Mistry: What does it mean to be brown at CWRU?

Viral Mistry, Staff Columnist

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Last week, I opened the links to see all of the letters of intent for the Spring 2019 Undergraduate Student Government (USG) elections, and I couldn’t help but notice the sizeable number of brown people who are running.

I’m sure you’ve heard the term “under-represented minority,” or URM, which refers to people in the U.S. who are of African-American, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American or Pacific Islander origin. They are numerically and structurally underrepresented in institutions like Case Western Reserve University. URMs make up approximately 32 percent of the U.S. population but only about 12 percent of the student body at CWRU.

I would like to posit another term in contrast: overrepresented minority, which I would argue describes South Asian students at CWRU. While the specific data for South Asians at CWRU is lacking, Asians more broadly make up seven percent of the U.S. population but make up 20 percent of the undergraduate student body here.

As I write this, the USG elections have not occurred yet. However, there is a distinct possibility that four of the six main executive positions within USG will be occupied by South Asian American students. Six of the 11 candidates for these positions are brown. Thirty-one percent of the College of Engineering candidates and a whopping 52 percent of the College of Arts and Sciences candidates are of South Asian descent. Talk about a brown come-up.

I’m sure there will be people who will see that and say “yeah, but who cares about USG?” After all, their own former VP of Student Life admitted to The Observer last year that since only about 30 percent of campus participates in the elections, they do not have a meaningful mandate. And while I wholeheartedly agree with that, it does not change the fact that to the university administration, USG is the face of the student body. Regardless of whether a substantial number of students participate in the elections, the body will very likely be disproportionately South Asian.   

I do not believe in hard racial quotas. The issue goes deeper than just raw numbers. After all, CWRU’s URM population is already incredibly low, especially for African-Americans, who have remained approximately five percent of the student population for years.

I’m not arguing that South Asians should not be allowed to make up more than a certain percentage of the student population or of the student government. I am, however, pointing out the massive over-representation, and questioning what the South Asian students who wield this disproportionate influence plan to do with it.

South Asians in the U.S. are on average the wealthiest ethnic or racial group by household income. We are the most likely to graduate college and the most likely to possess graduate degrees. We have not faced the same kinds of institutional racism and segregation that our black and Latinx peers have. We overwhelmingly live in suburbs built by and for a white majority.

Yet, we are inescapably different from white folk. Our language is different, our names are different and our skin is different.

Vijay Prashad, in his book “The Karma of Brown Folk,” reflects on this complicated social position. If W.E.B. Du Bois, the author of “The Souls of Black Folk,” said the existence of blackness in the U.S. was to be a problem, then Prashad argued that the existence of brownness is to be a solution. As an upwardly mobile “model minority,” we can be weaponized as a cudgel against black and Latinx folk, demeaning them for failing to succeed as we have. In return, we get to live safely in white neighborhoods, go to white schools and universities and roleplay “The West Wing” while in student government, as long as we don’t challenge the status quo in a meaningful or substantive way.

This academic year, at least one brown person has served on every single Student Presidents’ Roundtable organizations’ executive board. I would know, I am one of them. The same cannot be said for black or Latinx students here.

We have a strong collective voice here at CWRU. What do we use this authority for? Are we using it to protect a power structure designed by and for the dominant group? Or are we using our positions of privilege and our proximity to whiteness as a doorstop to open up opportunities for our fellow formerly colonized brothers and sisters?

What organizations are we partnering with? What stories are we telling? What issues are we championing?

I believe we can be a strong force to advance the cause of all marginalized people. By the time this article runs, elections will be over, and there will almost certainly be brown people elected to serve in USG next year. They collectively have a choice to make. Will they be advocates or opponents of change?

Most critically: will they be a problem or a solution?

Viral Mistry is a fourth-year biology and cognitive science double major who is also minoring in chemistry, history and philosophy. This fall, he will be moving to North Chicago to pursue a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science.