Challenging myself to think outside the box

Aleya Justison is a first-year Philosophy, Politics and the Public and social work double major.  She is an intern for the Newswire from Springfield, Ill.

Since I got to college, people ask me if I’m White. Which, to clarify, I very much am. I don’t even claim to be 1/16th Native American like a lot of White people I’ve met. My hair is wavy and black, and my eyes are almond-shaped, so it isn’t a completely far-fetched assumption. Nonetheless, I’m just White.

Aside from these experiences, such questions have had very little impact on my life. It’s not inherently an awkward or offensive encounter, but I’m always amused when someone asks, “Well, you’re like, what, Latina or something, right? Asian?” There never seems to be a consistent guess; I just fall into an “other” category, and I think that’s extremely harmful. I could be Latina or I could be Native American or any other combination of White and (blank).

The problem that I find with this isn’t that someone might see me as another race, but that they try to fit me into a box. I’m not immune to this compulsion either. I’m generally quick to speculate on someone’s race, gender or class, but why? Why are people obsessed with labeling others?

For most people, I think they see it as the easiest way to make sense of the world — which I find interesting. It’s easy to say, “Oh, well, she’s probably something.” It’s easy to create the miscellaneous box and put a person in it without thinking any deeper about the implications. Doing this is problematic, however, because it stops us from seeing that person as someone.

I can’t help but ask myself what people’s impressions of me are before they ask my race. Even more, what do people who are clearly non-White think others think of them at a predominantly White university? Assuming identity denies a person the ability to be a multifaceted individual. I don’t mean to say this from a place of superiority because I tend to do it, too. There’s a degree of convenience for me, the labeler, to not have to think beyond race or any other classification.

I first realized that I have this habit when I questioned my own identity. I’ve spent years trying to nail down my sexual orientation as a definite label. I’ve identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual and more, all in hopes that I could make sense of the way I feel. I truly thought that if I could just figure out what I am then I’d have a better understanding of who I am. I’ve learned, though, that people are rarely just one thing. Our identities are constantly changing and only in special cases are they unwavering.

I’ve found the times in my life where I feel the most included are when people understand my identities and then ask, “What else?” They don’t impose a mandate, consciously or unconsciously, of how I must see the world or how different instances affect me. They put themselves in the position to see the world from my perspective, and they connect with me as a person full of complex feelings and experiences. It’s the times when the gray area is not only tolerated but welcomed that I’m allowed to be more than what fits in the box.

This habit won’t be corrected overnight. I’m still in the process of unlearning, but I think it’s worth the effort. It’s worth the extra moment to hear people and see people for who they are and not just what we may think they should be. I admit, judging people is easy. It’s much harder when we’re forced to put our preconceptions next to a person’s humanity — challenging ourselves to get comfortable with the fact that everyone’s experiences don’t match up, and that’s OK. A label can be a proper representation, but it doesn’t tell the full story. Only the person who holds that label can tell that story. We just need to have the compassion to listen.