Person of Color Column: The dangers of generalizing race

A disgruntled man ambushed a conversation between my friends and I on the Green Line a month ago. Our discussion veered from finsta content to him questioning our opinions on the recent college admissions scandal. While our chat remained civil—minus him calling us illiterate after not knowing the definition of a word he mumbled—he told us he believed people of color can’t attend college.

He didn’t mean that he didn’t want people of color to attend college—after listening to him further, I learned the man meant the opposite. The man, who was white, said he felt horrible that a person of color he knew felt like their voice didn’t matter because of their race. Still, I politely corrected him by explaining that although minorities face a plethora of adversity regarding higher education, claiming that people of color can’t attend college is incorrect.

He sneered at my comment until I explained that I was, in fact, a person of color attending college.

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This is an extreme example of someone inaccurately generalizing race with good intentions, but I’ve heard many more subtle oversteps in class discussions and side conversations—and I’ve committed them myself.

Generalizations help people convey complex concepts efficiently—this article ironically includes many because my word limit caps at about 1,000 words—but it’s important to place as much discretion and subtlety as you can into your dialogue when addressing something as complicated and evolving as race. Fine lines exist between generalizing, oversimplifying, and stereotyping, which one can easily slip over.  

Race isn’t quantifiable, nor do people hold a universal understanding of race. The term “race” originated in England, and meant humans with a shared family line. The educational video series Origin of Everything explains how the definition of race shifted when colonizers started to justify the slavery of people of color using pseudo-science—some Anglo-Saxon males declared their intelligence and culture superior because of hogwash anatomy.

Race ties into socioeconomic context so heavily because of the deplorable hierarchy those men created, and our society reinforced. Googling “race” results in over four different dictionary definitions. Although people deviate on how they define race, it now largely holds hands with ethnicity and culture more than physical appearance and traits.

Opinions on race differ depending on the country and its historical context. Racism also mixes with, but shouldn’t be confused with, colorism, which involves prejudice against people with darker skin tones—colorism also changes depending on the area. Regardless of the varying definitions, the concept of race matters now more than ever. One can challenge misconceptions after understanding the histories behind each race. Using nuance within discussions blocks bias from getting in the way of what you’re trying to say, and forces you to understand what you’re talking about.

As of now, many indigenous people in the U.S. prefer to be identified by the name of their tribe over “Native American.” Some people of African-American ancestry prefer to be called black and others don’t mind either term. People with West and South Asian ancestry are often omitted from the term Asian, and some have contrasting feelings on it. One needs to learn what the person they’re referring to prefers when using these malleable terms.

Even though I identify as a person of color, I don’t feel entirely comfortable with it. The label reminds me of being the only Latina student at my high school’s diversity initiative. During an after-school event, our instructor intended to teach us empathy by having us place sticky notes under common struggles and traits written on a whiteboard. I hesitated, unsure of where to place my symbolic sticky note: under the “white” column, or under the “not white” column alongside Korean-American and African-American students. While many minority communities share similar struggles, each group holds entirely different histories that intersect and interact in different ways. Within those groups, individuals grapple with entirely different problems one can’t lump together into an entire race, or races, of people.  

Beacon correspondent Taina Millsap wrote about people seeing her as “white-passing” while being a mixed Latina woman. I fist-pumped at many of her sentiments as a fellow mixed Latina woman, yet still hold vastly different experiences as a third-generation Puerto Rican who grew up in Michigan, in contrast to someone raised in Brazil like Millsap. My mother decided not to teach me Spanish so I wouldn’t be made fun of by kids in our predominantly white neighborhood, but thankfully refused to let me straighten my curly hair after kids nicknamed me “afro-head.”

I struggle with identity as someone who has never been to Puerto Rico but dances salsa the minute she arrives at her grandfather’s apartment in the Bronx. Some people see me as “white-passing” due to my pale olive skin, but others can’t determine my race due to my “ethnically ambiguous” features. I’ve been asked by people of varying races if I was white, mixed, black, Persian, Cuban—a boy once told me, “I thought you were black until I saw you dance.” My response to people playing a guessing game with my race will always be the same.  

Sure, guess away.

As long as they’re respectful—my face shriveled at the dance comment kid—and don’t grab my hair out of nowhere, I’m happy to talk about it. What’s considered a microaggression varies from person to person. Yet, discussions on race easily become heated crusades because those leading the discourse often have deeply personal stakes in the matter. It hurts when others don’t respect those stakes, fall silent because they don’t share the same stakes, or use their stakes to belittle the hardships of others.

I’ve left several talks with a smile on my face before angrily decomposing like three children falling out of a trench coat the minute the other party exited the room. The opposite also occurs, where one party feels utterly attacked after attempting to learn more about race.

No one should feel afraid to talk about race regardless of how they racially identify. Conversations with subtlety push the narrative forward and likely won’t end with a curmudgeon man calling you illiterate on the T.

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