Why I am not a Student of Color

By Maya Suzuki Daniels

Race. Just the word is enough to make you feel uncomfortably self-conscious. Then again, I can only speak for myself. Three and half years ago I was accepted to Macalester College. On the heels of my acceptance letter came two more letters. The first warmly welcomed me as a “Student of Color,” and invited me to visit Macalester in the company of others from “diverse backgrounds.” I distinctly remember balking at the phrase “Students of Color.” What was this, the 1950s? Color? What color? How did Macalester even know what color I was? My friends told me I should get used to it; I was going to the Midwest. My mom laughed. She found the idea of going to Minnesota for a multicultural sampler hilarious. She, after all, had grown up in Berkeley in the 1970s, attended medical school at Tulane in New Orleans and worked on Indian reservations for almost 20 years before returning to the Bay Area. Multiculturalism had never been thrust upon her; it was simply the way she lived her life. The second letter offered me a host family to help me transition to college life away from “my community.” I was angry; I felt that Macalester was offering me extra assistance that I didn’t need. Support was being offered based solely on my perceived race. I understand that for Macalester, this letter represents an effort to reach out to nonwhite domestic students, of whom there are remarkably few. But the college’s assumptions of my needs made me feel prematurely singled out from among my Anglo classmates. Despite feeling mildly offended by these assumptions, I wanted a liberal arts education. I wanted to go to a small school where I would be challenged to be critical and, as my dad put it, “learn how to think.” After my financial aid offer arrived, I gritted my teeth and sent in my intent to register. I’ve spent a lot of the last four years gritting my teeth. Every time I receive an e-mail addressing me as a “Student of Color,” I think about how easily those words could be read as “Colored Student.” I think about how sophomore year, I joined the Asian Student Alliance, hoping to make my mother proud and eat free sushi. At the first meeting, I sat down next to a Japanese-American girl on the couch. “What are you doing here?!” she exclaimed. “You’re not Asian!” Trying to convince her that I was, in fact, half Asian, proved painfully difficult. That experience made me feel distinctly un-Asian here at Macalester. Generally I find that I need to correct people’s assumptions that I’m not American Indian, despite being dark-complexioned and having grown up on an Indian reservation. I always find it agonizing that I don’t look like what I am, and that I will always be met with skepticism and incredulity regarding my racial background. Recognizing this disconnect has made it easier to me to identify as “mixed,” or “brown”—sometimes jokingly, but sometimes with the utmost seriousness. I can refer to myself as brown and people will laugh. I can refer to myself as Asian, or hapa, and people will simply look confused. Furthermore, this means I can critique my classmates on their race with a power I’ve only recently discovered. This summer I lived with someone I resented because his family was wealthier than mine. I found calling him “White,” to be an extraordinarily astute way to get under his skin. My own skin gave me a new weapon. That weapon might have been completely unfair and unfounded, but nonetheless proved itself extremely effective when backed up by my “color.” Being a “Student of Color” has been both empowering and marginalizing. I am granted power precisely because of my minority status. I am never granted the power to ignore how I personally embody Macalester’s multicultural values. If Macalester truly wants to be diverse in their student body, I suggest they start acknowledging us as individuals, rather than generically as Students of Color. We are not all the same simply because we are non-white. I am aware that color is a term not limited to the Macalester bubble, but I also believe that as an institution of higher education, Macalester sets a precedent for how we treat race in this country. Yes, it is true that many minority groups in America have suffered under the same modes of oppression. Yet these commonalities leave room for stereotypes and assumptions, and should be discussed without thoughtlessly lumping people together. While minority groups throughout American history have asserted both sameness and difference in terms of race, grouping people by the color of their skin has had devastating effects. I’m upset because I feel that Macalester has made me self-conscious of my own race to an extreme. I was never aware of myself in terms of color before I came to Macalester. Macalester imposed the term Student of Color in order to define me. I have always been Asian-American, at least in part. I embrace the term hapa. I am one quarter Lithuanian. I am one quarter Polish. I am one-quarter Japanese and one-quarter Filipina. This is how I define myself. I am multiracial, and I am an individual with opinions and a unique personal history. My skin is lighter than my brother’s skin but darker than my father’s. My color is my own business. I am proud of my heritage, but I’m tired of being a student of color. I’m tired of feeling like I’m being asked to speak for all people of color, regardless of what we may actually have in common. I am finally a senior. In less than three months, I will (hopefully!) walk the stage to receive my degree. I am not the first of my family to go to college. My father has a Master’s degree; my mother has an M.D. All of my grandparents went to college, and three out of four hold some sort of college degree. My maternal grandmother, who grew up in Philippines and barely survived WWII, received a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. She beat the odds. Not me. There is an expectation that those who come from non-white backgrounds will struggle within the education system. I have certainly struggled, but I have struggled more in dealing with that stereotype than I have struggled to obtain my degree. refresh –>