Anxiously awaiting my Yale admissions decision in early spring 2015, I was ecstatic to receive a letter of admittance from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The college was relatively close to home, offering in-state tuition to Minnesotan students and a well-established pre-med program. It was everything I could ask for. However, as I opened an invitation to the “UW Day for Students of Color” a week later, I felt an unexpected jolt of confusion. Me? A student of color? Sure, I was a proud first-generation Chinese American, but I didn’t strictly identify as a person of color and certainly not as “yellow.” After a week of staring at the enthusiastically-worded invitation on my desk, I dropped the packet in the trash.
Weeks later, I eagerly responded to my acceptance to Yale, where I would be free of such identity crises. As someone who had attended predominately white public schools in both Pennsylvania and Minnesota, I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity on campus and by the familiarity and comfort with which people seemed to host and partake in cultural events. Here, I wasn’t a token “person of color;” I was a uniform piece of the student body, just another mind in a sea of brilliant ones. For many months, I felt a sense of community that made me feel safe and finally at peace with my skin color.
The Halloween Christakis email incident struck in my second quarter at Yale — not just campus-wide, but nation-wide. Suddenly, I felt intensely aware of my cultural background, of my skin color, of my quiet Asian voice in a torrent of angry ones. “Safe spaces” were declared the fantastical product of spoiled elitist children unprepared for the “real world,” and college students as a whole were labeled “cry-bullies” for speaking out against problematic language and behavior. In this flood of conflict, many black students stood together as an inspiring wall of solidarity. They spoke out, and they spoke out proudly. Questions about the name of Calhoun College, highlighted by President Salovey at the class of 2019 freshman assembly, came to the forefront of campus discussion. Black Lives Matter fought for a platform in a siege of national dissent, police brutality and unearthed racism. Meanwhile, the Asian community, including myself, stood in support of “people of color.”
Even so, our voices were mostly lost in the crowd. Standing at the center of these racial tensions, I became intensely aware of issues that I had happily buried and ignored since coming to Yale. Even in this haven of cultural diversity, I felt as lost about my status as a woman of color as I had a year before. Was I truly a POC? Could I call myself “yellow” with the same pride as the black community? Did I even want to — and was it wrong not to?
Even now, one year after the Halloween email incident transpired, I stand with one leg in the box and the other lifted in suspense. If I step out, I sever myself from the pride of my identity; if I step in, I lose a piece of myself to the stereotypes of my skin color. I am afraid of enclosure, but in this pivotal time for race relations in the United States, I am even more afraid of exclusion. These issues have burned deep into my sophomore year, ignited by presidential debates and troubling news segments. The “Watters’ World: Chinatown Edition” Fox News segment galvanized a surge of Asian American solidarity on campus, bringing students together for social media campaigns and discussions. In these moments, it feels as if all the sides of me — the side that loves my culture, the side that fears racial conflict, the side that wants to be heard, the side that wants to hide — have been mobilized in a battle around the yellowness of my skin.
Do I take on a label? Do I wear it with pride? Perhaps the decision isn’t mine to make. Perhaps it was made already by the color of my hair and my eyes and by the UW-Madison flyer proudly inviting me to celebrate myself — a person of color.
CATHERINE YANG is a sophomore in Trumbull College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .