“How do you refrain from categorizing people? Can you ever repair the damage when you do?” These questions came up as friends and I were waiting for our deserved share of junk food intake at the ’82 Grill. A friend was telling me about how she interviewed someone for a gender studies class, and was inspired by the struggles he had gone through coming to terms with the confusion arising from liking boys in second grade, as well as issues of family acceptance. I shared her enthusiasm, but my feelings were secretly clouded by guilt. I had not interacted much with this person, but I had previously concluded that, as he was Latino and had in my opinion an unfriendly vibe, he would not have much in common with me. That idea crystalized because I assumed that he would be uninterested in me, for our identities were seemingly incompatible. Consequently, we ignored each other as if we were strangers, despite having been introduced on multiple occasions. My assumptions had completely blocked off the possibility of getting to know the intricate complexities that make him up as a human being.
More often than not, I have lamented on how people take me at face value, judging me from my physical appearance. Being international, Asian and at times too absorbed in work, I often feel myself to be instantaneously excluded by white athletes and my self-identified alternative, hip hop or Latino groups, on the grounds that there is little to identify with. What is often neglected is that a person subjected to categorization is more than likely to reciprocate a similar hostility that is uncalled for. But hostility towards what? Can anybody honestly explain why they avoid eye contact with people they’ve never really gotten to know? We can hardly say that racial and sexual discriminatory practices have been eliminated, even if we are attempting to build a more accepting culture. However intense campus discussions and lectures that promote cross-cultural conversation can be, they always somehow fail to cross over to everyday life. Have we ever really been introduced to the etiquette of interacting with people from different backgrounds? I wish that there was a universal way of greeting a classmate with whom I’ve shared a joke in class, but who does not belong to the same friend circle as mine, without simply putting on an act of superficiality as a protective mechanism. This phenomenon is further exacerbated by the smallness of the campus and the confining space in which we conduct our daily activities. Even I find it hard to keep a straight face when I run into someone who was in my Winter Study class from forever ago for the eleventh time in one day.
Humans are sort of like onions, made up of layers after layers, and sometimes they make you want to burst into tears without intending to. Isn’t everyone interested in discovering what dazzles behind the skin of white, yellow, brown or black? However, that layer is not going to conveniently come off of other people just because you want it to. You may have to take off your own outer layers first. It may be a cliché, but it takes guts, determination and persistence to peel off one’s own protective layer, tendency to judge and at times self-inflicted categorization. I won’t go into how difficult it was for me, an international student who grew up in Beijing, to adapt to such a particular environment as Williamstown, but it has been in the moments when I reached out with sincerity to others that I experienced the most satisfying and unexpected bliss in discovering the universality scattered in all of us. Whether it be our dissatisfaction with the limitations of the purple bubble, fascination with Bossa Nova music or simply boy troubles that is the link, there are connections there to be made.
You could argue that you will inevitably get hurt or have one’s faith in humanity be shattered when you attempt to expose your inner layers, but it is a necessary part of the process. If you don’t take off your reflective goggles, how can anyone see your beautiful eyes? When gaining new insights, going past the most obvious is a token of courage and daring. Just as Kant realized the potential of his own reason in the face of the terrifying yet all-encompassing sublime, we too could become aware of all the possibilities opened up by venturing into the unknown.
There is no way to institutionalize the act of self-baring and exploration, but if one is to value differences and get a bit of the sublimity of inspiring insights and fresh perspectives, the goggles must be taken down. Then the true colors of the onion can be revealed.
Banyi Huang ’15 is from Beijing, China. She lives in Prospect.