But I Am Yellow…

Sometimes I want to be black. Sometimes I want to be white. Unfortunately, I can’t be either because I am yellow.

I wasn’t always yellow, though. No one called me yellow when I was in China, probably because everybody around me was yellow, too – everybody except those naughty boys who spent so much time running around the school yard that their skin became as dark as coal, or those pretty girls who wore so much make-up and lotion every day that their skin turned as fair as snow.

But nobody called them by colors, either. Colors are arbitrary categories put along a continuous spectrum. You can’t categorize people arbitrarily, so you can’t call people by colors.

Or maybe you can. At least that was what I learned when I first arrived in America. People here are known by colors. There are black people. There are white people. There are brown people. I was eager to figure out what my color was, because I was desperate to become part of the American culture. So I asked around and people told me, “You’re yellow.” But “wait,” they added, “you can’t use that term. It’s racist.”

I was confused. Why am I “yellow,” and why is calling somebody yellow racist? What does racist even mean?

Yellow people have yellow skin, but my skin is fairer than many white people’s (at least fairer than those with fake tans). Yellow people have slanted eyes, but I think my eyes are quite horizontal. My eyes are big, watery and pretty.

Yellow people eat General Tso’s Chicken and fortune cookies, but I didn’t even know what those things were until I came here. Yellow people confuse ‘l’ and ‘r’ when they talk. But … l l l l l … r r r r r … see! I can tell the difference. I looked at myself in the mirror and couldn’t find a single part of my body that was uniquely yellow. (Don’t even try to make that size joke. Don’t.) Maybe it is everything about me put together that makes me yel­low. But if it’s indeed everything about me, how could it all be summarized, represented and conveyed by a single word?

Slowly, I figured things out. It doesn’t matter what my color is. The whole color thing is just an American way to promote racial diversity, and racial diversity is a big deal in America.

If you are a company, school or organization that wants to succeed in America, you’d better make sure the photo banner on your website has a white person, a black person, a brown person and a yellow person standing next to each other and smiling happily.

If you have to use Photoshop, use it, or else people may start calling you racist. You certainly do not want to be called a racist in America.

Suddenly, I saw the genius in calling people by colors. Colors are great for categorizing people, precisely because colors are arbitrary. They allow you to group people in any way you like so that you can say each group is to­tally different from another while all the members in the same group are extremely alike. After that, all you need to do is pick one member out of each group and put them together. Ta-dah! You now have diversity.

With a simple trick, you managed to manufacture – no, fabricate – diversity out of a single species whose members are all different from, or similar to, one another.

It’s easy. It’s smart. It’s convenient. It’s American. So I learned.

Nowadays I can identity what somebody’s color is with a single glance. He is black. She is brown. He is yellow. She is white. I have heard there are also red people, but I have yet to meet one. That must be a rare color to have on your skin. I feel like a psychic, seeing who people are, or what they are, with a single glance. But I am still baf­fled by one little thing, though: I don’t see black people very often.

I am baffled because according to the U.S. Census Bu­reau, the American population was made up of 12.6 per­cent black people in 2010. However, in 2010, I went to a couple of bars along the Jersey shore and I didn’t see the 12.6 percent there.

I also attended a number of American house parties that year and didn’t see the 12.6 percent there either. I tried to find them in restaurants I went to, but nope, the 12.6 percent were not there either. Were they in Colgate classrooms?

But I remember taking so many classes at Colgate where not a single person in the class was black.

In 2010, I was fortunate enough to work with a psy­chology professor at Colgate. He maintained a face data­base of more than 100 Colgate students. At that time, he was working on a project that aimed to study how people perceive faces of different racial groups, and I was put in charge of picking faces out of the database to create ex­periment stimuli. But I failed. I couldn’t find enough black faces. How many did I need? Six.

I needed six black faces, but I couldn’t find them out of a database with more than 100 Colgate students.

But I know that the 12.6 percent statis­tic is not a lie. Those black people are out there. Sometimes, they are nowhere. Other times, they are everywhere.

Segregation. I guess that’s the word people use to de­scribe this phenomenon. But the segregation between white and black Americans seems so much wider and deep­er than that between all other racial groups. It’s social, it’s economic, it’s cultural, it’s educational it’s historical and people know this.

Every time race is talked about in America, it’s almost always an issue of black versus white. That’s why I some­times want to be black or white just to know what it is like to be part of a conflict, to know what it feels like to be part of a problem. Only if the problem were as black and white as it seems.

That was partly the reason why when the recent discus­sion about race first broke out on campus, I was nonplussed. Yes, Greek societies may indeed lack the kind of racial diver­sity that many people are hoping for, but how are they dif­ferent from the rest of Colgate’s campus? More importantly, how is Colgate different from the rest of America?

And then the discussion became heated. Response ar­ticles were written. Responses to response articles were published. “Racist” comments were posted online. (I still don’t fully understand that term). Those comments were soon removed, as if they never happened.

It was then that I started looking around me. I am a student at Colgate University, one of the most selective liberal arts colleges in America, whose campus is voted the most beautiful in the country and whose graduates make more money than even some of the Ivy League graduates. Why shouldn’t Colgate be different from the rest of America?

Like so many racial problems in America, maybe this one will eventually boil down to a black versus white problem.

If so, maybe we should focus specifically on the rela­tionship between black students and white students on campus. But even that would lead nowhere.

The more we think in racial terms, the more we are admitting that one racial group is fundamentally differ­ent from another. The more we think in racial terms, the more likely we will become trapped in the racial dead­lock America has been experiencing since, well, a long time ago.

What we should be thinking about is the fact that one group of students on campus seems to be much happier and satisfied with their Colgate life than another. It just so happens that one of the groups is being called black and the other, white. But what would I know? I am yellow after all. Whatever that means.

Contact Zachary Zhao at [email protected].