Before leaving for college, a close friend back home asked me a question: “So when we get [to the U.S.], will we be persons of color? No, right? We will be white. We are white.”
I am ethnically Caucasian and I look the part: light brown hair, green eyes, light skin. I am white by definition. However, I did not become fully conscious of this fact until I filled out my Common App and was asked about my racial identity. Because Turkey contains tremendous ethnic diversity, one’s so-called “origin” cannot be easily deciphered by looking at one’s skin color. Accordingly, neither I nor any of my other friends applying to U.S. colleges had much experience being referred to as “white.”
When my school assigned “To Kill a Mockingbird” five years ago, it was one of my first introductions to racial tensions and the way they are perceived in the United States. Interestingly enough, we could still relate to the society it described, since Turkey has its own issues regarding race and ethnic identity.
But in class, we were all asked to relate to Atticus and Scout — the white people — even though many of my white peers had experiences more similar to Tom Robinson’s. We were automatically placed in the privileged category, simply because of the color of our skin.
At the same time, many of my friends back home who have darker skin live lives similar to mine. Though university admissions officers consider them people of color, their experiences bear little resemblance to those of minority groups in the United States.
Many Western countries, including America, have painted a very particular picture of what immigrants look like: a dark skin tone and an accent. The tendency to paint immigrants with a broad brush is especially strong in European countries with homogenous populations — it is easy to pick out the migrants from the natives.
The problem is that this picture is very often inaccurate. I am a foreigner in America, as are the Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern people I met during orientation. My friends from Turkey with darker skin colors — who have led lives almost identical to my own — are also foreigners. I can walk down the street and blend in without any double takes; other international students cannot escape the presumption of difference so easily.
Even at Yale, skin color remains the initial mechanism by which most people (consciously or subconsciously) classify individuals. We claim to value individuality and multiculturalism, yet we equate “white” with American and anything else with exoticism. It does not help that the admissions office — and the student body writ large — often seems to care more about labels than people. Such thinking induces us to ignore the tremendous diversity contained within all racial, geographic and ethnic identities. Being white in America is not the same thing as being white in Turkey, just as being brown in Turkey is not the same thing as being brown in America. And people of all races can have different advantages and challenges depending on their socioeconomic background, nation and community.
Back home, skin color was just a physical characteristic; in college, it will become a part of our identities — my dark-skinned friends from Turkey will become a part of the POC community, and I will get used to my white privilege.
Eren Kafadar is a freshman in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.