I’m 100% black and 100% Japanese and I found my true self at Howard University
I wouldn’t have it any other way
Arthur Cribbs is a junior at Howard University and one of six Rhoden Fellows from historically black colleges and universities participating in a yearlong internship with The Undefeated.
All I had been searching for in a college was a place that I could call home. So when my junior year of high school came around and my guidance counselors began asking me which schools I was considering, my mind was set on one place: Occidental College.
At that point in my life, it checked all the boxes. It was a four-year college with proven success; even President Barack Obama attended the school. It was also close to my home in Los Angeles, about a mile away from my family. I was familiar with the campus and since my two sisters attended the school, I’d spent many nights at the college already. Occidental looked like a place, outside of my home, where I could be comfortable.
Growing up, comfort was something I had constantly been searching for. Whenever I was away from my family, I often felt out of place.
For starters, I am black and Japanese. While my parents raised me to embrace both parts of my heritage, there were not many people with my combination.
With my father’s nomadic job as a pastor, I also moved around, living in San Diego County and then in several neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area, so I was often the new kid at school. By the time I was a junior in high school, I had attended eight schools, which also made comfort a difficult battle.
In all those settings, I adjusted to a wide range of environments. I attended an elementary school less than 10 miles from the border with Mexico, with a large Latino population. A middle school I attended had a large number of the students who were first-generation immigrants from China and Taiwan. The high school I graduated from was an all-male Catholic school, where about half of the students were white.
I am grateful for these different environments, which expanded my worldview, but optically, I would stick out, and I often would ask myself: Where are the people who look like me?
I was darker than my peers so, the way others saw me and the way I saw myself was black. And in many cases, I was ‘‘that one black guy’’ in several of my classes throughout my life.
Although I did not necessarily enjoy being ‘‘that one black guy,’’ I was used to it.
So by the time junior year of high school came around, I just wanted a familiar setting close to home to spend my college career and Occidental was that place. I knew that I would still be one of the few black students in my classes, but I knew that I would at least be near my family if comfort was ever an issue.
With Occidental as my top choice through my three years of high school, I still kept my eye out for other schools in case I did not get accepted into the college. So, the summer after my junior year, while on a trip to Washington for a family reunion, I decided to visit Howard University.
While I had known about the institution, I had not really been considering schools thousands of miles away from home. After more research though, I began seriously considering historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), realizing that I wouldn’t have to worry about being ‘‘that one black guy’’ in my classes. As I considered Howard more and more, my plans for attending Occidental began to fade.
After speaking more with my sisters about their experiences at Occidental and their struggles to have their voices validated as students of color, I decided that the best option for me was to give Howard a try. By the end of my senior year of high school, after being accepted here, I packed my bags and set for my new life at Howard.
When I started my freshman year at Howard in fall 2017, I definitely didn’t feel like ‘‘that one black guy.’’ Still, though, I didn’t feel quite right.
Weeks before my first semester at Howard, I had read accounts of people who came from predominantly non-black communities and attended HBCUs and quickly found a place where they fit in. I assumed that would be the same for me.
I envisioned that I would arrive during freshman week and immediately find a home where I would fit in.
While my interactions with people weren’t negative, early on at Howard, I often felt out of place. Classmates often asked about my race and why I chose to attend an HBCU. While I don’t believe people had bad intentions with these questions, I really began feeling insecure about my blackness. I began thinking that I had to have certain physical features and have certain life experiences to be black.
I internalized what I thought it meant to be black, and after years of seeing myself as ‘‘that one black guy,’’ I didn’t feel black at all. During those first few weeks of college, I began just seeing myself as solely an Asian student at an HBCU. Although Howard has a decent-sized South Asian population and students of several racial backgrounds, my perception of the university at the time was a place almost exclusively for African American students.
While I have always taken pride in my Japanese heritage, I wanted college to be a time where I didn’t have to worry about sticking out.
It wasn’t until I stopped living in my head and opened up to people and learned about their backgrounds that I better embraced my own situation. I specifically remember taking a speech class in the second semester of my freshman year where we had to share stories about our journey to college and that’s where I began seeing the vast array of blackness at Howard.
Instead of the monolithic perception of the HBCU I initially saw, the speech class helped me see the global significance of the institution and the fact that there is a place for everyone at Howard.
People shared their upbringings, coming from seemingly every state in the country and coming from nations in Latin America, Africa and Asia, that led them to Howard. I better understood that the black experience isn’t something that can be defined by one look or one characteristic.
I finally began to validate my own life experiences, both as black and Japanese, and while it has been a process, I have found my identity and my home at Howard.
Now, in my junior year of college, I know in a lot of ways I still stick out.
People at Howard still may look at me and ask if I’m black. People in another setting may look at me solely as black and disregard my Japanese heritage. Others may view me as something completely different.
I’m fine with it. Internally, I know that I am 100% black and I am 100% Japanese and I wouldn’t have it any other way.