Breaking Out Of The Crayola Box
By Eunice Park
I used to think that defining skin color was as easy as sifting through a wrinkled box of Crayola crayons. I would search persistently for a shade that matched the skin tone of my arm but never quite find it. I did find a color called "flesh," this peachy-beige tone that looked like overcooked oatmeal, but I hesitated because no one I knew had flesh that was that anemic-looking. So all the people in my coloring books remained colorless and fleshless, only black lines on grainy grey paper.

Later on I discovered that I was a "person of color," and because of my Asian-American background, I was supposed to color myself yellow. I wasn't called a "person of color" again until orientation, when the label was bestowed on all minority students in the freshman class. I say the word "bestowed" because apparently the term "people of color" here is an innocuous, politically benevolent way of describing minorities.

So, what exactly is a "person of color"? My arm is the same tanned shade as my roommate's, but I have color and she doesn't. She is colorless because of her last name and where her parents came from, or perhaps more accurately, when her ancestors first came to the U.S. I can detect no hint of yellow pigmentation in my skin, although I admit that yellow doesn't look good on me. Maybe this yellow tone is an aura that I can't identify. After all, others can immediately tell when you've visited a garlic-infested Italian restaurant, just by sniffing. You can't, because you've been immersed in the pungency, and I'm always swimming in my yellowness.

But the shade of color, whether it be yellow, red, brown, or black, doesn't matter once you've crossed an indiscernible line. There seem to be various criteria for being categorized as a "person of color," especially at Amherst. It usually means that one's last name is a little different, often a little more difficult to pronounce. It sometimes means that one or one's parents are the first to set foot in this country. It often means that one speaks another language at home. It means that one takes part in another reality outside of the "all-American" reality, a separate culture with its own mannerisms, values, and words, even if the language is still English.

But doesn't labeling minority students as "people of color" emphasize surface racism, no matter how discreet? By calling me a "student of color," others are encouraged to remember that I am different, discrete from the majority, because of my supposed difference in skin tone. One begins to analyze only my physical features: my skin, my smaller, slanted eyes, lack of nose bridge, and straight dark hair. By calling me a "person of color," one recognizes only the most obvious, superficial differences. One ignores the deeper issues of what it means to be a minority, the submerged layers of varying cultures and viewpoints.

When I first saw the viewbook of Amherst, I was struck first by its idyllic, postcard-perfect beauty, and then by the hordes of beaming students with a fair number of minority students sprinkled among the general Caucasian majority. Everyone had toothpaste commercial-worthy smiles pasted on their faces and seemed genuinely happy to be here. I was impressed. How could a semi-rural area of Massachusetts hold a pocket of such diversity amidst its mostly Caucasian population?

It seems that Amherst is trying to flee the ghost of its primarily Caucasian, male-dominated, elitist past, and embrace the new catchword of college admissions: "diversity." One hears it everywhere, and it seems that most colleges are seeking to grasp this elusive concept. As colleges recruit athletes, so too are minority students recruited, to fill vague quotas of certain minorities. And how are these quotas determined? One may deny that such quotas exist, but inarguably, on most college campuses, there is a set number of each minority that is "desired." Race is one of those prickly topics that most like to avoid, but it does come into play, no matter how stealthily and quietly it creeps in. Who decides in the admissions office that there are "enough" Asians at Amherst, or "enough" Hispanics, or "enough" African-Americans? Admission to Amherst is need-blind, but it is certainly not race-blind.

I am not disparaging Amherst's efforts to diversify itself; I appreciate and applaud them. The country's leading liberal arts college is one of the most suitable places to to reflect the changing face of America and assemble the best features of that face. It has become fashionable and politically correct to have a diverse campus, supposedly representative of America's increasingly cosmopolitan and global nature. At the risk of sounding trite, I believe that Amherst should mirror America's future.

But from the beginning of orientation, the freshmen were pounded on the head repeatedly with the concept of "diversity." Dean Couvares' address started with the listing of statistics that described our class, the list of "most" African-American students, "most" Asian-Americans students, "most" Hispanic students, and so on. There was a diversity panel and diversity luncheon and a mind-numbing array of events held by the various "affinity groups." Amidst all the ruckus of "awareness" raised by the well-meaning faculty, how did the focus of this diversity movement feel? How did the so-called "students of color" feel?

I can only speak for myself in saying that I thought the issue of diversity was over-emphasized, often to the point where many became indifferent to it. I'm sure there were many whose interests were piqued, whose eyes were opened, but I know there were still many more who thought, "We know that we're a diverse class. So why don't they shut up about it?"

Someone cautioned that parading diversity is a double-edged sword: too little and it remains buried, too much and it becomes a tired, bloated fish that everyone ignores after a while. I say that the issue should be raised but only enough that we, as incoming freshmen, could appreciate it. I realize that the admissions people would like to crow to us about the successes of their efforts, but let them crow to visitors and tour groups. We already know about it and Amherst's efforts at diversification; indeed, that's the reason or part of the reason why many of us came here.

As a parting note, for anyone who uses the term "people of color," try to eradicate it from the lexicon of supposedly politically correct words. We all have color. We all have melanin, which gives us our respective colors. No one is completely colorless, not even an albino. Let's recognize our differences, but not only those based on skin tone. After all, a few minutes in the tanning salon can quickly change that. Better yet, don't seek to define skin color at all, at least within the confines of a Crayola box.

Eunice Park is a member of the Class of 2004.

Issue 02, Submitted 2000-09-13 15:57:17