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Colors by Selam G. '18

In every sense of the word

What if you lived in a world that was entirely grayscale? Without any color?

Perhaps you still have the ability to see color, but let’s pretend everything around you is grayscale. All of your clothing, furniture, and decor is on that single spectrum. Houses would be painted black and white. Printers would only print in black and white. Face paint and makeup would simply be made in only dark, or light. There would only be black and white TV. It wouldn’t matter if you could use your color vision or not, because you would never use that ability; there would not even be words for color…

And what if one day, a bright, red apple falls into your life? Would you even see it? How would you react to it?

Maybe, even if you had the ability to see the apple, if you never have the chance to use that ability, to practice it, then that ability may just lay dormant, and the redness of the apple unnoticed.

Ok, this is not an original intro. It was paraphrased/inspired by one of my favorite Radiolab episodes, Colors, in which a scientist discusses a theory on why tetrachromats (people with four color-seeing cones in their eyes instead of just three) cannot always actually use their potential ability to see a fourth dimension of color.

But I really like this analogy, because I feel like it also mirrors the way discrimination issues are talked about and interacted with. It also literally discusses color, which becomes a very different subject when involving connotations of skin tones and cultures rather than the spectrum of visible light.

Our visible, spectrum-of-light world is not grayscale. It is full of color, and we all visually see it more or less the same (all right, there are many philosophical arguments about that, but let’s assume we’re not in Plato’s cave for a bit). Yet, in matters of race, I think there are still people who live in a grayscale world, and do not see bright red apples that fall into their lives–not because they are physically unable, but because in their worlds, they never have to practice that ability.

I have been aware of race for as long as I can remember–mostly because I never “look the part” for anything, anywhere, in any culture. I have been stared at, asked countless times the “what are you” questions, told I am “not really ___”, given the wrong utensils, asked if the food would be too spicy for the “guest”, me, of my own father or mother, assumed about and assumed about and assumed about over and over again. It’s really not any one person’s fault, but the combination of all these things–which really are well-intentioned most of the time–can honestly be very tiring. It is tiring to feel like a foreigner everywhere. So, my world is vividly full of color. It precipitates pigment.

It does not surprise me that, on a much less international level, here in the United States, many people have trouble understanding the discriminatory experiences of other groups. Apples so vividly red to those who can see color–microaggressions, offensive jokes, exclusion from groups or institutions, gentrification–look not much different from a green apple to those who live in the grayscale world–”you’re just too sensitive”, “it’s just comedy”, separate but equal, economic development. If race has never affected your life so intimately, it is difficult to understand the red apple that others keep talking about, because it has never fallen into your life–or it appears so rarely, you may not even notice it. As multicultural as my experiences are, there are most definitely many, many red apples I would be unable to see or wouldn’t notice until someone else pointed them out to me. And that’s why its important to train yourself to believe people as a first instinct rather than doubting them immediately. Red apples are real, ubiquitous in fact. They are not from fairytales. Similarly, different forms of discrimination occur daily all around us, whether we see them or not. They are there.

In the last month, it has become more than apparent that racial tension in the United States is arguably becoming worse than it has been in recent years. The University of Missouri incidents over the month of November started as words and actions of hate in a discordant community and grew uncontrollably to physically violent threats and the resignation of the university’s president. (This article covers that progression)

In contrast with U. of Missouri, a southern state university, Yale, a new england private university, also had several incidents in October and November that ranged from discomforting to plainly hateful. A professor emailed students telling them to “look away” from others’ potentially offensive Halloween costumes, such as blackface or turbans, stating, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?” And the Yale chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity held a “white girls only” party, turning away dark skinned women.

Yale in particular was shocking to me–more personal to me than the incidents at University of Missouri, though arguably MU’s incidents were more dangerous, involving threats of physical violence. But a couple weeks after a black girl was turned away from a Yale fraternity’s “white girls only” party, people from MIT went to Yale for the Harvard-Yale football game. I know or have met a few people who go to Yale. Yale’s housemasters sending out emails asking students to not speak against halloween costumes that may make them uncomfortable were sent to people I know. Racial tension at Yale was not a far away, irrelevant incident.

It was a red apple, and I could see it. MIT itself provided a sort of grayscale world in a good way–I didn’t often have to deal with discriminatory or questionable comments from other MIT students or faculty, and I assumed that most universities had communities that were at least as accepting as ours–until MU and Yale reminded me of what else was happening every day, in places I couldn’t see. Red apples.

