Kolison & Jones: Growing up as a racial minority in an all-white setting
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College is where we are supposed to find ourselves. It’s a unique environment where we are encouraged to take risks and try new things to grow as people. We form vibrant communities by joining student groups and forming meaningful relationships. In each of the groups we’ve joined, we found that all the groups had their own culture, dynamics and attitudes that formed their collective identity.
But who were we as individuals within the group; who were we after the meetings were over? Through the collective identity shared by a group, students come to shape their own personal identities. Other people’s perceptions of you usually end up influencing your perception of yourself.
Imagine what it’s like when none of those people look like you. You may form some kind of personal identity, but you do not feel whole. There is a cultural part of your identity that is missing. When you are the only person of color in a group, you feel like the odd man out.
Opinions that you make never seem to be met with praise but are instead met with harsh criticism.
And in the act of feeling invisible and underappreciated, you also feel like you are being held to different expectations. You feel the need to disprove the negative stereotypes of your culture by smiling more, maintaining your composure and keeping your ethnic opinions to yourself. As the only minority in a group, you are expected to be the voice of your race and culture.
The two of us grew up in predominantly white communities and because of that, we weren’t completely immersed in our own culture. Our interactions with others who looked like us were limited and never long enough to develop a cultural identity. This lack of a cultural identity led to an uncomfortable situation when we joined predominantly white groups. We felt inadequate but we could not pinpoint why. We became hyper aware of what people were saying and doing which led to us feeling self-conscious.
It became impossible to represent a whole group when we didn’t know who we were. It is hard to be the voice of reason when the group you are a part of is causing you to question your own identity.
Our experiences as people of color in a predominantly white group are complex and nuanced. We perceive personal interactions through the lens of our cultural backgrounds as they are a part of how we identify ourselves.
When someone makes a joke or comment that is racially insensitive and blatantly ignorant, the worst thing you can do is ignore the impact behind those actions. Suddenly, there is now a need for us to speak up for our race and culture whenever someone says something insensitive. We feel burdened to prove society wrong and disprove the negative stereotypes placed on our communities.
Those negative stereotypes also influence how we perceive ourselves. That joke, which may seem harmless, also represents the years of society trying to negate our own narratives.
People are nothing without their experiences. As minorities, we come with different experiences than the white majority. For someone to say that those experiences are not valid completely erases our narrative and strips us of our identity.
The two of us found ourselves suffering from varying degrees of an identity crisis. We were surprised to see that we were not the only people of color on campus who felt that way. If a person is not a minority, they cannot fully grasp what makes someone feel insecure because of their skin color. Little microaggressions add up and lead to a full-blown crisis.
Because you speak differently than what is expected of your culture and you defy any expectations that were anticipated by a stereotype, your peers see you through a color-blind lens. They assimilate you to the dominant cultural majority and wipe your identity clean of something you hold dear.
Your intelligence is seen as inferior because of your skin tone and colleagues neglect to include you in academic conversations because they think you wouldn’t understand anyway. You feel like you need to try twice as hard to feel half as good as everybody else. You enjoy what you are doing with your peers, but you also wonder if they value you for who you truly are rather than a projection of your racial identity. The work that you do with them is now surrounded by the context of race and you don’t know if the work is good anymore.
If someone makes a backhanded comment, you cannot tell if they would say that to anyone or if they would say that only to a person of color. When you spend this much time questioning everything, you begin to lose confidence. You are never sure if people are seeing the true reflection of you or if they are letting your race affect the way they perceive you.
Society has become comfortable with putting you into a “box” and this takes away your voice. If you have an expansive identity it becomes difficult to figure out which box you fall into or if the box even applies at all. The public has already decided how you should feel and act without getting the full picture of who you are. You spend your days wondering, “Do I belong in that box or yet, do I want to be in that box?”
It is important for people of color to speak out about how they feel when they are the minority. For people of color, they can come into college feeling lost and like no one understands them. Confusion is all too common of a feeling because there are conflicting ideas of identity that are trying to form a cohesive one.
The first thought is to then leave the place that is causing the conflict. If a minority leaves a community because they do not feel welcome, everybody loses. Inclusivity is for everyone. For the minority, they gain a sense of belonging and companionship. For the majority, their world becomes larger. They become more empathetic and aware of the world around them.
When people become comfortable with sharing themselves with others, everyone can begin to learn from one another and become better people.
The current standard of turning a blind eye to classmates of color is no longer acceptable. Everyone needs to see that there is both an external and internal struggle when you are a person of color. We, as people of color, are still trying to find ourselves and it is getting harder to do that in this day and age.
Now more than ever we need everyone to support each other and that starts with listening to what we have to say.
Teresa Jones is a fourth-year student majoring in electrical engineering who really loves cats. This is her first time writing for The Observer.
Stephen Kolison is a fourth-year student majoring in communication sciences and disorders. He is an expert in tea, bees and shade.