That’s what I said to myself as I walked Baylor University’s campus for the first time. I was in town for a weekend-long trip sponsored by the university. The weekend was meant to be a preview into student life for all incoming freshmen.
As I walked around campus, I couldn’t help but notice how different Baylor seemed compared to where I grew up in the rich cultural melting pot that is San Francisco Bay Area. The weather was certainly muggier but the people were so much nicer. Some people smiled at me as if I was their best friend. Others went out of their way to hold the door for me. The small acts of kindness and hospitality were honestly really nice — it’s what makes home home for me.
To be upfront, I didn’t notice any negative differences at first. The weather could have been cooler, but I was excited to be there. And as much as I was ready for the next four years of my life, nothing would prepare me for what I would actually experience.
My Baylor experience, in sum, would give more than what I bargained for; while I walked away with an education and wonderful friendships, I also encountered numerous occasions of deeply hurtful racism and ignorance from the student population.
One particular racist encounter that’s deeply burned into my memory occurred during my sophomore year, shortly after Trump was elected president. A white Baylor student pushed a fellow Black student off a sidewalk and proceeded to say “no n*ggers allowed on the sidewalk.”
For me, this incident set the precedent for ethnic minority life on campus. White students proceeded to openly say the n-word and commit more microaggressions than I could count. One fraternity even decided to throw a Cinco de Mayo party where partiers came dressed in construction gear and maid outfits.
My faith and the way I viewed the world were shaken to its core, to the point where I was left wondering if I even believed in anything good.
In sharing my story, I hope to find a sense of catharsis that has eluded me all these years and resonate with those who have had similar experiences — and hope that you, too, may find a sense of rest, peace and resolve.
The Story Behind the Story
The irony of this story is that my experiences at Baylor were set in stone far before I even set foot on Baylor’s campus. There are two aspects of my life leading up to Baylor that, for better or worse, enabled me to experience what I did: the good, the bad and the ugly.
The first aspect of my life that I’d like to share is faith. My dad was a pastor, so my entire childhood centered around going to church and being Christian. Similar to many other faith practices, I was raised to believe there was safety with individuals who shared your beliefs. At the very least, being Christian was a sign of solidarity to other Christians. Throughout my upbringing, I never met a group of Christians I didn’t get along with. I mean, we believed the same thing, right? My expectation leading up to Baylor was that people who claimed to be Christians were going to be alright.
The second aspect of my story is my beliefs regarding race and my experiences as an Asian American. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my context was full of diverse cultures, faces and stories. When it came to being Asian American, I never viewed it as a liability. I thought, and still think, being Asian American was cool.
I was raised by Korean-American parents who embraced what they knew about Korean culture and also pursued their dreams. They were educators-turned-pastors who did life with grace. They pastored a church where the parishioners were largely second-generation Asian American. Let me tell ya, a lot of these parishioners were just cool — the kind of cool that excelled in the classroom but could cross you over on the basketball court. They were boisterous, loud and outgoing and unafraid to express themselves; they were confident in who they were, but navigated through the world with kindness and compassion.
I looked up to my parents and our church community without ever being aware of the negative stereotypes. It had never dawned on me that my ethnicity could be a liability.
Before I get to the pain, I find it necessary to talk about the good first. I can be quite cynical at times, so relaying the positive experiences during my time at Baylor will be great practice to see my time there more positively. There were many great highlights to share, but for the sake of brevity, I’d like to talk about three: Black Baylor, my friends and football.
The Black students in solidarity with one another, otherwise known as Black Baylor, kept me sane during my time at the university. They were a constant visceral reminder that excellence can always rise above oppression. I’m not gonna speak on Black Baylor as if it was my own because I don’t want to take anything away from my Black brothers and sisters. I was an outsider who had the privilege of rubbing shoulders with some really cool, encouraging Black folks. They granted me a deepened sense of empathy for those suffering as a result of systemic injustice. They showed me that I could partner with those being oppressed as an advocate.
Most importantly, Black Baylor taught me that the oppressed can always rise above the oppressor.
Another positive aspect was my friends, many of which I still keep in touch with to this day. My friends at Baylor served as a constant reminder that I could find deep, meaningful friendships even in the midst of pain. One friend that I’d like to highlight is my friend Dave. He was a Seattle-ite who didn’t really drink coffee. I remember meeting him for the first time and he told me he didn’t drink coffee. I was shocked. Dave was also a sports fan in every sense of the word. He didn’t just like watching sports; he could tell you each player’s set of skills in their respective sport and how they played in a game relative to their touted potential. Most importantly, though, Dave was, and is, one of the most humble, servient-hearted guys I have ever met.
Another friend I want to highlight is my buddy Bret. He and I come from the same hometown, so it was like love at first sight. We had the chance to be roommates together for a year and we had a blast. Spontaneous trips to the local bars, morning coffee runs and legendary nights-in. My one regret is that we never went to a yoga class together. But yoga class aside, Bret was a gift during those years at Baylor. He reminded me that great friends are only a call away and that the real ones always stick around.
Finally, football was another great aspect of my time at Baylor. Although the football program experienced some of its worst years during my attendance, the student body’s commitment to attend games was never stronger. College game days were an ordeal, let me tell you. Games would last hours on end, but it was an unforgettable social experience. You could feel the excitement in the air at every home game. The football stadium, better known as McLane Stadium, could fit 50,000 people and it was usually a packed house.
The outcome was a constant reminder that football was like a religion in Texas. The devotion to Saturday’s games brought everyone together. In a very strange way, I felt as if football gave every person something in common, no matter how different they were.
When it came to my own experience as an Asian American, I encountered countless racial slurs, explicit racism and microaggressions. For goodness sake, I had to learn what microaggressions were called because they happened so frequently.
I’d get called a chink, gook and Jeremy Lin during pickup basketball.
Girls told me they wouldn’t date me because “they didn’t date Asians.”
Professors often mistook me for other Asian students in the class and openly admitted they thought all “my people” were good at math.
Students asked me if I was from America and proceeded to tell me my English was “so good.”
I know I came late to the party, but, man, experiencing racism sucked. Even now, I don’t quite know what to write. It pains me to know that racism is still very much a pervasive force in our society. I’m deeply saddened by the hatred and bigotry that envelopes so many people’s minds.
Perhaps the most painful part of my experience at Baylor was the intersection of racial injustice and religious upheaval. I experienced a complete breakdown of my perception of faith and my own faith practice due to how these two components came together. The very same people I went to church with, people who were supposed to be in solidarity with me, were often just as ignorant to racial issues as the rest of the student population. The deafening silence from fellow parishioners in the midst of racial injustice was what perhaps hurt the most.
In many ways, I felt defrauded by my own faith practice. How could I call myself a Christian when so many of the Christians in front of me seemed to live in ignorance of racial and systemic injustice? The four years I spent at Baylor were a real gut check to my faith. Any inkling of Christianity being my parents’ religion quickly faded away. If I was going to call myself a Christian, it wasn’t because it was convenient. Looking back, I’m glad I went through what I did because I feel more authentic. But difficult experiences never feel like it, do they?
I came to Baylor with a standard of expectations, in many ways, inviting to be let down. While difficult to cope with, these added experiences sobered me to the world we live in today. I am able to deeply empathize with the broken and marginalized to a level I never could have reached without those difficult experiences.
Thanks for taking the time to listen to my story.
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