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ESCHLEMAN: We must validate people's identities always, not just when it is convenient

Column: Shower Thoughts

A more equitable society demands we support everyone's identities, all of the time.  – Photo by Amy Elting / Unsplash

In a past opinion, I talked about the importance of validating people with mixed identities, whether they be biracial or bi-ethnic. For context, I am bi-ethnic. My father is white, and my mother is Hispanic. In this piece, I want to touch upon a behavior I have noticed in others on several occasions. It is a phenomenon in which people will validate people’s racial or ethnic identity to make themselves feel better, or they will do the complete opposite.

At first, this concept may seem very abstract and difficult to demonstrate, but I have experienced concrete examples firsthand. For example, a common thing people will do is claim that they are not racist or intolerant by saying “I have a Black, Asian or Hispanic friend.”

By saying this, in a way, they are validating their friend’s identity by acknowledging that they are “Black, Asian or Hispanic enough” to be considered a part of that community. But they are also validating their friend’s identity because it is convenient for them by making it seem like they have a diverse friend group, and in turn, feel better about themselves.

They can think to themselves, “There is no way I could be racist, intolerant or biased because my friend is from a discriminated community.” This is a common thought process that has been questioned more and more in current times. Just because you are friends with a person from a diverse and or marginalized community does not mean that you are anti-racist.

On the contrary, I found that these same people who would call me their friend and make sarcastic comments about how they could not possibly be racist or intolerant because they were friends with someone like me, would also make comments about how I was not “Hispanic enough” because I was half and was taking Spanish classes in school. This became a heavily contested and controversial topic during the college admissions process for me.

Every time the news broke that I had been accepted into a competitive university, received some sort of scholarship or had been invited to an honors program, I heard, “Well, you only got in because you are Hispanic, and you are only half, so that does not even count.” These kinds of comments were problematic for a number of reasons.

For one, it invalidated my accomplishments by diminishing them to one of the factors of my identity that I have no control over. It seemed as if my peers had decided to disregard all of my other qualities that I had worked hard for. They became blind to my strong GPA, my thoughtful college essays and active extracurricular involvement. All they saw was a Hispanic girl using the “race card,” but I was not even Hispanic enough for their standards.

This introduces the other variable to this equation, the fact that these comments also invalidated my ethnic identity in addition to my accomplishments. Even though I am half and have struggled with speaking Spanish confidently, I feel very connected to my Colombian culture and family, and it has been a profound aspect of my life and upbringing. I was also very honest about this in any college essays I wrote.

But a large part of the argument in favor of affirmative action policies is generational wealth, which is important to touch on. Even though I had received competitive college acceptances, I did not feel financially comfortable enough to commit to them. So when I heard comments that I did not deserve the college acceptances I had received, my immediate instinct was to reply, “I do not have the money to go anyways.”

People have become so transfixed with affirmative action and abolishing it, yet they are other factors that heavily play into college admissions. Did you have the money to pay for an SAT tutor or college counselor? Do you have legacy at competitive universities? Still, affirmative action policies seem to be the most controversial. 

One of the most problematic aspects of this phenomenon for me is the double standard. The same peers who would use my Hispanic identity to make themselves feel anti-racist because they were friends with a Hispanic person would say that I only accomplished things as a result of my background and that I was not even Hispanic enough to be considered for affirmative action policies.

I understand how competitive the college process and work world can be, but this double standard is problematic and hypocritical, and you can observe it not only in the people around you but also with significant global leaders. For example, former President Barack Obama’s racial identity has been heavily contested. Many Americans have claimed that Obama is not black enough.

These same people will turn around and say, “America is not racist. We elected a Black president.” This is a prime example of only validating his Black identity when it is convenient for them. 

The overall point is to validate people’s mixed identities as well as their accomplishments, and do not fluctuate between validation and invalidation when it is convenient for you. It will make you a better friend and ally.

Sara Eschleman is a Rutgers Business School sophomore majoring in marketing and minoring in English. Her column, "Shower Thoughts," typically runs on alternate Thursdays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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