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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 Thailand.
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Charles Mckinney
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Charles McKinney
Aug. 13, 2014, 7:26 a.m.

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.

Are you part of the demo­graph­ic that is the Next Amer­ica? Are you a cata­lyst who fosters change for the next gen­er­a­tion? Or do you know someone who is? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes first-per­son per­spect­ives from act­iv­ists, thought lead­ers, and people rep­res­ent­at­ive of a di­verse na­tion. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. And please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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