Before transferring to UC Berkeley, I attended a community college in downtown San Diego. Every week, I made my routine 15-minute journey from campus to my mom’s work office. I would put my earbuds in and navigate the streets on autopilot, with both hands in the pockets of my slouchy, oversized hoodie.
The buildings near my college all had metal bars over their windows and storefronts. Their walls were adorned with graffiti and a collage of unidentified splatters and stains. Clusters of tents and sleeping bags hemmed the sidewalks. The occasional gusts of coastal wind stirred up a flurry of tattered food wrappers.
As I neared my mom’s office, I would cross an invisible line and find myself plunged into a world of glinting, sharp-edged skyscrapers. These sidewalks were populated by feet clad in sensible pumps and Oxford shoes. Attached to the feet were white-collar workers carrying overpriced salads back to their offices. I lowered the hood of my sweatshirt. While waiting at the stoplights, I stared intently down at my phone screen to avoid the occasional inquisitive glances.
The glassy silence that reigned in the lobby of the high-rise was occasionally punctuated by the crisp ding of arriving elevators. I noticed that I was the only BIPOC in the building. The front desk attendant gave me a sweeping glance, then nodded curtly in recognition. He knew me because when I first visited, my mom came down and introduced me to him, as if to say: Don’t worry, she’s with me.
In my scuffed Converse and with my bulbous backpack slung over one shoulder, I felt out of place among the sleek, well-manicured, white professionals who gave me the side-eye in the elevator as I ascended to the 14th floor. As I entered the office, the receptionist caught a glimpse of my tan skin and dark hair and suspiciously asked,
“Um, can I help you?” Realizing it was me, her features quickly rearranged themselves into a smile. “Oh, hi, it’s you! Come on in, come on in! How are you? I’ll let your mom know you’re here!”
As I sat in the waiting area, I made sure to perch on the edge of the chair instead of falling all the way back as I would at home. The receptionist made small talk with me and I made a conscious effort not to use slang or say anything that would be deemed too “radical” in a corporate, elitist, white-dominated space. I remained mild, pleasantly neutral and inoffensive. In settings like this, I was treading on eggshells.
On other days, I took the bus from campus to the International Rescue Committee, a refugee resettlement nonprofit that I volunteered at. The IRC office is a small, blocky building whose nondescript hue is too vague and slippery for memory to retain. Nearby was a smattering of local shops with peeling paint and crooked signs.
In this neighborhood, a white person was a rare sight. Inside the office, I was surrounded by people who looked like me. There was the peripheral hum of conversation; different languages intertwined and dissolved into each other as their sounds drifted above the cubicles. Thumbtacked to the wall was a poster that said, “You are safe here,” in 10 languages.
Our society teaches BIPOC to make ourselves smaller and quieter in white-dominated spaces so that white people can feel more comfortable. Here, I was able to exhale; to move through the space unbound by worry over how others might perceive me. I’d engage in casual, impromptu conversations with clients or fellow staff about our shared identities as BIPOC and the social inequalities we experience.
And yet, I sometimes felt like an imposter in this place, too. There was an invisible line between me and many of my colleagues and clients of color who did not have the privilege of accessing white-dominated, elitist spaces such as my mom’s office. Even though I was only a visitor, the fact that I’m related to a white woman who “belongs” to such a space is a privilege in itself.
As a result of flitting between such different worlds, I’ve become malleable, molding myself to fit my environment. I’ve done so much shape-shifting that I don’t know what shape I am anymore. As a biracial person who exists at the intersection of various cultures and identities, sometimes it feels like the purpose of my existence in any setting is to not get caught as an imposter.
Am I truly, wholly present in the spaces I occupy, or am I just playing a role?
During my first year at UC Berkeley, I lived in a co-op for students of color, where I learned that I could identify with a community of BIPOC. But I’ve simultaneously recognized and made peace with the fact that my biracial background and white upbringing can make it tricky to completely align myself with a certain identity or group.
When visiting San Diego last fall break, I once again took the bus from downtown to the IRC office to meet a friend who lived nearby. A disparate range of neighborhoods slid past as I rode across the invisible lines that separate them.
As a biracial, multicultural immigrant, I am always drifting across these lines, not quite belonging on either side, perpetually in motion and gliding over boundaries. I’ve learned to appreciate the fact that my identity defies categorization. I may be a patchwork of various cultures and backgrounds, but I am complete.
Arina Stadnyk writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]