Identifying discrimination part III: Celebrating identity

In an effort to better understand the challenges facing some minority students at University of Oregon, the Emerald interviewed students of color and faculty who have devoted their careers to addressing diversity and inclusion. Some students have used their experiences to reflect on their own biases and have taken steps to change their own behavior. Some students on campus have challenged their instructors on issues around race. This is the third part of a series coming out this week examining the role of discrimination at UO.

Around campus, Abdullah Alshabanah hears different comments. Some call him the “Muslim guy” because of his religion. Some days he’ll hear “terrorist” because of his skin color. When those stereotypes aren’t echoing in his ears, someone may refer to him as “the disabled guy,” because his medical condition requires the use of a walker on campus.

He wishes he didn’t have those imposed identities because the assumptions about him are not who he is.

UO student Abdullah Alshabanah (Aaron Nelson/Emerald)

“I am not disabled. I just do a thing different than the way someone else does it. It’s just a misunderstanding of the word or the concept,” he said. “When people believe these stereotypes, they just judge and discriminate.”

If he were to describe himself, he’d say he’s optimistic and happy.

Alshabanah was born in Saudi Arabia, and, since birth, his friends and family have encouraged him to pursue his goals, something he said is defining of who he is.

Some minority students at UO say their values and traditions, not the stereotypes, have played a huge part in shaping them. They also emphasized that their identity is more complex than a single label.

Of the 462 ASUO-recognized student groups at UO, 36 are characterized as cultural or multicultural. These include the Black Student Union, AccesABILITY Student Union, Southeast Asian Student Alliance or the Muslim Student Association.

Not only do the 36 cultural groups represent UO students’ self-expression, but all 462 represent how they identify in unique ways, including their intersectional identities. This combines, for example, a faith in Hinduism, an interest in science and a passion to play sports.

These organizations represent a way in which students can holistically reflect their interests and beliefs. Although many students connect with individual parts of their cultural identity, some can feel misrepresented by stereotypes defining who they are.

For Alshabanah, he identifies in one way, and that’s as himself.

“If it’s up to me, I’m just Abdullah,” he said.

When he came to UO at 18, he wondered if he fit in and whether people accepted him for who he is.

“I was wondering, ‘Do I really belong to this community?’ ” Alshabanah asked. “The answer is yes because I found so many people who care about me and want me to be here.”

For some students like Alshabanah, finding community on campus doesn’t happen right away.

Aleiya Evison, a senior at UO, hears some students make off-hand remarks such as “You don’t seem like a real Black person,” “You don’t talk like a black person” or “You are the whitest black person I’ve ever met.” She says students of color hear comments like these every day — and they take a toll.

“I don’t think anyone should be determining what it means to be Black except for people that are black,” Evison said.

UO student Aleiya Evison (Aaron Nelson/Emerald)

Evison said the media often portray Black women as angry and unintellectual. That is not who she is, she said.

“I love to read, I love to learn new things and I am constantly trying to challenge myself to learn about the world and understand my place in it,” Evison said. “I think that it’s ridiculous to assume an entire race of people is not intelligent.”

To move beyond these stereotypes, she hopes that people can look at her and other students of color with an open mind, rather than a fixed assumption of who someone should be.

“Constantly having to advocate for your own identity against this idea of what people have been told you are supposed to be like,” Evison said, “it can be very exhausting.”

Discrimination can take a toll, but the offenses push Evison to solidify her self-identity and be comfortable with who she is.

“I am proud of the fact that I am starting to feel more empowered of who I am regardless of what the news says Black women should or shouldn’t be,” Evison said.

Moving from Boulder, Colorado, to Eugene four years ago, Evison said she went from one mostly white city to another. She said she was never surrounded by people who look like her or understand the way she feels. But in ethnic studies classrooms at UO, Evison said she has an opportunity to understand how people from other cultures express themselves, an opportunity she said is invaluable to understanding another perspective.

Psychology professor Sara Hodges, who researches how people perceive different points of view, said that it can be difficult for some to reconcile that people do not fit overarching stereotypes.

But Hodges said that learning about how individuals celebrate and express themselves can create community.

“Often what we see when other cultures display and celebrate their cultures, even though we see it is different, we can often connect that it is a way we can connect with our own culture,” she said.

UO student Oscar Becerra and his family moved to Oregon from Mexico when he was 1 and brought what he called his traditional Mexican values. He emphasized how familial support was paramount in his upbringing. That continues today even in small acts, including his mom sending him back to UO with homemade rice.

“When she sends it back home with me, she’s supporting me,” he said. “When I have class and don’t have time to make all these meals, I have one of her preset meals [and] it’s like she’s there.”

Becerra embraces the culture he grew up with, but since moving to the U.S., the friends he has made and the experiences he’s had have shaped him as well.

“My identity is not restricted to Mexican culture or American culture. There are bits and pieces that I pull from both cultures that make up who I am,” he said. “That’s one of the beautiful things about the U.S. You can have a multicultural identity.”

Some students struggle to express their complex identities in a community that can be unaccepting of their differences, but from someone who has lived among two cultures, Becerra offered a simple solution.

“It’s a matter of both people being humble and open,” he said. “And just being a little bit patient and tolerant.”

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Braedon Kwiecien

Braedon Kwiecien