Talking Race: Space and Body

Image by Eloise Schieferdecker

Image by Eloise Schieferdecker

Samantha Barnett ‘19

I constantly think about how I move through space, how I claim space, how being mixed race means not knowing how my body will be identified. I think about how the first thing that I do when I walk into a classroom is count how many people of color are in the room. I think about whether or not they will identify me as a person of color; I think about how the professor already has. I think about being in an anthropology class,  the discussion for the day being on race, the class divided into groups-- there is one person of color per group. We’re here to “explain race.” I think about walking through my common room one day and listening to two white students saying, “Why do we call people of color ‘people of color’? It’s stupid, what can we call them instead?”

One of the first things that I’ve learned as a student of color at Bennington is how to hear what I’m really being asked.

This school is very good at masking what it wants to say and I’m still learning how to catch it as it’s happening, instead of thinking about it while I’m trying to fall asleep and ranting to my friends for weeks about it afterwards. Does it matter if I hear it, if I’m the only one in the room who does?

It’s spring term and I’m sitting with a group of people at a workshop. We’re learning how to have “difficult conversations” and the topic is “race”. I’m in a group with one other student of color, a professor, and two staff members, all of whom are white. About two minutes into the conversation, Fiona and I have already started giving each other looks because all the questions are directed at us. We are asked questions within questions. She is asked about the “black experience” at Bennington. It is prefaced by asking how she deals with always having to answer the “black question.” I am asked (though there are a lot of words around it and it takes me a while to work through and I think about it for days afterwards) how it feels to know that I got into Bennington on the basis of being an “ethnic” student, that I’m expected to be the “diversity,” that now this is how my body is read. There is a pause.

We are asked how we think “diversity” can be brought in the classroom. This is prefaced by an apology for putting us on the spot, but within the apology is the statement that we should always be ready to be teachers, isn’t that why we’re here? At one point I say that I don’t have answers. I say that I’m still learning my own identity. This is repeated back to me by one of the people in the group; he is surprised and he turns another question against me. I don’t want to talk anymore. I look down and then I look at Fiona and something passes between us and she picks up the question and it goes on like this for the rest of the afternoon.

It’s the first week of freshman year, I’m sitting in a class on the US Constitution and I’m talking about being from Guam (a United States territory) and someone in the room says “isn’t everyone on Guam on welfare anyway?” The professor says nothing, and I say nothing, and later, when I tell my white friends, they ask me why I didn’t.

I’m sitting in the Dining Hall and I tell my friends that I’ve been nominated for a leadership position on campus. One of them says that it’s “just because they’re looking for ethnic people”.

Sometimes I wonder (because I’ve been asked, because I’ve spent time wading through the words around the questions) if I’m the person of color who got into Bennington to be “ethnic” but not too “foreign.” I speak without an accent, but I’ve only been to the United States a few times before. My legs are brown, my eyes look like they could be Asian, the skin on my face could be white. I’m constantly holding my tongue against asking my friends if they think I could be white because maybe I know what they would say. I stay silent and pretend that I don’t know what it is about whiteness that terrifies me.

Unlike some of my friends, I didn’t “become” a “person of color” when I came to Bennington. I grew up splitting holidays between my white family and my Chamorro family, between being told to remember to amen my aunties at fiestas and learning to make apple pie for Christmas. I move among spaces but I can never escape the distorted meanings of my skin and body.

I approached writing this article as a way to begin talking about how people of color claim space within this campus. I spoke to some of my friends about claiming space and about their experiences being mixed race, and how the idea of racially “passing” as white or as non-white depending on the spaces that they enter influences how they navigate Bennington.

I met with Fiona McGovern in Down Commons and she says: “For me, being a woman of color and being mixed race is like a paranoia. I’m always aware of what I’m bringing into a room. I’ve realized that my relationship to my own identity is first being put into a box, being categorized. And then realizing that I’m categorized, sort of like playing a performance of that, or playing some kind of thing that is not authentic to me. And then realizing that I’ve been identified by other people, trying to navigate that identification: claim it while also being myself, and having those things not be separate from each other. My new relationship to my identity is one of self-identification, with the recognition that other people are always going to be doing some kind of identifying.”

While talking about visibility of students of color on campus, we immediately think of the Yellow Room in the Dining Hall and the “international student”/ “student of color” table. Fiona says: “The Yellow Room is a room that I feel like I can go to. That I feel safe in it, because my people are there. And I think that can be really powerful. At the same time, it feels...it can feel weird. I think it comes back to the paranoia thing, and being constantly identified as something.”

Later, I spoke with Sharon Batamuriza about the Yellow Room. Her points mark the Yellow Room as a space of conflict, as a space of both self-identification/belonging and of resisting the act of being identified as “international” or as non-white: “When white people sit together in the dining hall, nobody says anything because they’re seen as friends sitting together. When all the international students sit together in the yellow room, everyone sees us as the ‘international students’, and there are questions about us as a separate community. When we sit together, we’re seen as representing something, and we’re making some kind of statement to the rest of Bennington.”

At Bennington, I became someone who constantly had to justify her presence.

On Guam, I was someone whose presence wasn’t brown enough, wasn’t white enough, wasn’t whole enough.

I’m eight. I’m playing outside with my cousins under the taotaomona tree and they carve their initials into a stone under the tree and tell me that I can’t touch it because my last name isn’t Murphy like theirs is.

(I think about how they’re half Chuukese anyway, but we’re all playing with what it means to be with the white family in the nicest house in the neighborhood. I think about how my mom’s maiden name is Babauta and my dad’s family is Tenorio, but my dad’s mom got pregnant when she was sixteen by this white military guy who left them, so I’m stuck with Barnett and it means nothing and we all know it, it’s like wearing a dead animal skin, like how I hide my whiteness, how I find my browness)

Being half brown and growing up on an island with a military base means understanding whiteness almost before anything else.

Whiteness means being able to go to the good schools on the military base; it means the people living in the houses behind the fences. It means sitting in the back seat of my white grandma’s car (when she remarried a man who worked for the military) and watching as she presented her ID to the man at the checkpoint. It means watching his face when he saw me and my brown cousins in the backseat, understanding that we have access to this space because we are sitting behind whiteness, we are visible because we are with her and because she is.

It means understanding that the people that I love come from places that I can’t reconcile. My maternal grandfather is Chamorro and Filipino. He tells me that his mom died in the war, that he and his siblings were separated and raised by priests and families who took them in; he tells me that once his adoptive father put a leash around his neck and tied him to a tree. He tells me that he wasn’t allowed to speak Chamorro in school. He tells me that he wishes he had taught my mother.

When he dies, I look at the names in his obituary and I’m overwhelmed with not knowing who his father was, with never having been able to meet his mother. I reach back for names that I can’t find.