Cultural groups self-segregate, limiting student narratives

by Bianca Padro / Beacon Correspondent • April 2, 2015

1427949586 emerson crowd.jpg

I was a freshman at Emerson when I first learned what intersectionality meant. It was the first time I heard a term that describes how all of our identities and different types of discrimination interact with each other. But ever since that moment, being at Emerson has taught me a lot about why recognizing intersectionality is so important in theory and why addressing it has been so difficult in practice.

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and went to a private bilingual school that, academically, prepared my peers and I to hopefully attend college in the States. However, no one ever prepared me for all the explaining I would have to do once I got there for, I suspect, underlying cultural reasons that stem from a long history of colonization.

Coming to Emerson, I always had something to explain, a part of my identity to clarify. I’d lived my entire life thinking I could relate to Americans in the same way I related to Latin Americans. I was surprised when my ideas were challenged because I thought my American friends would have as clear a conception of Puerto Rico as I had of the United States. Suddenly I had to identify as Latina or Hispanic, an immigrant or a U.S.-born citizen, and I was expected to love spicy food.

Emerson has played such a big role in how I started questioning my own identity and how I began to come to terms with it. In a school that we know is mostly attended by white students, students of color often normalize the isolation and the small and the offensive situations, big and small, they witness, which become an inherent part of this college’s experience for them. In this context, it becomes very easy to marginalize ourselves by joining student cultural organizations that are supposed to be a network of support and empowerment to confront these very problems, but ultimately become comfortable places where we can escape and not have to practice having conversations with people who might disagree.

Many of Emerson’s organizations that provide safe spaces for students of color have very important conversations on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disabilities, and socio-economic status and how all of these identities are discriminated against in different ways. 

But as students and leaders of color, we need to re-evaluate the role of groups for minorities and our openness to valuable and educated allies who can support us, who we can inspire to challenge others’ perceptions and to challenge their own. I know how comforting it can be to find people who are similar to you, especially within an environment that can often be so hostile; I feel it every time I can finally rest and speak to someone in Spanish. 

For the past three years that I’ve spent away from home, I’ve accepted the tiring process of validating my experiences through other people—learning the right ways to explain myself, educating others, negotiating my identities and languages, enduring a variety of colorful remarks (“Wow, your English is so good”), having my accent made fun of—which has left me with a profound uncertainty about where I fit in as a student at Emerson and as a U.S. citizen. I fear that there are a number of students of color at Emerson who do not feel welcomed and validated in organizations specifically dedicated to students of color, including myself. Instead of feeling included in the cultural groups that claim to cater to my diversities, they often unknowingly limit the narratives they acknowledge. How can we expect to succeed and tell our narratives—in classrooms, meetings, film shoots, rehearsals, studios, workplaces—where our individual identities are often erased? Telling our narratives and bringing these important conversations into unlikely spaces, we can improve and expand the spaces where our identities are welcomed and considered. As students of color we have the power to make people comfortable with the uncomfortable and familiar with the unfamiliar—a power that we ought to each take advantage of.  

I sympathize with the idea of creating a safe space for people of color that considers our limited access to our respective industries, but as a community we should think of expanding those safe spaces, either by holding more intersectional conversations that don’t assume that all students of color have endured the same methods of oppression, or that white students inherently don’t suffer them at all. It is important to hold holistic conversations with students of color that don’t stop at a conversation about race problems at Emerson. It is more than that. It’s considering that a Latina student can be disabled but also be cisgender and that an African-American student can be transgendered and also have grown up in an upper-middle class family. Identities are not mutually exclusive and they all tell different stories that might make us feel that sometimes, there is no space where we can “check” all of our “boxes.” 

To me, creating a better space for students of color means providing enough support so that we can feel comfortable opening up impromptu conversations in spaces where we are ignored. It means not universalizing experiences when providing support, asking questions instead of making assumptions, and generally being better listeners instead of assuming that we understand. It means proving that, if we come from a place of truth and sincerity, coexistence among people of different backgrounds can help us recognize our own individual role in supporting each other.