October 22, 2012

Our Redefinition: Be Who, Not What, You Are

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If you had to define yourself using one word what word would you choose? Would it be clever, funny, handsome or beautiful? Those are a few words that the average person would love to have define them. Unfortunately, the words that end up defining us are black, white, Asian or Hispanic. I refuse to be defined by WHAT I am rather than WHO I am. This stream of thought was brought along by a recent conversation I had with a fellow Cornellian. I forget exactly what we were talking about but anything that was said was overshadowed when he stated, “Well, I mean, you’re not that black.” Once that was said I knew what my next article was going to be about.

My question to anybody reading this article is what does it really mean to be black? For example, to be black simply means that one is of African ancestry. Outside of those simple bounds of being of a certain ancestry one’s race should naturally cease to define us. However, as I have experienced first-hand the word “black” has sought to define my behavior in everything I do. It has at one point in my life defined how I walked, how I talked and how I treated others. However, since coming to college I have refused to allow myself to be controlled by this word any longer. To allow yourself to be defined by your race is to set limitations upon your life.

The worst thing about stereotypes brought about by race is not the negative expectations they bring along. The worst thing about them is the tendency they have to coerce people into believing in them. If you believe in a stereotype that characterizes your own race you will soon find yourself behaving in that manner. Stereotypes keep us from acting the way we want, and manipulate us into acting the way we feel we have to. I can recall a time when I was in elementary school raising my hand to answer as many questions as I could in class. After class I was told by a peer that I needed to stop “acting so white.” For the rest of the school year I answered questions in class only when I had to. I interpreted his comment to mean that I would no longer be considered cool if I did not stop “acting white.” If other students are being affected in ways such as this, then stereotypes are indeed a terrible thing.

Another terrible thing is what “being black” seems to mean today. It could mean to be of strong character, to be resilient or to be brave. However, it seems to stand for a person that speaks improper English, doesn’t try in school and hangs his / her future upon dreams for a career in entertainment or professional sports. If this is what it means to be black then I would agree that I “am not that black.” This realization leads me to an inevitable question. What is the remedy for this quandary?

The answer raises two possible solutions, either we can stand together and refuse to be defined by our race or we can attempt to change stereotypes themselves. Why limit ourselves to one solution when we can attempt to do both? Refusing to be defined by your race should be easy. One must simply be him or herself. Be who you want to be and everything else will come easily. Far too often we allow ourselves to change our behavior just to be considered cool by our peers; that must stop. In order to change the stereotypes we must establish better role models. The only way to ensure that we will have better role models is to become the role models ourselves.

As we begin this journey to redefine who we are, consider what you think is “cool.” Success is cool, being smart is cool, ignorance is not. If you fall into the trap of racial definition and despise the person you have become make sure you remember, it’s not me, it’s you.

Deon Thomas is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at dthomas@cornellsun.com. It’s Not Me, It’s You appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Deon Thomas

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