When I go home, my mom will tease me about my “new Columbia clothes.” My new jeans will be met with suggestions that I “buy some pants that actually fit” before I am nearly force-fed plates of food while my grandma mumbles under her breath about how “no como bien en la escuela.”
When I come back to Columbia, I will remember the time a friend recounted overhearing a Columbia student wax poetic about their love for the “poverty aesthetic.” I will remember how the rage rose in me, and how all at once an immense sadness silenced me. I will remember how for my first few weeks at Columbia, I checked my clothes for signs of imperfection constantly, always worried that some loose string or a faded sweater would indicate to my new classmates that I was not like them. I will return to a room full of classmates who charged their new Urban Outfitters T-shirt to their mom’s credit card. I will remember that words like “street” and “urban” will only ever be trendy for the people farthest removed from those realities.
When I go home, I will revert back to my default Spanglish. My cousins and I will shriek and gasp over la chisme de la familia, our halfway English always cradling the subtle accents our halfway Spanish leaves smeared on our tongues. I will still be teased for being the gringa of the family, my Spanish always only half-full in favor of my more economical English. With my full English always putting me in the favor of high school teachers who themselves were out of touch with the community they taught in, it is no wonder I am one of the few lucky enough to make it out.
When I come back, this fraction of an accent will expose me. “No, I figured you weren’t white. You definitely sound Mexican!” My pale skin will shrug around my shoulders. I will remember to take note of the ways my Hispanic peers have edited their own language. I will question why, somehow, nearly every one of those peers happens to be as white-passing as I am. I will remember that for Columbia, maybe a slight accent is enough diversity. I will remember that for Columbia, maybe diversity is more about loopholes than commitments.
When I go home, I will be reminded of all the ways that I am exactly the kind of diversity Columbia seeks out. Just underrepresented enough, but “passing” in every context. Malleable enough to mirror the ingroup when necessary, I am the safest way to boast a glossy percentage of the student body that will, supposedly, demonstrate just how progressive the Ivy League has become.
Because for me, the mannerisms that I adopt like a costume are not just about aesthetic. This costume has become a means of sanity at this school. When I go home, I will take it all off, and I will remind myself that I will not have to act forever. Hopefully.
But for the rest of the year, I will be here. I will listen to my peers struggle with food insecurity regardless of the numbers posted on Columbia’s admissions website. I will be left to question why diversity on this campus still looks so damn white. I will be forced into discussions about my own humanity with people who think the struggles of poverty can be reduced to trends.
And I will keep acting. I will adjust my Columbia baseball cap, pull up my mom jeans, and grumble out something about dichotomies in class. I will shake hands with administrators who will roll their eyes when nudged about class issues on campus. Maybe I’ll even try Sweetgreen. Maybe.
Alexa Roman is a sophomore in Columbia College studying neuroscience and behavior. She might make fun of you for eating at Sweetgreen. Reach out to her if you’ve got good chisme. You’re Not Middle Class runs every alternate Monday.
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