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On the Outside: These students refuse...

to classify themselves by race

 by Mindy Lee  published on Thursday, September 8, 2005

Deanna Dent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
"Racial outsiders are people who show characteristics that are viewed as different from their inherent racial and cultural norms."
 
I don't feel like my race is such a big part of me that I would actively seek out other people of my race. If I find a cool person, it doesn't matter what race they are.
/issues/arts/693737
Deanna Dent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
I don't feel like my race is such a big part of me that I would actively seek out other people of my race. If I find a cool person, it doesn't matter what race they are.
 
Deanna Dent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
"I was never part of the Asian clique"
 

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Mazeratie Stephens-Sweet has a high, singsong voice with a slight "valley girl" accent. She manages to include the words "like" and "whatever" into almost every sentence. On the phone, she sounds like your average white, suburban-bred, college student. But sounds can be deceiving.

So can the color of your skin.

Meet three ASU students who feel nothing like how they look -- Stephens-Sweet, along with Chris Ly and Ching Phuong, say they are racial and cultural outsiders: students who say they feel more comfortable socializing with people from a different race than their own. They say they've been called bananas (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), Oreos (black on the outside, white on the inside) and "white-washed" by people of their own race. They were teased for not being Asian enough or black enough by their families, or for not being white enough by their friends. But somewhere along the line, they found their own identities. And for them, race had nothing to do with it.

'Not black enough'

Growing up in rural Hopewell, N.J., Stephens-Sweet was one of only a handful of black kids. The journalism junior says she never fully identified with her black culture.

"I'm from a mostly white neighborhood," she says. "I know there are different cultural signals in each ethnicity, and if you're not raised in that atmosphere, you feel like you don't know that lingo."

She says her mom would get on her for not being "black enough." She never understood what that meant but knew she wasn't going to pretend to be someone she wasn't just to please her mother.

At 18, Stephens-Sweet packed up her bags and moved to Tempe to start her freshman year of college. She made new friends in her dorm, found a boyfriend ("my big white guy") and became comfortable in her new life. Finding black friends was never a priority.

"I don't feel like my race is such a big part of me that I would actively seek out other people of my race," she says. "If I find a cool person, it doesn't matter what race they are."

But she's frustrated at the idea that if she wanted to find black friends, it wouldn't be easy. She says she fears they might reject her because of her mannerisms and the way she acts.

"I think it's stupid that you have to prove your credibility to feel a part of your own race," Stephens-Sweet says. "Regardless of how you're raised, I don't think you have to prove you're black enough to hang out with other black people. As I get older, I realize that if there are people that want to accept me, then they will, and if they don't, then I don't need them."

Personality wins every time

Like Stephens-Sweet, Chris Ly says he doesn't feel accepted by others of his race, but says he doesn't see it as a social problem. One of the only times the media production junior wishes he had more Asian friends is when his mom cooks.

"I'd have friends over and they wouldn't be able to understand some of the things that my parents did, like when Chinese people cook a chicken, they cook the entire chicken," he says.

Ly says an Asian friend would know about the chicken-cooking process, and it wouldn't be a big deal. But something as trivial as cooking isn't enough for him to seek out race-specific friends.

"I'm more drawn to a certain energy or personality than race. I have friends who don't understand my background, but I still connect with them on other levels," he says.

Ly was born in the Los Angeles area and moved to Tempe when he was 7. His family was involved in the heavily populated Los Angeles Asian community, but he wasn't. The move to Arizona and the drastic decrease of Asian people didn't affect him, because he never really had many Asian friends to begin with. And he says he never felt comfortable around the few that he had.

"There was a cultural difference between what I thought was appropriate and what they viewed as appropriate," he says.

He says he was too laidback and didn't get along with those who fit the Asian stereotype of being competitive and a perfectionist.

"I have a couple good Asian friends in college now that I didn't have before," he says. "But they're more like me, they're 'white-washed.'"

Ly says he believes he doesn't know enough about his ethnic culture to attend Asian student group events on campus, but it doesn't bother him. He's happy with his group of friends and is more interested in people with the same interests than the same race.

"All of my friends around me are great," he says. "If I find an Asian friend who's awesome, then that's great, but if I don't, it's not going to hurt me."

Her choice

Unlike Ly, Ching Phuong expresses slight regret for not having many Asian friends.

"They're not losing anything by not being friends with me, but I think I'm losing a lot from not being friends with them," she says.

Phuong's parents weren't like most typical Chinese parents -- she says they never pushed her to have Chinese friends or attend Chinese school, a weekend ritual for most first-generation Chinese-Americans. Growing up in both the east and west sides of the Valley, she lived in predominantly white neighborhoods.

