Others’ Skins
Yiyun Li, Author

The most memorable student I have taught was a young woman from a small town in Iowa. On the second day of the semester, she stood up and said that she grew up in a family of white supremacists, and as a white supremacist she had experienced discrimination.

I was a graduate student, teaching a freshman composition class for the first time. Neither the class nor I knew how to respond in the immediate moment after the announcement. Then a boy coughed. “Well,” he said. “That’s a lot for us to process.”

My white supremacist student frightened me a little, but mostly she fascinated me, so when my supervisor considered removing her from my class, I declined the offer. As a writer, I was interested in the young woman’s dilemma, her belief and upbringing running constantly into a reality that she had not yet known how to reconcile with. She must feel unhappy about being placed under a non-white teacher, which she openly expressed by always having a newspaper in front of her. Jenny, please put your newspaper away, I reminded her at the beginning of every class, and she would sigh and fold the newspaper meticulously while the class watched. Despite her defiance, however, her upbringing must have also given her an innate sense of respect for those with authority: if other students talked among themselves while I lectured, she would hiss indignantly and point to me and told the offenders to listen to the teacher.    

Apart from the white supremacist, I had a typical class, where the majority of students came from small towns and suburbs around the Midwest. A few were from farther places: a half Filipino and half Chinese girl from Honolulu; an Indian boy by way of London; a Guatemalan girl, who, as a first generation immigrant, was the only one among her extended family to attend college; a Japanese American girl, who told me that she had grown up feeling baffled with the question, “Where are you from?”—when she answered “Greensboro, North Carolina,” people would say, “That’s nice, my dear, but where are you from?”

For Halloween I assigned a project called “Others’ Skins.” I asked my students to get out of their comfort zones and dress themselves in a way that they could not see fit their self-images, though they were not allowed the simple solution of costumes and wigs. The students looked perfectly fine on the day of the class, and to each other perhaps, but most of them fidgeted when they did their presentations: a young man in his father’s suit, constantly rearranging the tie; a very shy girl, with a tight black top and pants, spiky bracelets and dark eye shadow; a football player sweating profusely under a baseball cap as his mother would never allow him to wear a baseball cap indoors. The girl from Honolulu put on a turtleneck sweater and said that she had never worn something that muffled her neck, and she already felt more Iowan than Hawaiian. The white supremacist student had her long blonde hair pleated into two obedient braids; the whole morning she worried that people would see her as a farm girl, she said.

It was one of the most satisfying teaching experiences for me. When one becomes an immigrant in America, the early encounters may lead him to feel self-conscious of his otherness—inevitably there are people who would take him not for who he is but by his skin color and accent. But it is also the collective otherness of generations of immigrants that has changed American history at all levels—waves of immigration and integration make America the country it is today. When my Guatemalan student asked me if she could switch to another class because she did not want to stay in the same room with a white supremacist, I told her that I would not hold her back but I hoped she could stay. She did, and after the Halloween class, she told me she was happy about her decision to stay. 

I am not naïve enough to think that I, or my other immigrant students, changed my white supremacist student’s view of the world, but at least on that day, she left my class with some sort of amazement written on her face. Perhaps it was the first time she realized that we could all be easily taken as someone we were not, or perhaps it was the first time she looked at her classmates more closely than before. In any case she nodded slightly, when she left the classroom, at the Guatemalan girl, who on that day also came with two long braids, a smock that resembled that of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and a discomfort at being looked upon as a character from a fairytale.

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