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Identity Matters

Identity Matters

An Asian-Caribbean-American’s perspective

One place where the African and Indian Diasporas meet is in the Caribbean. After France and England abolished slavery in their holdings there, plantation owners brought Indian laborers to the Caribbean to work the fields. Most came as indentured servants — some not knowing their status until they arrived.
Dr. M. Godfrey Mungal, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University, is sure this is how his family arrived in Trinidad, an island less than 15 miles from the coast of Venezuela that was once a colony of Great Britain.
“I feel a strong connection to Trinidad, not India,” Mungal says. “I know none of my family back there [in East Asia].”
Mungal was raised Roman Catholic and grew up in a cosmopolitan environment. His friends came from many cultural backgrounds — African, Indian, Chinese and White. He received his master’s degree and his Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology, and decided to bypass the private sector in favor of teaching.
“Americans have an advantage over immigrants in hiring and President Reagan made it hard for immigrants to enter the regular workforce in the ’80s,” Mungal says. “But most of all, I learned from the priests at my school that educating the next generation is a good thing. You have to give back, and not just work. That’s the way I was raised, you see.”
According to the American Council on Education’s annual status report, Minorities in Higher Education, Asian Pacific American faculty — a category that includes South Asians — share some of the same burdens as other faculty of color. ACE reports that Asian scholars generally carry a heavier workload than their White male counterparts due to higher demands on their time from students, committees, and the preparation of new materials. Mungal sees that challenge as an opportunity to reach out.
“I came to Stanford as a minority hire,” he explains. “I was up-front with the university about being myself and creating my own path. You cannot disconnect the social context. Diversity has to be about having different ideas and experiences. If you have someone of a different color up there, but they have the same ideas [as White professors], then what’s the [point] of that?”
Mungal is committed to mentoring students of color and says, in his observation many students are more comfortable dealing with faculty of color. 
“The students will seek you out. It’s not that my White colleagues are malicious or incapable, but their life experiences might not connect them to the typical minority student,” Mungal says. “For one White faculty member in my department, his biggest decision right now might be which sport utility vehicle to buy his daughter. Now a lot of my students can’t relate to that. Some of them have worked in the fields, just like my mother did. The minority students need a friend to guide them.”
Mungal has felt the pressure of American racial politics and its attempt to pigeonhole people of color.
“I feel a close connection to the Black community and the Hispanic community here, but I consider myself a Caribbean person first,” he says. “People from the Caribbean are being forced to choose, ‘Are you Black or Latino?’ But those are not the right categories for them. It’s not what feels right inside.
“I won’t choose. I’m just not going to.”

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