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Racial identity not socially accounted for

Seonna Gittens

Racial identity defines who I am by physical appearance, but that identity also engenders characteristics of where I have come from, my socio-economic status in a 21st century capitalist economic order, the history and culture of my family, and the language surrounding me. Racial identity is a part of how I and every other student at the College of Wooster discover who we are and how that affects the trajectory of our post-graduate lives.

Being a part of my very liberal generation is an extremely unique and interesting experience. The College of Wooster is a microcosm of this generation, with students drawn from different families, nations and ideologies. Coming to Wooster, many of them navigate between the worlds of white privilege and their own social normalcy.

‘What is beautiful?’ they might think. ‘Should I say my prayers? Should I wear my native clothing? Should I speak like them and adopt their habits?’ These questions force many minorities on campus to live a double, and at times, triple consciousness in order to feel that they can be accepted into the larger student body here at Wooster.

Physical appearance is what makes individuals different from each other, and those physical appearances are what we judge. People of Color (POC) refers to any race that is not white. Usually these groups face discrimination on  Wooster’s campus. Despite the old  adage that beauty only lies skin deep, many of Wooster’s POC recognize that here, this is not true. People are often judged by the way they appear before they are able to share their experiences and thoughts.

I interviewed three students, two POC and one white student, in preparation for this editorial. The first student I spoke with was a male of Chinese origin, who had never lived in the U.S. before coming to the College. I asked him if he thought his physical characteristics had any effect on his experience and if they impacted the way other students on campus treated him.

He replied: “The reason I would feel marginalized is a culture and somewhat of a physical appearance issue. It’s (the Chinese culture) something I have loved and followed in the past but abandoned over here, but instead the universal goal that people are pursuing are the ones that I was trying to abandon. People do not judge me about that but instead people judge me on current stereotypes. For example, that I only hang out with Chinese students, I do not like to speak and I am a lady-like Asian man.”

Another student I interviewed was an African American woman from Atlanta. There, she lived in a predominately white suburb, so her transition to Wooster was not very difficult. I asked if she ever felt the need to appeal to her friends based on her racial identity.

She answered, “Depending on the issue, I pick and choose who I address with certain issues. If I feel it is something that I could relate with among my African American friends, I will share my concerns and experiences with them. If I feel as if I can’t address certain issues with my African American friends, I address them with the white.” In these instances, she shaped her interactions with her friends based not only on her own racial identity, but those of her friends as well.

People tend to accept the stereotypes about POC while not giving individuals an instance to prove themselves or show what they can possibly contribute to this community outside of these stereotypes.

The last student I interviewed was a white female. I asked her, “Do you feel as if your racial and social status gives you more opportunities towards being accepted on campus?”

She responded: “Indeed. This campus consists of mostly white students and amongst those who participate in Greek life, the majority are white student athletes.” Did she believe that this was an issue of discrimination? “I believe that there are not as many POC in these organizations except for specific groups; however, the majority is athletes and Greek life and they set the bar for social acceptance.”

The students of the College may not intentionally discriminate based on race, but they do not realize the rules of social normalcy they set for others have implications that do not encompass all racial identities, particularly for POC. POC should not have to conform to what the majority of the students on campus have constructed as appropriate because it does not consider the perspectives of POC.

Recently, “Posing Beauty” opened at the Ebert Art Museum. The exhibit examines the physical characteristics of African Americans. This show is essentially a discussion about how racial identity relates to this campus. It demonstrates the various ways in which POC are discriminated against, but also explores perceptions of beauty.

For example, the photograph “Body as a Canvas” depicts how the physical appearance of an African American Barbie is forced to conform to constructs of “white” beauty.  The majority would rather see a green eyed, white look-alike Barbie rather than the African American woman with her full lips, thick hair and brown eyes.

Racial identity is an issue that cannot be ignored, but it is also an issue that cannot be forced. It is something the campus community will first have to become conscious of, so they can pursue the path of overcoming its judgments. Racial identity constructs who we are, but the assumptions and stereotypes should not be part of that construction. This is a diverse campus. Reconstruct the social norm. The majority is not the only group of students that contribute to the great foundation of the College of Wooster. Great minds are able to overcome prejudices and use their experiences and knowledge. Race is never an issue unless it is made one.


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