Identity Does Not Define Experiences

Taiyo Scanlon-Kimura, College senior

To the Editors:

My name is Taiyo Scanlon-Kimura. I take he, him and his. I am a mixed-race Japanese American. I am cisgender and heterosexual; I am from Ohio and a strictly middle-class background. (I received a federal Pell Grant one year and not others because my family is right on the cusp of certain federal guidelines.) My father is an immigrant with no college degree, while my mother has a Master’s degree. (You might be surprised at who makes more money.) I am the oldest and only son of four children. I am graduating in May and have gained tremendously from my Oberlin education.

This introduction is meant to highlight both my social privileges and challenges. (These are in fact relative terms, which means some elements of my identity have simultaneously advantaged me and been used to discriminate against me.) Asian Americans (particularly Midwestern ones and Ohio students in general) make up a fraction of Oberlin’s student body, while students of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian descents are disproportionately represented, relative to their national populations, in American college campuses. In this country, people generally refer to me as part Asian, whereas in Japan I am overwhelmingly thought of as White. I will graduate from Oberlin with roughly $35,000 in loans (higher than the national average), yet statistics indicate I am better positioned to find a good job and start a family than my peers on this campus who come from low-income backgrounds.

There are many layers to my life story. I straddle the boundary between majority and minority, sometimes enjoying the benefits of one while enduring the hardships of the other.

In this sense, I am not unique. People have complex backgrounds. Oberlin students, in their passionate support for a cause, tend to overlook the fine print of other people’s narratives. I write this letter in hopes that my peers, in their pursuits to change the world, take a hard look at their judgments of others. Too many of my friends, while seeking to dismantle larger systems of oppression, end up oppressing other individuals in their daily interactions. Just when you think you have someone all figured out, check yourself; you might be missing the most important part of who they are. (They might not feel they can fully express themselves for fear of your judgment.) White people, Black people, Asian people, Latinx people, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities; all people are capable of discriminating against others and vice versa. Ignorance, however, does not discriminate.

What happens when wellintentioned Oberlin students put on blinders to the diverse people around them, when they seek echo chambers rather than spaces to debate, to be uncomfortable, to learn from another person’s lived experiences? They get trapped in their own minds. They start to believe that might is right when it’s behind the “right” values, that they know better. They tell others to educate themselves.

“Educate yourself.” I heard this phrase a lot regarding Mudd being lit up blue for Autism Acceptance Week. People I see every day were clamoring for the truth behind Autism Speaks to be shouted from the heavens, that true supporters of autism knew better about such falsities. I say to those people: Did you attend any events at Autism Acceptance Week, which was primarily organized by a senior who identifies as high on the autism spectrum? Because I went to a screening last week with two other people in the audience. (One left halfway through the film.) Dye Lecture Hall was overflowing with people for Christina Hoff Sommers (in large part because of the controversy whipped up prior to her arrival), yet it was virtually empty for the screening of Adam. That’s a damn shame.

Are our communities so insular and intentional that they leave others in the dust? By definition, don’t communities include certain people and exclude others? This isn’t inherently a bad thing; those who are oppressed on the common factors of race, sexual orientation and class should have spaces they can call their own, spaces that are safe. But not every space can be, should be or ever will be a safe space. If you’re always in a safe space, you cannot challenge the oppressive paradigms that create the need for that safe space. In addition, how can you support others who battle discrimination if you’re always in your safe space?

Successful agents of change build bridges and personally connect with other people. You won’t accomplish that by telling me what to think, nor the other way around. I won’t accomplish that by rejecting your opinions out of hand. We should always ask ourselves, “Is this a lecture or a conversation? Can we hear each other and listen?”

Ask yourself, “Why do I advocate? Because I believe I’m right? Why do they advocate? Because they believe they’re right? What if neither of us are wrong?” When you start to think outside the standard checkboxes of identity, when you stop thinking in absolute terms, when you actively shatter your assumptions about other people, you create bonds of deeper understanding, avenues of communication that realize social progress. Advocacy is so much more effective if you understand who your audience is and how they receive you. In short, you have to listen before you speak.

If you want to change the world, you first need to know how to change one person’s mind.

– Taiyo Scanlon-Kimura

College senior