Outsiders — ever been one?

The census is out and reveals that the white, non-Hispanic population in the U.S. continues to decline. Additionally, as the “no win” Afghanistan War ends and we transport natives of that country who have helped us and their families to the U.S., some are opposing this influx of immigrants.

As we reflect on our own lives, we are aware that there are times when we have been the outsider. We were in situations where people were smarter than us, had more resources, were prettier/more handsome, more athletic, younger, older.

I’d like to share a few of my experiences as the outsider, the minority, the one who was different. I’d like to encourage you to think of your own life, the times when you were an outsider, and the ways in which you chose to adapt.

I was 13 when my family moved from Kentucky to Toledo, Ohio, and I recognized immediately that my dialect had to change if I wanted acceptance. At my young age, this was relatively easy, and before long, I sounded like a Midwesterner. At times I still have a lapse if I am extremely tired; at other times I deliberately revert to it if I am on the phone with persons from the region of my birth and I want them to be comfortable with me.

Early in my career in education, I took a job in what was then the Kentucky Community College System under the auspices of the University of Kentucky. I was the first female to be an academic dean in that system and later the first president of one of the colleges. I quickly learned that if I continued to work smart, hard, and creatively, I would first be recognized by the system administration for producing results in terms of enrolment increases and other measures of success, and then by the personnel with whom I worked on a daily basis. There are a host of strategies I employed from identifying sources of additional income to marketing the college services, but this column is not about those strategies.

After that experience, I was recruited to become president of a community college in Texas. There was one other female in the system, and she seldom attended statewide meetings, so I stuck out as a female and as a non-Texan, an outsider. Within two years, one of the Texas presidents, a goldsmith and a silversmith, brought a package to one of our meetings and said, “When you first came to Texas, we resented you. We knew that if we got in trouble in one college, we’d just move to another because Texas is a big state. You’ve proved you belong here, and I’m sorry for how we initially treated you.”

From Texas I was recruited to head a large California community college system, and my belief was that with the gender and racial diversity in California leaders, I would fit right in. I had not thought about the woman who wanted the position for which I was hired and the ways she initially would set about to cause me, the outsider, problems. But I persevered, worked with some wonderful people, and we moved that district forward.

Finally, I want to share my latest experience of being the outsider with you, something I shared with my communication classes this week as I argued in favor of their realizing that the world in which they will work and live is increasing diverse and their work and leisure travel could well take them to other countries, countries that communicate in very different ways than those cultures, subcultures, countries with which they are familiar.

After telling my students that I had been out of the U.S. 30 plus times, I told them about a trip to China that I made several years ago with Edison State students, faculty, and some community members. Since my childhood, I have always wanted to travel to China, and I wanted to see the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Terracotta Army, acrobats, and museums. On the tour we traveled to Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian.

At one hotel a group of Chinese men began to make fun of me because of my height, my blonde hair, and my blue eyes. Later on the tour as I sat by a lake watching tai chi, a woman of about my age wanted to show a friend how white I am, so she pulled my skirt up, pointed at my white legs, and laughed. And taxi drivers refused to stop for me.

Did this ruin my trip to China? Absolutely not.

With respect we watch, we listen, we adapt, we learn, and we move on. Our world is large and we as a country are in the business of seeking “a more perfect union” as we now live on a global stage. As a country we have experienced ethical lapses, some of them deadly, but many of us believe we are up to the task of accepting and embracing changes in our demographics. Think on this and ask yourself, “Am I one of those Americans to which Vivian refers?”