Op-ed: The Disparity Between Looking and Feeling Like A Person of Color

I knew I wanted to go to college in America as early as middle school. In China, I went to an international school, and I spent my junior year of high school as an exchange student in Michigan where I even studied Advanced Placement US History. 

I thought I knew enough about this country to live a meaningful life here like a “real” American, or at least I thought so for the first two years of my college life. I made friends, got a job in the Journalism Department, gained internship experience, and found myself a boyfriend.

But before my Resident Assistant training, I never thought I’d ask myself if I can truly count myself as a person of color, or POC. 

During training in August, I attended a panel with Intercultural Student Affairs, International Student Affairs, and the Social Justice Center. The panel talked about the concept of being an ally.

One of the students spoke about how she sometimes felt that, as a black person, if she wants to educate others on the POC experience, then she has to relive the trauma in her life, and it’s hard to be both the victim and the diplomat.

I was absolutely stunned by her words. Suddenly, I understood that the phrase “person of color” has another layer of meaning beyond what it sounds like. I asked myself, have I felt this way before? If not, am I even a person of color? If not, do I really understand what it is to be a person of color?

I’ve never experienced any of these suppressions, aggressions, or microaggressions. For the first time, I admitted to myself that I might not be a person of color in the way that most Americans view the term.

I had learned about most of the troubling history of black people in the United States. I learned about the Civil Rights Movement, about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and about Martin Luther King Jr., and I like to think I knew their struggle and understood their need to fight for equality and basic rights. But now as I look at this knowledge I have on people of color, I find my understanding is rather superficial. 

Emerson admitted me as a student of color, and I fall under the category of both an Asian and an international student. Most of the time, I naturally separate myself from American students and label myself as an international student. I look at American students, and I subconsciously categorize them as the same people. I see they have different skin colors and know that they have different cultural backgrounds––but for me, they are all Americans. 

Liza Xiao, a sophomore international student from China, said she also feels this is a rather awkward in-between situation.

“For people like us, we know about POC, but it’s funny because at first I didn’t even know,” Xiao said. “Am I yellow, brown, or am I what?” 

One of Xiao’s friends who is black once told her that she experienced racism from a group of Korean tourists on a ferry before, and that they were looking at her and taking selfies, trying to get her into the pictures as well.

“I thought it could be offensive, but I would not call it racism,” Xiao said. “We grew up in a homogenous area, and seeing someone that’s different from us, it’s more of just unfamiliarity and curiosity.”

What she said is the truth. It took me two years to understand that America is not the same as back home, and that there are more conflicts than I could ever imagine. For those people who’ve only been seeing POC communities on TV or other media, it’s even harder for them to be sensitive around POC and imagine the underlying social problems in the US.

Of course, most international students are not like the tourists. We have been educated in American history, culture, and society. Some of us even identify as POC. However, that doesn’t mean the school or other people can automatically place us in the POC community. 

Xiao said she hopes the school will collaborate with International Student Affairs and the International Student Peer Mentors to help students from around the world get in touch with the POC community. It’s wrong to assume racism and other forms of aggression towards POC are a part of everyone’s life, and real stories and experiences could teach us more than books.

For me, I think that it’s important for the school and students to help international students validate their feelings of not belonging to the POC community. Many of us come here just for the learning experience, and that’s okay.

And I still ask myself if I am truly a person of color, and what the meaning and responsibility that comes with it is. I think about the definition of an ally, if I understand the true meaning of this role, and if I can ever be somebody’s ally. At the end of the day, it’s more of my decision than somebody else’s, but this “identity crisis” will always be on my mind.

The Beacon is committed to publishing letters to editor from readers like you. Let us know what you think about this op-ed in an email to letters@berkeleybeacon.com. All letters are reviewed for length and clarity. 

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