Mai Lo Lee knows all about microaggression. The facial expression here. The sly gesture there. In the 20th century, race dynamics played out in the streets with marches and riots. In the 21rst century, they play out in the subtle mannerisms of people in boardrooms and retail checkout lines and being asked where you’re from.
These days, racial aggression can come in the form of a compliment. How proud a person of color’s people must be at how successful they’ve become. How well spoken they are. How sophisticated.
Lo Lee has heard it all. And as the Director of the Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs Office at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, it is her responsibility to stay ahead of the curves students of color might have thrown at them.
“There’s been challenges living in the Fox Cities,” Lo Lee told FoxValley365. “My partner was raised in the Fox Cities area, so he’s very invested in how the community is going to grow. He’s committed to the area there. Our daughter is five and we go through a lot of the microaggression that people who are Asian go through. The constant asking if an incubator is needed. Being the only Asian person at events. The constant explaining of what we’re doing in the Appleton area. But it’s the day to day microaggressions that we go through in a white community. The compliments of our speaking ability. How proud our people must be of us. ‘Your people must be so proud’. It’s constant.”
Even journalists covering diversity in the Fox Cities are, well, surprised at the level of diversity. Lo Lee confronts the surprise by saying that the Green Bay area is home to many cultures.
The Oneida Nation is one of the most powerful groups of indigenous peoples in Wisconsin and is also one of the largest employers in the region. The Oneida are also heavily involved in the community and Lo Lee says that the resources they provide have been key to the diversity in the area.
“One of the things I love about the Oneida nation is they have amazing education classes for the community. So, I’ve taken various classes. Like a jewelery class, a broach class. I’ve taken food classes, indigenous corn classes. They have painting, they have sewing,” she says.
Having community resources provided by groups like the Oneida nation is helpful not only for Lo Lee but also for students of color who are coming into an area they may perceive as not having much diversity.
Which brought up the question: Just what is life like for the students Lo Lee works with? What is there for students of color around Green Bay?
Lo Lee says it all starts with the UWGB campus itself. The campus is located a little bit outside of Green Bay, near Lake Michigan. Students can experience nature, gorgeous lakeside parks and recreation areas, and a large campus.
Inside the walls at UWGB, students experience a good staff-to-student ratio and individual attention. Lo Lee says this is particularly helpful to students.
“You can really tell that the racial and ethnic diversity of students have grown,” she says. “In 2007, when I started, diversity was still in single digits in percentage, and now it’s about 22 percent. That’s with our domestic students not including international students. The diversity of what is represented has grown as Green Bay and the Fox Cities are growing. More people are finding and creating roots.”
Lo Lee says in her job the biggest challenges are dealing with students who come from large, multicultural urban settings. The culture shock of going to a predominantly white school in a predominantly white region is real. When asked how students of color adjust, Lo Lee says it’s all about the visuals the student is used to having around them.
“You know, I really have to tell you, it depends on the students background,” she says. “Students coming from multicultural cities it is a challenge. We’re a predominantly white campus in a white city. So particularly students from Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison have a challenge. There’s two things: one, it’s the visual reality. A kind of ‘whoa, multicultural people are not here’. But then also it’s the resources. Restaurants, barbershops, things to do are not as visible. But one of the reasons they do choose to enroll is that we are a seven-square-mile campus. There’s a lot of solitude. 68% of our students are first generation college students. A lot of faculty and staff are helpful with their advising. So I think a lot of our diverse students notice.”
Lo Lee is no stranger to being a person of color at a small state school. She went to UW Eau Claire, where she got her bachelor’s degree and then earned a master’s degree in science and education at UW LaCrosse. Lo Lee’s parents were ginseng farmers up north in Lincoln County.
In 2007, she took on a role at UWGB and today hopes to focus on addressing skin tone issues through children’s literature.
“I always wanted to do work with a multicultural lens because that’s what I thought was lacking in the nineties,” she says. “I thought that would be in the classroom. But I ended up on a different route and here I am. What I’m noticing is that I’d like to work on a children’s book to not only address skintone representation but also the language of diversity and inclusion at a young age. To understand advocacy and allyship. That’s not being shown to kids. As a society, we’re learning that college is the first time kids get to speak about their race and demonstrate their advocacy skills. So, I’d like to create a children’s book where allyship is talked about. I’m educating my daughter about colorism. Being more accepted for being light skinned.”
Lo Lee is also very passionate about her role at UWGB.
“I love my day to day work,” she says. “I love working with my undocumented student population. We’re really high on first generation students. To see my students not only survive but also thrive. I tell them when they graduate not to worry. Their education is going to take them into white spaces. And they can thrive in those spaces.”
Lo Lee said that is a lesson she is able to teach from personal experience. When she decided to take the job at UWGB she realized that she was going into yet another white space with a dark face. But she looked around the community in Green Bay and saw potential for growth. She looked first at all the faith based organizations in the area. She noticed a Sheikh temple, multiple mosques, synagogues. That got her excited because it let her know there was some diversity there. Lo Lee says Green Bay and the Fox Cities are home to a wide variety of performing arts centers, ethnic restaurants that are diamonds-in-the-rough and a strong Hmong population.
She thinks of those things when she advises students who are going to be traveling out into a predominantly white spaces to pursue opportunities.
“One of the things that we as a community of color need to do is empower our students. How can I ensure their success in a white space? I always tell them their career is going to give them good opportunities and I don’t want them to not take a transfer someplace because there isn’t diversity there. Because we need all of us in all the counties.”