Columns, Opinions

Bielenberg ’20: ‘International’ is not a race

op-ed contributor
Sunday, February 5, 2017

“International” is not a race. So why is data collated for such a heterogeneous group? Brown’s Office of Institutional Research classifies students according to racial categories such as white, black, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native and International. The equation of these disparate categories is particularly striking when presented visually. Last semester, I was reading an article in The Herald when I noticed a pie chart representing “diversity at Brown.” In illustrations like this one, “International” has the same shape and form — and, by implication, the same significance — as “Asian,” “white” or “black.” The OIR’s explanation of these categories online is quite terse: “The race and ethnicity of U.S. citizens or permanent residents are reported; citizens of other countries are reported as ‘international.’” Why is the consideration of non-American students’ race and ethnicity so perfunctory?

The fact that the Office of Institutional Research uses the same categories as the United States Census Bureau lends a patina of governmental authority to the data. But no type of authority can or should eliminate our duty to critically examine the categories we use. Even if we are accustomed to using certain labels, we must examine just how appropriate the labels really are. In this case, it is clear that the categories we use are insufficient to accurately describe the diversity of the Brown community.

Using these labels without careful consideration leads to glaring omissions and oversimplification. It is preposterous to differentiate between an American of Pakistani, Haitian and Navajo descent while subsuming every South African, Canadian and Brazilian student into one racial category. Having U.S. citizenship does not magically change the barriers a person of color will face in a society dominated by white privilege. Moreover, part of the reason we collect racial and ethnic data is to reflect our diverse experiences as we navigate society. By including people with vastly different experiences — many of them precisely due to race and ethnicity — in a single category, the label “International” falls short of this goal.

This use of the label “International” is emblematic of our broader lack of engagement with the relationship between international experiences and American racial paradigms. I have noticed this from personal experience: I am an American citizen who graduated from high school outside the United States. The types of racial discourse I am most familiar with are different from those most common in the United States — though they are often just as charged and significant. The Brown community frequently considers the complex dynamics of race entrenched in our daily experiences, but we often assume that participants in this discourse share a background and vocabulary. For example, ubiquitous terms like “Asian American,” “African American” and “Native American” only make sense when those concerned share an American background. The paradigm shift can be bewildering to international students; an incoming freshman is suddenly inundated by a deluge of unfamiliar and deeply nuanced terminology. However, including these fresh perspectives greatly enriches campus dialogue. After all, discussion of any system of power — including colonialism, white privilege and patriarchy — is inadequate and restricted if limited to one national perspective. Yet many elite universities have avoided or ignored these discussions by using “International” as a race in their official data. In doing so, these institutions — including our own — gloss over significant distinctions.

This decision also reveals a view of the international community that is too monolithic. There is no single international experience at university, just as there is no categorically American experience at college. Rather, every student who comes to an institution like Brown carries with them a unique background and situation within the hegemonies of power that undergird our social life. These identities — malleable, contextual and often indeterminate — contribute to that great concept called diversity. Our university, from students through faculty to the highest levels of administration, has repeatedly emphasized the value of this ideal. We must actively evaluate how this is reflected both in our daily conversations and administrative discourse. Imprudent and unreflective use of “International” hinders our ability to achieve this goal by obscuring the diversity — racial, ethnic and otherwise — of this community.

I do not argue that “International” is a label that has no use. After all, many international students have needs specifically tied to their international status — for example, difficulties adjusting to an American academic environment and visa issues. But I believe that the category “International” has no place in racial discourse, whether that is manifested in student dialogue or in administrative decisions in situations such as undergraduate admissions. This use of “International” belittles the valuable diversity of the international student body and brushes aside the experiences of people of color of non-American nationalities. Leaving our assumptions about race and the international experience unexamined defies our common commitment to holding significant discussions about the systems of power that affect us all.

Aliosha Bielenberg ’20 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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