Students wearing Columbia University sweatshirts.
A multicolored student body (Creative Commons photo by Flickr user airsoenxen)

Being in a multiracial environment changes how you view yourself and the world. Whatever your race is, when you are surrounded by people of another race, you become more aware of your color, your looks, your accent, and the people who you 'belong to.'

You start to see that the world is divided by subtle differences, study then learn to acknowledge those differences, and eventually start to appreciate the great diversity that surrounds you.

Growing up, I was only exposed to people of white skin. I had barely even met people of another color. One of my main motivations for studying in the United States was the multiracial environment the country offers, which I knew would be a new kind of challenge. I was looking forward to getting a better understanding of how different races interact, and seeing how I would react in a multiracial environment. And while I knew this could mean seeing negative examples of race relations as well, I didn?t really have an idea beyond what I had seen in media of how racism manifests.

After arriving at the United States, I instantly noticed the difference in my surroundings: my race was not the only race anymore. However, I wasn?t very sure what this meant to me. Color and race were noticeable, but not the main determinants of my choices. I formed a very diverse group of friends and I was always interested in getting to know them better.

African-American hair intrigued me, and I often asked friends if I could touch their hair.

As I started to make more friends, I began to encounter some of the tensions that emerge in a society where races have to coexist. For example, I often asked African-American friends if I could touch their hair. I have never had a chance to see or touch African hair so its texture and style intrigued me in a most innocent way. Asking for permission to examine it closely seemed to be an appropriate request.

It did not cross my mind that my question might be offensive or disrespectful.

My friends never mentioned that this question was offensive to them, but I later realized that I wouldn?t appreciate it if someone did the same to me. I would have felt like they were pointing out that something was weird about me and had to be observed.

I also started to notice that some students make jokes and comments that could be considered very insensitive to another?s culture and history. For example, some of my friends from Latin- and South-America told me that when people refer to the U.S. as ?America,? they feel very offended because it discredits their home countries, which are also part of America.

Listening to conversations like this made me highly conscious of what I say.  As time passed I learned that it is acceptable to be interested, to ask questions, and to tell your opinion, but that I should always think twice about how the other person will perceive my comments.

I also came to the realization that people who grew up in multiracial societies are not necessarily better at relating to other races. In the U.S. there are many more races represented than where I grew up, but many students don?t have a more multiracial friend group than I ever had.  Students socialize with those who are similar to them, and to whom they can relate to more easily. It means that even those who grew up in a multiracial environment don?t always have an understanding of other races and cultures and, like me, who came to a multiracial country to learn about other races, they need to make an effort to learn about the history and sensitivities of others.

Although as a white person attending a predominantly white university I?m still part of the racial majority group, I am constantly reminded that white is not the only race. This experience itself and my conversations have made me realize that we are all many things and none of us lacks anything, but rather we complete each other.

Living in a multicultural world, learning to respect others? values and rights is one of the most important aspects of education.