"I never thought I was different than anyone else," she says. "I knew I was different, but it wasn't a thing. I never felt I had to hang out with people who looked like me just because of that. Besides, growing up in a mostly white area, there's no one that looks like you. How would you go about finding them, if you were looking?"

Of the few times that she attended Chinese school, the other students who spoke Mandarin fluently would criticize her. Phuong can understand Mandarin, but she has difficulty speaking the language. She says she's proud of her heritage, but has a fear of being seen as inferior by other Chinese-Americans because she isn't fluent.

Though she says she feels like a racial outsider, Phoung doesn't blame anyone for her lack of Asian friends.

"I really didn't make an effort to seek Asian friends. Why should they make an effort to be mine? I see it as my own choice. I think if I wanted to, I could have friends like that [who are Asian]," she says.

Biculturalism: an underground issue

David Hinds, an assistant professor of African-American studies, says the subject of racial outsiders is "an issue that's not talked about a lot.

"Look at the nature of our society, we are groomed to think that people who look the same must act the same, but that isn't always necessarily so," he adds

Hinds says racial outsiders are people who show characteristics that are viewed as different from their inherent racial and cultural norms. He says students who do well scholastically, speak without a cultural vernacular and dress or act or behave differently than the majority of their race are prime targets for becoming racial outsiders.

"All of us make a conscious decision to act and behave in a certain way," he says. "Some students want to act 'black' or 'white,' so they make a conscious decision to do so. But that's only a minority of the situation. For the majority of students, it's not a conscious decision."

Hinds says he believes that social and environmental factors should also be considered, especially for students who are of minority races but grew up in America.

"They deal with biculturalism, constantly struggling with both identities," he says "Humans have many layers, we're very complex."

Stephens-Sweet, Ly and Phuong can relate. They deal with criticism brought on by both sides of their cultural identities, continually being told they're not enough of one side or the other.

Hinds says that popular, social education mixed with formal education is the first step toward understanding.

"I'm a big believer in education as a means of change, and I think it's a good thing to begin to discuss the problem," he says. "The more students from one racial group take courses about another racial group, we'll all learn about each other. They'll see we all have more similarities rather than differences and will understand what the differences mean."

"I was never part of the Asian clique"

Asian people are uncomfortable looking me in the eyes, but that's OK. I know it's a culturally conditioned manner not to do so. But I wish they'd look at me, because just once I'd like someone to see me and understand the shape of my eyes. I wouldn't have to face that split-second expression of readjustment most people subconciously have when they notice my non-existent double lid.

This is one of the main reasons I wish I had more Asian friends. I've only had three, all at different times in my life. I know that an Asian friend wouldn't see my eyes as weird, wouldn't call my hair coarse and wouldn't question what's in my parents' fridge.

Yet, if I walked into a room full of white people on one side and Asians on another, I'd walk right over to the white group. I long for more Asian friends. I think they'd be more understanding culturally, yet I'm so much more comfortable around my white friends.

I have no idea what this means or what it says about me.

I grew up in Mesa and attended predominantly white schools. As in most schools, all of mine had the usual cliques (e.g. the introductory cafeteria scene in "Mean Girls"). I was never a part of the Asian clique, though we were all in advanced placement classes together (I might not act Asian, but I sure studied like one.) They stayed in their corner, and I stayed in mine. I was the girl with the darkest hair and lightest skin sticking out like a chocolate chip on a cookie. I constantly struggled with the fact that I had no Asian friends. I wanted more Asian friends, but looking like them was not my key in. I didn't act, speak or dress the way they did. A barrier existed, and I didn't know how to break it.

I'll be honest, I still don't know. I just know how to be me, and I hope that's enough.

As Asian as I look, I don't feel this way on the inside. I struggle with my identity every day. Non-Asians expect me to exhibit Asian mannerisms. Even worse, they jokingly ask "can you do karate?" Which isn't funny and is also blatantly offensive and ignorant. I'm so afraid I'll shame my parents if I don't greet their friends properly, so I'll practice the words over and over again before meeting them. I'm bicultural by nurture, Korean by nature. But I'm also so much more than that. I'm the friend who will always make a big deal about your birthday. I'm the one who will laugh at the most inappropriate joke at the most inopportune moment. I'm the one who will tease you about your idiosyncrasies, but defend you to no end.

Race shouldn't be the key identifiable factor. There are other aspects that make me who I am.

Reach the reporter at mindy.lee@asu.edu.



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