An African-American Student Experiences a Different Kind of Diversity in Southeast Asia

Given the way the U.S. population is changing, it has become critical that more Americans develop a nuanced sense of the rest of the world.

Charles McKinney, 26, is a freelance writer, editor, instructor, and aspiring voice actor who lives in Wilmington, Del. McKinney studied and lived in Asia between January 2013 and May 2014. He recently earned a master's degree in media communications from Webster University in Thailand.

While studying abroad in Asia, McKinney, who is African-American, came to understand and value diversity in new ways. He recently shared with Next America his thoughts about how that experience changed him and why we need to do far more than "tolerate" diversity.

Globalization has transformed the way in which people communicate, conduct business, and learn together. The global village has put people of different cultures, languages, and religions into increasing and inevitable contact with each other. As a result, diversity awareness and appreciation has become a considerable aspect of life in the 21st century.

Societal institutions in the United States, particularly, are no longer homogeneous, but rather heterogeneous. This begs the question, "How can these powerful structures facilitate the celebration of diversity?" This particular topic comprised the meat of my final research project as a master's student at Webster University Thailand in Bangkok. Webster emphasized the importance of obtaining an education that prepares students for global citizenship. After studying at the school and living overseas for several years, I consider myself to be a real global citizen. It's a helpful perspective both inside and outside of the United States.

I was reminded of this recently while reading a June New York Times article about NPR's new chief executive, Jarl Mohn, and his commitment to developing a diverse news-gathering and culture-observing staff. Mohn said something about diversity that today is almost standard for public figures and those who want to be regarded as trustworthy and morally upstanding. He told the reporter behind the piece that recruiting a diverse newsroom staff is essential because it will produce stories that appeal to listeners young and old, white and nonwhite, and people living in different parts of the country. That's what NPR and many other businesses today have to do to thrive. But Mohn's comments were made publicly in one of the nation's most well-read and respected newspapers. They amount to a sort of public promise.

Right now, most of NPR's staff is white. I wondered: Is NPR ready for the kind of internal change it will have to make and the introspection involved in really embracing diversity?

Attending graduate school in Southeast Asia is something I never dreamed of doing. While I knew I wanted to study abroad, I never contemplated earning my entire degree in a foreign country. But it was the best decision I could have made, both professionally and personally. I wanted to be immersed in a completely new culture in a booming region of the world I had never visited. As a result of this experience, I am more culturally intelligent, global-minded, and ready to launch a vocation that will enable me to keep globetrotting. Now that I am stateside again, I also enjoy sharing my adventures because they just may inspire my friends and family to see the world and to expand their horizons.

When I went to Thailand to begin my graduate program in January 2013, it was my first time in Southeast Asia. Before I arrived on Thai soil I had heard that few Americans were there, specifically African-Americans. This did not alarm me since I had already encountered similar situations in China and South Korea, the other Asian countries where I have lived. In fact, in the United States, I worked and lived in American communities where I was one of a few African-Americans, if not the only African American. When I accepted a freelance reporting gig in lower Delaware in 2009, I wasn't just the youngest journalist covering the high-profile eBay vs. Craigslist trial. I was the only person of color filing daily dispatches alongside an all-white press corps representing media outlets such as Reuters, Bloomsberg, and The Wall Street Journal. That amazing opportunity taught me that I am just as good if not better than my majority counterparts if, when given the opportunity, I work hard and remain professional to prove my worth. That kind of experience left me well prepared for the transition to life overseas.

In Thailand, my focus was on getting to know the people and culture and, hopefully, learning to speak the language. While I only managed to acquire a smidgen of survival Thai, I gained great insight into the nation politically, economically, and spiritually. If I could describe the local people who I met in three words they would be: humble, polite, and loyal. But my experiences at home helped me to understand that Thai culture carries its share of complex and ugly features too.

During conversations with Thais it became clear that they oftentimes did not know where I was from. Due to my light-brown complexion, some thought I was Brazilian or Latin American while others thought I was Thai. However, other black friends with darker complexions often felt scrutinized much more than other foreigners. Some who tried to find work in Thailand as teachers were discouraged to find employers who believed that only Europeans were capable of teaching English. I also observed this same kind of practice in Beijing when I lived there before studying in Thailand.

In many Asian societies, it is customary to include a photo on one's resume; otherwise employers will request it before arranging an interview. We would consider this discriminatory in the U.S., but in Asia it is completely acceptable. Some Thais, like people around the world, continue to place a high prize on Eurocentric standards of beauty. Pale skin, blue eyes, and blond hair is the ne plus ultra of gorgeousness.

Pursuing my education in Thailand taught me the virtue of humility, the value of diversity, and that the struggle to embrace it is far from unique to the U.S. and other industrialized countries.

As a media communications student, I often found myself to be the only American or one of just a few Americans in my classes. Such an experience really allowed me to learn from the perspectives of my cosmopolitan classmates who hailed from countries such as India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Nepal, China, North Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Russia. It was a special chance to view my homeland through the lens of so many non-Americans. Many of them desired to visit the U.S. in search of greater opportunity and freedom, but were also cognizant of the country's social ills. Then I discovered Al Jazeera, an influential news network that constituted a huge part of my routine global and local media consumption.

I have come to value Al Jazeera's Global South news coverage because it provides a look into parts of the world that are often underrepresented and, therefore, misunderstood. It goes beyond recognizing to understanding the diversity in the world. As an African-American, I could relate to what it means to be misunderstood, underrepresented, and mis-educated before I studied abroad. But I developed a deeper regard for and ability to understand issues from other points of view while living and studying in Thailand.

Given the way the U.S. population is changing, it has become critical that more Americans develop a more nuanced, accurate picture of our nation and the rest of the world. Then can we begin to embrace the benefits that a diverse society affords us in the age of rapid globalization.

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