As a senator for the College of Global Public Health at NYU, I spent this past weekend at a mandatory student government retreat at a YMCA camp, in the middle of nowhere, with absolutely no cell service. I had been to two YMCA camps before and had bad experiences at both, so I was understandably dreading this experience.
After our first full day at the camp, all the senators and school presidents gathered into a dimly lit basement. The student government leaders then instructed us to list our most salient identities. At this point, I rolled my eyes and thought to myself “here we go again.” If you’re an NYU student and have participated in any program at the university, you’ve definitely done this activity before. Since I had made my list so many times before, I didn’t think twice and immediately jotted down:
After we had written down our list of salient identities, the student leaders asked us to stand up and move towards a large, empty space in the room. On the walls, there were large signs with different identity categories such as gender/sex, sexuality, religion, economic class, (dis)ability, race, nationality, etc. The leaders then gave us scenarios and asked us to move toward the identity that would be most salient to us in the given scenario. The first scenario was, “What identity are you most cognizant of when you’re on the subway.” Immediately, almost every woman in the room moved towards the gender/sex sign. The next scenario was, “What identity do you think about when you’re walking late at night.” Again, most of the women were planted firmly in the gender/sex category. While doing the exercise, I was not surprised by the outcome since it is a given and normal aspect of life. After reflecting, however, I grew angry and sad that women’s constant fear walking on the street and in public spaces is a norm.
The sexualization and objectification of women’s bodies is so ingrained in society that we are taught about it as children. From the ages of 5-10, I wasn’t allowed to wear shorts or tank tops since it would attract too much attention. In high school, my brother, who was in middle school, was given more freedom to hang out with friends and go places than I was. Most women have experienced this on some level. We are taught that the female form is a source of danger, rather than the entitlement that men are conditioned to have from a young age. We teach women to constantly be cautious and guilt them if they’re not instead of holding men accountable for predatory behavior.
As I stated earlier, not every single woman in the room decided to stand by the gender/sex sign when given the two scenarios. Interestingly, people asked for the option to stand in the middle. This option was given to people who could not extricate one identity from another. As I heard people’s stories about how their identities intersect and interact with one another in ways that affect their perspective and experiences, I began to realize that my identity cannot be placed into the discrete categories of 1. Asian 2. Woman 3. Catholic. As the exercise progressed and we were given more situations, I realized how salient all these identities were to my being. I don’t think I can ever be just an Asian or just a woman. I am an Asian woman, who is the eldest child in her extremely Catholic family, whose parents expect her to act and think a certain way and set an example for her younger brother and cousins. My identity, along with everyone else’s, is much too nuanced to be explained by a single category.
While I went into the weekend with a bad attitude, I am so grateful to not have been able to check my email, Instagram, or Snapchat every five seconds and instead truly reflect on myself and my place in the world.