“Asian, Asian, Asian, Asian … white person.” I felt like I was playing a game of duck, duck, goose.” As I gazed around the room at the Asian American Cultural Center, I couldn’t help but rest my gaze upon the singular white attendee at the event in question.
Yes, when I attended the “meet your peer liaison event” at the AACC this past week, where Asian first years meet and connect with Asian mentors, a white person chose to grace us with his presence. He had actually followed me from Old Campus to attend this event, not because he identified as Asian or had signed up for an Asian peer liaison, or had any affiliation with the AACC, but because he was a friend of mine and didn’t want to walk alone to the LGBTQ+ peer liaison event afterward.
Granted, this event was not explicitly Asian-only. It hadn’t been advertised as an affinity meeting, and so to say that my white friend wasn’t allowed in that space could appear unwelcoming or exclusionary. Or, as he later identified it in our froco group meeting, “gatekeeping.”
While my friend didn’t mean any ill intent, he jokingly accused me of “gatekeeping” him after I suggested that he meet me at the LGBTQ+ peer liaison event afterward, rather than following me to the AACC. I gently suggested that this event wasn’t necessarily one event he should attend, even if my first-year counselor had argued that everyone was welcome at the cultural centers, that they weren’t exclusive spaces.
“Gatekeeping,” especially in a hyper-liberal space such as Yale, has an implicitly negative connotation. The word draws up images of people of color telling others who identify as people of color that they aren’t “POC enough,” or of LGBTQ+ community members telling bisexuals they aren’t “queer enough.” I think of people excluding others, telling people where they belong and where they are not allowed to belong.
Who belongs and who doesn’t belong is always a sticky situation. Who are we to decide who belongs in communities of color when racism is itself a social construct, created to divide people? Is keeping white people out of spaces meant for people of color simply dividing people further among arbitrary battle lines?
I’d argue that in this instance, this isn’t the case. We live in a world where there is a power imbalance based on race, which puts people of color in uncomfortable and even life-threatening situations. This sort of structural inequality has long been institutionalized; places like Yale were created to educate white men. Yalies of the past could’ve never imagined someone like me walking on campus or writing in the News. Despite Yale’s steps toward becoming more inclusive, this history of discrimination still pervades through our school’s culture today, something that can be clearly seen in the demographic makeup of elite organizations like the News. Thus, as minorities on a campus that was not initially designed and built for us, we need cultural spaces that were created specifically to support us in our educational pursuits and personal growth.
In the broader United States, the same concept of cultural houses exists in the form of historically black colleges, pride parades and POC magazines. Racism is undeniably institutional, and just like Yale, the United States is founded on racist ideals and white culture. White people do not need their own cultural house because America is already their cultural house. As POC, we ask merely for a single room within a house that is undeniably not ours. In an ideal world, the entire house would be ours as well; however, that is not the world we live in. Is it so hard to ask someone to merely stay out of one room when they have an entire house to live in and explore at their leisure?
My purpose in sharing this story is not to point an accusatory finger toward someone who undeniably was well-intentioned. My friend did not mean to make me feel uncomfortable or feel as if my personal safe space had been invaded. He merely wanted a friend to walk with him to the LGBTQ+ peer liaison event; he didn’t want to make the trek up Prospect Hill alone.
Regardless, I think we all need a greater awareness of the spaces we occupy and how we occupy them. For some, cultural centers may be the only places they feel belonging on campus. While they’re a cool place to hang out, we need to remember their purpose: They were constructed out of a dire need for solace and solidarity among people of color and marginalized groups in a campus built around the needs of white men. To say that the AACC is a “safe space” is to accurately imply that other spaces are not always “safe,” that the rest of the world is in fact the opposite — a dangerous place.
As POC, we tread carefully in this white house that is America. We cannot comfortably sit on the couches or put our feet up on the table, because this, at the end of the day, was not a house designed for us. We merely ask for one room that is specifically designed to accommodate for our existence. In a house full of geese, let the ducks have at least a single room where they can look around and confidently say, “duck, duck, duck.”
Jessica Wang is a first year in Morse College. Contact her at email@example.com.