Viewpoint: 'But you're smart'

BY DANIELLE PARSONS

Published November 25, 2013

The #BBUM campaign’s intention was to spark discussion about the lack of diversity on the University’s campus. The campaign has caught national interest and has become a huge trend on Twitter. This was a catalyst for the much-needed discussions of the unfulfilled promise of higher enrollment rates for minority students and the fact that the University promotes tolerance but not acceptance of the different racial, ethnic and religious groups that inhabit this campus.

I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to speak about my experiences as a bi-racial woman at the University.

I often joke that I’m racially ambiguous and will change races depending on how someone will classify me. Though it makes me and other people laugh, it covers up the actual discomfort I feel. I identify as bi-racial — half White and half Black — but I’m not always seen as how I identify.

Perhaps my very light complexion gives a twist to people’s preconceived notions of how a bi-racial woman should look. Depending on whom you ask, I have been classified as Puerto Rican, White, from “some” island, and when people are completely unsure they will say, “you’re something, right?”

These racial and ethnic classifications come from some small-binding stereotype. For example, my very curly hair gives some type of indication that I may be a minority, and it’s furthered when some hear that I use slang that doesn’t fit in with mainstream white vernacular. Once it’s confirmed that I’m bi-racial, people will say, “that makes sense,” “I could tell by the way you spoke,” “your hair is different” and many other variations. Then the annoying questions come: “Can you wash your hair?” “Why do you speak Black?” “Which parent is Black?” “Do you sometimes get confused on how you should act?”

Before I understood the complexity of the ignorance surrounding race, I would become furious and defensive when asked these idiotic questions. What the hell do you mean, can I wash my hair? Can you wash your hair? Why do I speak Black? I was unaware that Black was a language — please educate me. These experiences are a small sliver of the amount of ignorance and racism that my counterparts in the Black community, and other minority groups, face on a day-to-day basis.

A moment that stands out in my memory was during my freshman year in one of the Modern Language Building’s infamous 300-person lectures. I had a discussion regarding race with a gentleman that sat next to me. I mentioned that I was bi-racial and the expression on his face changed from a smile to one of confusion. I was expecting this. But what I wasn’t expecting was his response: “But you’re smart?” Those three words will forever be ingrained in my mind. Perhaps he thought it was a compliment — I’m not sure. What I’m sure of is that the stereotypes that we may have thought were long gone with slavery and Jim Crow still exist. Needless to say, I stopped sitting next to him after that.

The purpose of this reflection was to bring more awareness of the inequalities that minorities in race, religion, culture and other social identities that do not fit white culture face. However, this discussion shouldn’t be limited to just the Black community but should be a catalyst for improving how we look at and discuss diversity. We are doing a disservice to our peers and ourselves by not speaking out about the oppressive cloud that constantly rains over minority students.

If everything else that I have written is forgotten, I hope to leave this message: This is not just a Black problem. This is a community problem that affects far more than the naked eye can see. Things can be done and they will be done, but only if people are open and willing.

Danielle Parsons is an LSA senior.