“So, what are you?”
It’s my first day of freshman orientation at Cornell University and I’ve already been asked this question enough times to notice a trend. Aside from my name, major, and hometown, it’s been the most frequent question of the day. A question I am used to receiving within the first conversation I have with someone. Yet each time, I find myself equally disappointed. With this question there are an endless array of correct answers: my nationality, my height, my major, my zodiac sign…
Without having to dig for further clarification, I know exactly what I’m being asked. Nowadays, it’s not necessarily considered proper form to ask someone what type of minority they are. So instead of this abrasively offensive inquiry, minorities all over the United States are asked “what” they are in order to ease people’s curiosities about their ethnic backgrounds. While the question is not intentionally offensive, it’s often the beginning of a conversation that reveals an underlying bias.
To answer “what” I am, I usually start off by saying that I am Irish, Polish and German on my dad’s side. Looking only at my olive complexion, people will quickly form a look of confusion at my response. I’ll pause for a little bit, examine the person staring and waiting so intensely for the rest of my answer, and only then will I continue to share that my mom is Native American, Spanish, and Mexican.
“Ohhhhhhhhh okay, I see it now.”
I see IT now?
So here I am, not even a day into the beginning of my education at a prestigious Ivy League institution. Cornell University, an academic environment filled with some of the country’s brightest and most promising minds. An environment offering an array of worldviews and life experiences. And still, an environment filled with microaggressions.
The thing here is... when I’m asked “what” I am, I’m not being asked about my entire ethnic background—I’m being asked about the background that contributes to my darker skin tone. Both of my parents have equally contributed to my genetic background. Yet, I have been perceived as looking only like my mother for my entire life. It doesn’t matter that I have my dad’s smile, or his nose, or even his eyes--it has only ever mattered that I have the same skin tone as my mom.
Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I was often asked if my biological dad was my stepdad. Kurt Keller… the man that shares the same last name as me, the man that has raised me and loved me for my entire life, the man that shares the exact same eyes as me… My peers viewed him as less connected to me due to the fact that my complexion does not perfectly match his. In dealing with these sorts of interactions frequently, I began to see my complexion as a part of myself that had profound impacts on my social interactions.
When faced with a microaggression, I often feel uneasy about my ethnic background and feel a lack of understanding towards my own identity. In an ideal world, I would identify with my parents’ ethnic heritages equally. However, the social interactions I’ve faced throughout my life have projected an overgeneralized idea of my ethnic identity based on my appearance. These projections, in turn, have caused an internal conflict in relation to my personal sense of ethnic identity.
When a person asks me “what” I am, I know they are not intentionally trying to negatively affect my development of ethnic identity. I acknowledge that I am ethnically ambiguous, and that people may be eager to ease their curiosities in regards to my appearance. However, lack of intention does not remove the offensive undertone of a microaggression. There is a proper time and manner in which to ask someone about their ethnic background. This manner is one that avoids overgeneralization and categorization, one that avoids the disruption of a person’s development of ethnic identity.
Microaggressions, like asking someone “what” they are, or asking them why their dad has a different skin color than them, are often subtle and indirect. They are also often unintentional, but they nonetheless demonstrate an undertone of discrimination. Asking somewhat “what” they are brings to light the human need to categorize others into a specific box. The underlying issue at hand is that placing people into these overgeneralized ethic boxes is the root of prejudice and discriminatory behavior.
Today, I walk into my senior year at Cornell University. Throughout these past three years, I’ve undergone a lot of personal changes. My career goals have shifted from psychiatry to digital marketing, my overwhelming love for California has been replaced with an openness to moving to the East Coast, and I’ve developed a new love for sourdough bagels and deep dish pizza. While my ethnic background has remained constant, the way in which I identify with my ethnicity has also been greatly altered by the social interactions I’ve faced at Cornell. I’ve been referred to as the “brown” girl on the soccer team, I’ve had people ask me if my dad owns a casino on a reservation, and I’ve been asked why I do not speak fluent Spanish. Cornell University, an institution filled with intellectuals and scholars, is not immune to the subtle impacts of discrimination.
In an age of microaggressions, minorities face a huge conflict of interest that makes confronting small racial aggressions difficult. Do you sacrifice the flow of a conversation to call out a small microaggression that has offended you? Or do you laugh it off and maintain the comfortableness of the interaction? Personally, I’ve spent my entire college career thus far trying to laughing off racially charged comments from my peers. But this is not the response I would’ve wished for myself. Moving forward, I strive for the strength to confront my discomforts. Most importantly, I strive to uphold the integrity of my own ethnic identity.
Cornell University '19