May 3, 2013

Mistaking identity

We shouldn’t paper over the gaps in our knowledge of individuals with things we feel safe to assume.

Like most ambitious young kids, I was told that I could be anyone I wanted to be. While that hasn’t completely panned out, it’s true that I’ve been a lot of different people: I’ve been known by the names of Anne, Anna, Amy, Emily, Karen, Alison, June, Jenny, and Grace; I was born in China and in Chicago; I’ve grown up in California, unspecified suburbs, and Chicago’s Chinatown; I’ve been a pre-med since my second year of college; and I’m majoring in biology, biochemistry, mathematics, economics, and occasionally statistics. Or so I’ve been told by other people, anyway.

Some of the mistakes people make about my background and identity are understandable. The South Campus staff members give me June Huang’s mail because our names are nearly identical. A lot of people were born in the city in which they grew up, so it’s not surprising that many people think I was born in Chicago. However, there are times when some details that people get wrong about me come from assumptions they’ve made before I’ve disclosed anything about myself. There are other times when they have simply mixed me up with somebody else. Every once in a while, they will even swear they have crystal-clear memories of me sharing said incorrect details with them.

Though I’m willing to give individuals the benefit of the doubt, it’s hard not to wonder whether the overall pattern of mistakes boils down to ethnic stereotyping. It’s certainly not tragic for people to think you’re a pre-med; worse assumptions have been made. At least in my case, there might even be some benefits associated with people’s wrong impressions: I’ve always wanted a multisyllabic first name and I hear that math degrees are super useful. Nevertheless, it feels a little strange to take note of the discrepancies between who you know yourself to be and who other people think you are.

I’ve been considering how well people actually know me—and, subsequently, how well we actually know each other—because of the recent hullabaloo over the “Politically Incorrect Maroon Confessions” Facebook page. Aside from the general offensiveness of the page, which is ground that others have already covered, I found it striking that a lot of the posters seem to put the onus of ending stereotypes on the individual being stereotyped, not the people doing the stereotyping. Why, they wonder, don’t people just walk, talk, or dress differently if they’re so worried about being unfairly judged? Such reasoning is bizarre: If individuals really did have complete agency over what other people perceived them to be, stereotypes wouldn’t exist in the first place.

To some extent, universities nowadays help contribute to the sense that individuals should take up the responsibility of disproving the stereotypes surrounding them. I think they mean for this to be an affirming experience, but it puts a lot of pressure on people. One of the ideas behind promoting diversity is that exposure to people different from yourself will broaden your perspective. The hope is that some kind of magical transmission of knowledge and understanding is going to occur when you stick two people in the same room. However, simple proximity isn’t going to teach much. If someone “knows” that you’re inarticulate, uncultured, unintelligent, or dangerous, they’re not going to ask for a CV, transcript, and interview just so you can try to prove her wrong. Consequently, the burden of communication rarely falls on those who cling to stereotypes.

I would be falling into the trap of overgeneralization if I tried to make any claims about whether a given Facebook page fairly represents a student body. For all we know, all of the submissions may come from a single person with a lot of spare time. Nevertheless, I think recent events have raised some interesting questions about what it really means to know someone. A college education often gives people the confidence to speak with authority—hence the phenomenon of underclassmen who become unlicensed therapists after their first intro to psychology midterm. And yes, in theory, we should know more upon leaving college than when we entered. But in some respects, I think we need to leave college “knowing” less than we did before. The temptation upon meeting people in college is to think to ourselves, “Ah, yes, now I’ve filled some of the gaps in my knowledge about football players/Iowans/vegans.” But that’s a misleading way of thinking. It implies that there comes a point when meeting additional football players, Iowans, or vegans isn’t going to tell us anything new. Rather, I believe that meeting new people should widen the gaps in our knowledge, because it is at those moments that we should recognize how different individuals can be.

Jane Huang is a third year in the College.