Kenya Wright, ’18,
College of Arts and Science, VUcept Executive Board
I am a Black Hispanic. That is who I am, who I’ve always been, and who I’ll always be. My culture is a mixture infused with Latino and Caribbean elements. Growing up, my home was filled with a tangle of accents and languages, an assortment of music and dance styles, and an equally diverse and flavorful menu. But as an individual, my identity is much more. Dynamic and intersectional are words that come to mind, but neither could ever fully describe who I am.
When I arrived at Vanderbilt, it seemed many people saw a racial identity before they saw anything else about me. My family’s rich history and unique culture were erased, so I could be checked off as “Black.” Growing up in an Hispanic and Caribbean home, there are huge cultural differences between me and my Vandy friends from culturally American homes, even if our skin colors are the same. My brown skin and kinky hair disqualify me from fitting the stereotypical image of a Latina woman with long dark hair and olive skin – and because I am the darkest of my Hispanic friends, no one assumes I am Hispanic, and rarely do they think to ask or to look beyond my outwardly “African American” appearance. This left me at times feeling isolated and without a place at Vanderbilt.
If I could go back, I would tell first-year me to fearlessly embrace all pieces of my identity, especially during a time of change and growth like the first year of college. I would tell my first-year self to commit unwaveringly to individuality and to be unafraid to correct people who need to be corrected, to educate people who need to educated, and stand up to people who are disrespectful.
I would tell many people I met during my first year, friends and strangers included, to avoid assumptions about people’s background, culture, and interests. In a place like Vanderbilt, assumptions are often wrong, stereotypical, marginalizing and hurtful.
I would also assure myself that I would find communities at Vanderbilt willing to embrace my culture, heritage and perspectives, irrespective of what I look like, as well as people who understand that no single trait or identity can define me. But, also that finding my place at Vanderbilt would take more than joining groups – it would take a journey of persistence and patience, reflection and introspection, of finding and following my interests and passions. As it turned out, having people challenge my identity helped me explore and understand who I wanted to be.
As a first year, pressured by a desire to get past the awkwardness and fit in, it can be easy to accept labels that are given to you and assimilate to behaviors that are expected of you like hanging out with people who look like you or joining organizations for people of your background. But, I urge you to take risks – get to know people who are different from yourself, physically, religiously, ethnically and ideologically. Challenge others’ assumptions and advocate for your identity, whatever it may be.