity, whatever it may be.