Americans largely have moved beyond blatant expressions of racism, such as saying to an Asian person, "Chink, go home," says Josephine Kim.
Kim, a lecturer from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, made presentations to education students, faculty members and local educators Tuesday at Charleston Southern University. Her presentations were part of the School of Education's second annual Diversity Conference.
Kim said that while the move away from such blatant expressions is positive, "racial microaggressions" are still prevalent.
For instance, Kim once told someone that she was from Virginia. That person then pushed her to clarify where she originally was from. Kim, who was born in Korea, said she thought the person was questioning whether she really was an American, and telling her she didn't really belong in this country.
"We've all learned to be very P.C.," she said, "but it doesn't mean we're honest or transparent."
Charleston Southern education professor Linda Karges-Bone said, "Diversity is a buzz word in the teacher training culture." But it's really an important part of the university's program.
Teachers need more than knowledge and skills to work effectively with students in today's multicultural classrooms, she said.
CSU has a fairly diverse student body, with 36 percent coming from minority groups.
Kim said campus diversity is important among students, faculty and staff members. That was made especially clear to her when she was called in to help counsel students and train counselors to work with Asian students following the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007.
In those incidents, student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17.
Kim said she felt a special connection to Cho, who also was Korean and came to the United States as a child. She thinks some of his underlying problems were not fully noticed because cultural issues and differences got in the way.
In addition to mental health problems, Cho had reached a point where he wasn't identifying with either whites or Asians, she said. He was completely isolated. "That's the most dangerous place to be," she said.
Educators have a special role in promoting cultural understanding and diversity, she said. And it's important they learn how to manage such conversations because people who don't know how to do something often simply avoid doing it, she said.
"As teachers, these conversations start with you."