Yet, over the past month I’ve also been amazed by what happens (at MIT in particular) when people are supportive and collaborative. The incidents at MU and Yale brought a lot of other school’s black student unions and students of color, including MIT’s, to a sort of rallying point, and these organizations began to evaluate their own on-campus environments.

The MIT Black Students’ Union was recently featured in The Tech for presenting recommendations to MIT administration on the needs of students of color at MIT. I was with one of my friends, Alberto Hernandez ‘17, the morning before that meeting.

“This meeting, ” he said, “is the meeting a lot of other universities’ black student groups have been protesting to get. We got it after basically asking nicely, and a few email threads.”

“Wow. Do you think that says a lot about MIT and our administration, or about the BSU?”

“Both. But especially, Reif and the administration were very open to it, which is what I think is different other places.”

What’s more, this conversation is not only about black students, or what we see as “typical” racial issue discussions. The recommendations included input from other cultural clubs and organizations around MIT, the LGBT community, and support offices such as the Office of Minority Education and Office of the Dean for Graduate Education. We approached problems and solutions holistically, with a consideration of what our community, as a whole, wishes to achieve. I think in many ways, we approached this societal issue like we approach our engineering problems at MIT. It was multidisciplinary, thought out as a team, and depended heavily on student initiative and faculty guidance.

My roommate, Mingshi Y. ‘18, once pointed out to me how unjust it is that the media often seems to ignore such smooth, collaborative fixes to racial problems. In particular, the hunger strike of a graduate student at University of Missouri was a clear example of peaceful protesting she felt was ignored by larger media outlets. There are peaceful protests, yet we hear about riots. There are dedicated and thoughtful students who work with patient and respectful faculty. Though we may hear and see sensationalism and controversy, there are also places where collaboration has been fruitful, and people have worked together with mutual respect for one another.

When I first came to MIT, diversity was one of the first things I noticed. I remember standing outside of Baker talking to some other freshmen, all of us wide-eyed and overwhelmed. I had a sort of epiphany, a moment to myself where I realized so many of the people I’d met were both very much like me and completely different from me, in a way I had never experienced before. They were excited and smart and interested in STEM, like I was, and had similarly nerdy interests. Yet they came from so many different places and cultures and families and perspectives; all of them could tell me about something I’d never heard of before. This wasn’t just about race or color–it was diversity of ideas, perspective, and thought. I went from the largely homogenous suburban neighborhood where I grew up to a playground for incredibly excited people who are always up for doing something cool, whether it’s a hack or a project or research or just exploring Boston. What’s more, it made me look at people differently when I went home, or went anywhere else. I started to treat people the same way I treat MIT students–assuming that they have the same potential to do and be anything they want, and the same capability to be amazing. From that, I learned that if you ask enough questions or talk long enough, anyone can tell you something you’ve never heard of before, or surprise you and excite you in ways you didn’t expect.

The difference between seeing and not seeing an entire dimension of color (when you do have the innate, biological ability) appears to be practice, according to that Radiolab episode about tetrachromats. A long, long time ago in the beginnings of human civilization, we didn’t have a word in any language for the color blue, because blue is actually a pretty rare color in nature (other than the sky or ocean, which aren’t really concrete objects). Homer’s Iliad describes the ocean as black, which intrigued some researcher’s interest, who went through his entire works and realized the word “blue” was never mentioned, and later discovered that the word simply did not exist at the time. Having no word in our language for the color, you could not talk about or specifically mention “blue”. You’d have to describe it in a more roundabout way, or simply not at all. The difference between seeing and not seeing incidents of discrimination that happen to others is also about practice. People have created words and phrases so that we can talk about them–cultural appropriation, microaggressions, gentrification. Nothing is made up–just like the color blue has always been there, just like red apples exist and are different from green apples. I find the more that you listen to others talk about their daily experiences or really make an effort to consider others’ opinions, the more you are able to see the real events that happen daily for yourself, independently of someone else telling you about it. Even if we cannot all see things the same way at first, if we are all open and receptive, if we all believe other people when they patiently describe what they have seen, we can make progress together.


We had a blackout day (wearing all black) at MIT to show solidarity and support for the University of Missouri’s black student groups. Many different people, not only black students, participated, and took this group photo in Killian Court.