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December 7, 2019

Color-Blind No More

Moving to the U.S. and attending UChicago makes many people of color more aware of their race.

The concept of race is…new to me.

It sounds ironic, since I’m 100 percent brown-skinned. But the fact is that I’m still trying to figure out what that means, especially in America. Despite having lived here for several years when I was younger and coming back from India almost every summer, living here as an adult is different. I’ve realized that awareness of race is crucial to this society. And that’s something that both fascinates and intimidates me.

Just over a month and a half ago, I was considering joining one of the on-campus sororities—I had even enrolled in fall quarter rush. But I still wasn’t sure if Greek life was for me, so I decided to confide in an upperclassman, also a woman of color, who described her rush experience for me. “I walked into the place for X sorority,” she told me among other things, “and I was in a room full of tall, blonde, white women.” She told me that that situation was one that made her realize she should probably choose a different sorority, or at the very least recognize it as a red flag. Why was there nobody who looked like her?

I ended up not rushing for a few different reasons, but that anecdote made me realize something. If I’d been in that room with her, I wouldn’t have thought there was anything amiss. I wouldn’t have realized that I was alone in my skin color, or that X sorority women were predominantly the same race. I wouldn’t have known that in any situation, that was something to be conscious of. I wouldn’t have realized how subtle yet important racial differences can be.

I don’t see race, because I’ve never had to.

When I lived in California, I was too young and unperceptive to be aware of these ideas. At that age, I don’t think I even needed to be (and maybe that was my own racial privilege in a way). And then I moved to India, a significantly less racially diverse country, where I lived for over 10 years. When you’re in an environment where everybody looks like you, you don’t need to take note of any differences—they aren’t of any significance. That’s how I grew up, and that’s how I’ve continued to see things after moving back to America. The difference still remains that here, people do see race, sometimes in the wrong way, sometimes in a neutral way. But I think that that awareness is something that everyone around me has. Does that mean that I should as well?

Someone I was talking to told me that it seemed like I had to metaphorically put on a new pair of glasses. That’s a perfect analogy. Maybe I do need to put them on, but I don’t know if they make my vision better or blurrier.

I was walking into my dorm with a friend, also of Indian ethnicity, and the receptionist laughed and asked if we were sisters, because we had “the same face.” We definitely don’t. I don’t think there was any malice behind that comment, but maybe it was one of the things my “new glasses” are supposed to help me notice. Do we really look more similar than I thought, or was she asking out of insensitivity? Would she have said that just as easily to two white people? Maybe not. Maybe. Probably not.

It’s not difficult to notice that the vast majority of the staff behind the reception desks, the servers and cooks in the dining halls, and the people who clean much of the University are Black. Is that a good thing because it means the University is employing local people from a predominantly Black locality? Or is it a bad thing because it perpetuates the idea of Black people being the “help”? Maybe it’s the first, maybe the second, maybe both. Maybe it’s nothing. I probably don’t know enough about the subject to comment.

A white second-year was discussing how political opinions shouldn’t affect personal relationships and that some of his close friends were Trump supporters. I don’t think he’s a racist, but he is friends with people who openly support a known racist among several other things. He’s a very nice person and he’s even helped me fine-tune my résumé before, but maybe this should make me uncomfortable? Maybe I’m reading too much into it. It’s probably nothing.

Trying to see race when I’m not used to looking for it is confusing. Still, it makes sense that it’s so important to American society compared to other countries, considering the complicated, often disturbing history of our treatment of people of color. It’s clear that the people around me are used to seeing race, and I think it’s becoming clear that I need to as well, at least for my own good. I need to be able to notice if there are red flags around me. I need to know if my race is going to negatively impact my college experience.

What difference does color make? At UChicago, apparently enough that it’s something to be aware of. It’s time for me to figure out how to wear these new glasses properly.

Manya Bharadwaj is a first-year in the College. 

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