November 29, 2018

GUEST ROOM | 50 Feet Away

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As I walked down the driveway to my townhouse in Collegetown on a Saturday, I passed two men and two women, all Cornell students. They were all intoxicated, stumbling and laughing. The men attempted to get my attention, but I ignored them and continued walking. After my lack of response, one of them asked me, “Hey are you Asian? We always see Asian girls coming in and out of your house. Do you live in an Asian whorehouse?” I walked into my house and closed my door, remaining silent. Through the peephole, I saw them enter the unit across from mine, less than fifty feet away.

Over the past year, I have served as the vice president of citizenship, diversity and inclusion for Panhellenic Council. I am also the Vice President of the Cornell Democrats, and I am an American studies and Spanish double major. I am dedicated to diversity and inclusion — I study it from an academic perspective and invest my time in it outside of the classroom. But in a less than two-minute interaction Saturday night, this did not matter. I was scared and alone, and I was unable to stand up for myself.

While it was too dark to see exactly who these men were, I can only assume they are my neighbors. How else would they know that both of my housemates are Chinese? Did they realize in our short interaction that I am mixed race, half Asian and half white, or had they noticed it over the past months? The answer is clear. My neighbors took notice of mine and my housemates’ race, and due to intoxication, a lack of a mental filter or some combination of the two, they made a disgusting, hateful comment based both on our gender and race.

I consider myself to be an optimistic person. In my American studies classes, I learn about the continual impacts of coloniality and oppression on our society, but I leave them each day feeling invigorated and excited to make a change. I see the hate that has overwhelmed our country and firmly believe that we still have the power to make something better of it. However, in less than two minutes, the comments that these men made shattered me. I know that I am stronger than their hateful words. I know that when they go low, we are supposed to go high. I know that I should not let them affect how I perceive myself or the world. Yet, I cannot adequately express how overwhelmingly and indescribably painful it is to feel that at a school that I do not belong at a school that I love.

There is so much that I wish I could have said to these men. I would like to tell them that every time I walk past their house to mine, I hope that they are away at their sports practice. I would like to tell them that they have destroyed my sense of safety in my own home and that I am unsure I will ever regain it. I would like to tell them that being mixed-race Asian-American is something I am proud of, but they have made me feel scared because of it.

More importantly, I would tell them all the things about me they do not know. They don’t know that I ran my first marathon six weeks ago. They don’t know that my older sister is my best friend. They don’t know I want to be a teacher after graduation. They did not pause to consider these things about me — they did not even know my name. All that mattered to them was that I am Asian, I was alone, and I was an easy target.

It is scary to think that this experience could have been so much worse. Had one of my housemates been in my place, or had the two women not been present, I do not know if the situation would have been the same. I am fortunate that they did not assault me physically or sexually, and women and minorities are often targets of incidents much worse than mine. While I know how lucky I am, I still believe that what happened to me mattered. Actions of race-based and gender-based hate do not exist in a vacuum; they reflect a culture where hate is normalized, and no one speaks out against it.

I am hesitant to label the men who said this to me as “racists” or “sexists.” I am sure that many people would say that my neighbors are good people, and my neighbors likely have friends and family who have seen their kindness, compassion and warmth. I do not believe that any person is completely evil, and I do not think these men are either. The issue is that racism and sexism are ripe amongst the people we find closest to us — our friends, loved ones and even neighbors.

I do not have a solution to what happened to me. Most likely, my neighbors will go unpunished. For the next year, I will walk past their house and remember what they said, hopeful that it will not happen again but unable to be sure that it will not. I would like to say that I know that it will get easier and that I will move on. Hopefully, I will. But for now, I am devastated.

Maya Cutforth is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Guest Room runs periodically. Comments may be sent to [email protected]