Let’s Talk Story: What’s in a name?

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Brought to you by Sara Hayden of the Silk Knots Project.

What’s in a name? A whole lot of difference. Colorado State University’s Jaysun Usher, a fourth year student studying Sociology, and a second year student find there’s a discrepancy between how they’re seen on paper and in the real world.

Full transcript below.

Jaysun Usher: “How has your race, culture, gender, sexuality, etc. affected your experience? Has it changed over time? If so, how?” Experience of what?

Anonymous: Life.

Jaysun: Life? Okay.

Anonymous: Life, liberty. The pursuit of happiness.

Jaysun: I think for me, a little bit of my race has been kind of effective of my life, but it’s never been as salient as a lot of other identities that I hold because I’ve only had one, maybe two experiences of my last name being “Zamora” has really kind of affected how I’ve been treated.

One experience I definitely remember was I was signing up for classes in high school and the way we did it was just kind of filled out check boxes on a thing, this is the classes you wanna take, and then we submit it to the counselor. I’d written on there that I really interested in taking advanced technology — so like computer programming and stuff like that — but then I got my schedule back and they put me in agricultural mechanics, so the welding and farming course.

That was the one class I went into and I looked around and was like, “Wait…There’s a lot of dudes in here, and they’re all very brown. I wonder why I’m here?” And it was just very obvious to me that what I’d written down wasn’t even read. It was very much assumed that this would be the class I would be interested in. Even then I did absolutely nothing in that class I got 100%. Like, literally I did not touch a single tool in that shop, and still got 100% out of it. So not only does it say something about the class itself but how they expect people to perform in that class.

Anonymous: I think I had kind of like a similar experience, like in my race I identify as Indian Asian. A lot of people when I started going to school in the United States just kind of expected me to be really smart and know everything that was happening.

I remember when I was in AP Computer Science and much like the class you were in I did not program a single thing. I still got a B in that class. And everyone just would come to me and be like, “Oh, could you help me?” And I’d be like, “I have no idea what I’m doing. Obviously you all do so I’ll leave you to it.”

But also being a dark-skinned individual in this country has been interesting, especially in post 9/11 America, and my family also being Sikh. There was a period of time where I did wear a turban, and I actually stopped wearing a turban after I was assaulted in the middle of the street of Oakland. I was in a wheelchair for a year of my life and I had to get major spinal surgeries over and over and over again. Thankfully now I’m a little bit more able-bodied, but that’s a story for another time.

It’s hard to say how it’s affected my experience, because my experience is entirely defined by all of the identities I hold…

Jaysun: Right.

Anonymous: …And that’s just my truth.

I feel like my environment and how I experience the world is just an amalgamation of my, like, race, sexuality, culture, gender, and so on and so forth.

Jaysun: Right.

I think for me it’s always been a little bit different. I still perceive myself to be kind of dark-skinned, but I also know that depending on the space that I’m in I can be very much perceived as the light-skinned individual.

And so a lot of the experience I’ve had around just anything in regards to race has always been an “on paper” sort of thing. People view me very much more differently on paper than they do when they see me because I don’t look the same and I don’t talk the same as the way I write. It’s always been in these institutions of bureaucracy and paperwork and signatures and stuff like that where my experience of race and in my experience of very overt discrimination or oppression really comes into play for me.

When I’m in spaces myself because I’m perceived to be cisgendered male, because I’m perceived to be vaguely white, it’s very much dichotomous in the way things kind of work.

Anonymous: Totally. I feel like it’s almost the exact opposite. I’ve walked into job interviews and people have been like, “You are not what I expected.” Mainly because apparently my last name is really ambiguous. People basically are low key, like, “I thought you were white and you’re not and now I don’t know what to do with you.”

I’m always perceived to be a cisgendered female and that’s not true for me. I don’t identify as cisgender, and I don’t identify as female. Having invisible identities shapes my experience in that there’s like a lot of internal stuff that goes on when people see me and automatically misgender me or they make assumptions about me, whether that be about my race or my gender or my sexuality.  

Jaysun: Yeah.

Anonymous: It’s like death by a thousand cuts. Even though it might not be this one big blow, eventually you have enough to where it just hurts all the time.

I also grew up in a very rich culture. We have a lot of practices. Specifically I’m Punjabi Sikh. There’s a lot of cultural practices that I feel are just very enriching and bring me closer  to other people. I love talking to people about all the different celebrations we have and how even though me and my family don’t get along during celebrations of our own culture, it makes me feel like I do belong, and it’s this wonderful thing.

Jaysun: See, I kind of had the opposite of that. While I feel like I’ve grown up with a lot of — I don’t know what to call it — biological privilege maybe? The idea that the way my phonetics are perceived by a bunch of people, kind of has allowed me to live a little bit easier than a lot of other people.

At times I still feel like I’ve always missed out on things. I actually grew up in a really ritually devoid household. We never had anything to do with heritage or culture or religion or anything about that. Part of it was just because I always grew up in this really low-income household and so just being able to eat and make it day by day was always the next challenge, and there wasn’t really anything socially empowering. That’s kind something I’ve always kind of missed out in my experience in life so far. I’m still kind of in the midst of searching for that. I don’t feel like that’s changed at all. I still feel like I’m a little bit “floaty” in how do I perceive the universe or how do I engage with people in a more ritualized way or in a more cultural way.

I really thought that coming to college would’ve allowed me to come into my own. In some respects it has, for like academic purposes, but I think overall I still feel a little bit lost, but I don’t feel that’s abnormal at all.

Anonymous: I would say that my experience has changed over time just because I’ve learned a lot more about my own gender and my own sexuality and how I feel about my religion.

Culturally, growing up my parents had a very different view of the world than I did. My parents still to this day expect me to get an arranged marriage to, like, a brown man of their choice. And I’m like, “Oh, hell no!” That’s never going to happen. There’s some value in what they’ve taught me, but it’s very much ever changing. All of my identities are ever changing except for maybe race. I can’t really get rid of my melanin. Melanin — permanently on fleek, thank you very much.

In terms of my gender and sexuality and my religion I will always be delving further, whatever that might mean. I think that changes by the day.

Jaysun: Again, it’s not that I haven’t found my own self, but I do feel that at the very least that sort of space between being secondary or like primary education and living at home versus actually coming here and pretending to be an adult, that space in it of itself kind of allows me to have the benefit to explore that because I’ve never had that. It’s been interesting to see, either because of my economic status or my parental views and what they really wanted me to be, has been constantly shaved off day by day throughout time, and being able to kind of replace those shavings with putty of my own.

Produced and facilitated by Sara Hayden
Recorded in Fort Collins, Colo.
Date of recording March 31, 2016
Special thanks to Colorado State University’s Asian Pacific American Cultural Center and GLBTQQA Resource Center

Let’s Talk Story is a program where you’re invited to share an anecdote from your lived experiences in the form of a live conversation, short oral history, or written essay. The goal is to keep a record that connects the past to the present, and bring our stories to life. Participate here.



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