“What are you?” people would ask me. And when I was too young to answer, they would ask, “What is he?” and await my parents’ reply.
They meant to ask what I’m mixed with, where I come from, or who my ancestors are. But what they said was, “What are you?”
Growing up, I never understood this question. My mother is black. My neighborhood is black. Most of my friends in school were black—and so, I thought, was I. My skin is dark. I look good in a dashiki, and I can pick my hair out into a fairly convincing ‘fro.
I used to look into a mirror and see blackness reflected back at me. But over time, as the refrain “What are you?” seeped into my head, my vision slipped out of my control. “What am I?” I’d ask. But now the mirror refused to answer. I saw only fragments of blackness diluted by the traces of my white and Indian ancestors: curls too loose, nose too pointy, skin too pale. I was the same me, looking into the same mirror, but suddenly, somehow, I was not nearly as black as I had once imagined myself to be. I learned never to trust my eyes to tell me who I am.
My eyes look through a society not made to see me. The way we talk about race in the United States is rooted in the old idea that one drop of black blood makes you African-American. More recently, people have taken to gatekeeping claims to real blackness. When they question the completeness of mine, I do not have the words to answer.
During the Spanish colonization of the Americas, an elaborate caste system detailed every kind of racial mixture imaginable and created a robust vocabulary of race. But in the United States, the legacy of the one-drop rule limits our language. I am an untidy mixture of black, white, and East Indian, and there is no one census box that my biology fits into.
People feel uncomfortable when they are unable to package me into a box they recognize. For some, encountering me is like coming across an eighth color in a rainbow. Do you ram it into Roy G. Biv, or do you rework your worldview to allow for that extra shade? I think that’s why I’m always being asked what I am.
When I became a Columbia student, I was taught another way in which my race could come across as threatening. Whether seen as black or as brown, I am a visibly non-white student at a predominantly white university. This means having to explain to white people that I didn’t just get into Columbia because I’m black, and having to explain to black people that I didn’t become white when I started going here. And it means that only about once a semester do I study someone who actually looks like me in a Core Curriculum class.
It also means that four times in my four years at Columbia, I have been stopped and asked to identify myself to Public Safety officers who did not believe I was a student.
I am once again caught between two identities: my blackness and my Columbia-ness. Just as the United States’ one-drop rule foreclosed the development of language around racial mixture, my experiences at this school have shown me that many do not have the vocabulary to allow for the possibility that I may be both black and a Columbia student.
As a result of this second sort of ambiguous identity, I have been confronted with a new question. “What are you?” people still ask me. But now, I am also told, “Show me your ID.”
These two statements are startlingly similar in their laziness. Both ask me to prove that I belong within a category where my legitimacy is uncertain—Is he really black? Is he really a student here? Both don’t say what they mean. “What are you?” isn’t asking “Are you a human, or are you an alien, or are you a potato?” It asks “What is your race?” “Show me your identity,” doesn’t request that I explain my thesis or talk about my latest Spectator article or advertise my next dance performance. It asks that I show my Columbia University ID card, to prove, through a piece of plastic, the legitimacy of my identity as a Columbia student.
Most of the other kids back home weren’t mixed race. They didn’t get asked what they were. Here in college, most kids were seemingly not asked to show their IDs as much as I was. When I looked in the mirror on the closet door of my dorm room, I found that I was too mixed to be black and too black to be a Columbia student.
Passing through the front gates of Barnard College on the night of Thursday, April 11, I heard someone behind me shouting “Hello, sir! Hello sir!” over and over again. I assumed that, for the fourth time in my years at Columbia, I was being ordered to present my plastic to the identity police.
Later, the Public Safety officers would tell me that it is school policy to check the IDs of people entering the Barnard gate after 11 p.m., but at the time, although I had heard of this policy, I had never seen it enforced. In the previous instances in which I was asked to show my ID at Barnard, I had not entered through the gate, and the request to see my ID had not been with regard to any school policy. All I knew with any certainty was that I had both heard of and personally experienced biased enforcement of random ID checks at Barnard and Columbia. At that moment, as I continued to walk away from the man shouting “Sir?” behind me, I decided that for the first time in my life, I would not answer the question.
What happened next has become the subject of national media attention. When I refused to show my ID, six Public Safety officers surrounded me, and two of them pinned me against a countertop, saying that they wouldn’t release me until I agreed to go outside with them. I continued to assert what I felt was my right as a student to be in an open campus building. At some time during the course of my interaction with them, I caught sight of a phone camera, and I felt a sense of security knowing that whatever happened, my story would be told. When they finally took their hands off of my body, I showed them my card. They took it from me. I was told that my card, like me, would have to be verified.
Starting that same night, three videos were released from two different angles that show how I was physically harassed by these officers. While I am neither blatantly black nor clearly a Columbia student, I thought that at least these videos would not be ambiguous. I was wrong. The Barnard College administration refused to use words like racial profiling or even assault until Sunday night, nearly three days after everything had happened, because—as they said at a listening session held that Friday—they didn’t have all of the facts. They had to further investigate to verify what they saw in the video, just like Public Safety had to verify my ID.
One Columbia professor described the incident as being like an inkblot test in which psychological subjects look at the same patterns of blobs and see radically different things. What some saw as civil disobedience others saw as uncivilized behavior.
There are those who look at the videos and see “Racism on Our Campus,” as it was described in the title of a joint statement sent that Friday by the deans of Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the School of General Studies. Others see a “Recent campus incident,” as Barnard President Sian Beilock’s email, sent the same day, was called.
Some look at me and see a Columbia College senior, a student dancer, and a student journalist. Others see me as the subject of a Public Safety Clery Crime Alert: black male, 20 to 25 years old, with brown hair, wearing a brown jacket, blue shirt, and dark jeans. He was seen walking into Barnard’s campus.
Because I didn’t immediately show my ID that night, widespread conversations about race and racial profiling at this university have reemerged. I am hopeful that Public Safety officers and University administrators will change how they interact with us as students—and as people more generally.
There seems to be less hope in the possibility that one day my race, my relation to this school, and the videos that document my attempt to advocate for both will ever be anything but ambiguous. I wonder whether there will ever come a time when I am only ink: bold lines and plain shapes, an identity without blots.
Enjoy leafing through our tenth issue!