Photo Credit: Selam Gano, MIT ’18

Alien in America

Sifting through Questions. Searching for Answers.

By Selam Gano, MIT ’18

“ . . . but, if we could modify our genes so we could look or do anything, don’t you think everyone would just want to be white?” — MIT Biology Student

Two current MIT students, Ben Oberlin ’[17] and Vincent Anioke ’[17], recently wrote two beautiful posts (here and here) on the MIT Admissions Blog about the feelings of Black people throughout the United States. I finally read both of their stories after weeks of struggling to avoid the news and opinion editorials, and thought to myself, It’s time.

But, as I lay in bed attempting to type a draft of this essay on my phone, I realized . . . I couldn’t do it.

I just couldn’t.

I began thinking about the types of things you often avoid thinking about to go on about your daily life, things like the inevitability of death. I swung my feet over the edge of my bunk bed and stared out of the windows of Phi Kappa Theta.

Physical things. Reality. There is safety in that. I suppose that is why I am studying to become a mechanical engineer. I don’t have the energy to spend my life fighting issues that seem so unsolvable. More unsolvable than automated machines, more unsolvable than all of the projects and research questions that have captured my attention over the years.

I didn’t want to think about how my entire life, I have felt like an alien. I didn’t want to think about how even my parents and family members could never quite understand why I got so frustrated with not belonging anywhere.

Rachel Dolezal tried to pass for something that she is not. My whole life, I have simply been trying to pass for who I am. Whenever I write those words — type them, say them, speak them — I feel a weight in my stomach drop.

My parents never understood why I would get so upset when strangers on the street in Ethiopia would yell “China, China!” or when, just a month ago in Nanjing, some creepy guy asked, “Are you African? African-American?” I responded, “不是!我在南京长大!” I denied a part of myself because I hate the feeling of not belonging.

In the place where I was born and raised for 20 years, I also feel alien. I have spent 20 years denying parts of myself to make it simpler for others to understand who I am.

Everything is small and laughable. At the age of 5, friends pointed and laughed in the middle of my preschool playground, yelling “Haha your name is salami! It’s like a piece of lunch meat!” and I cried in the middle of my preschool playground. Everything is small and laughable.

Except for,

That time when my brother, a scrawny 6th grader less than a hundred pounds who I regularly pinned to the ground while play fighting, was refused a ride home from a friend’s mom because “He could hurt someone.”

Except for,

Those four years of high school when everyone forgot that I was Black:

  • “but you’re basically Asian because you’re so good at school haha!”
  • “you’re not really black anyway, I can say ‘nigga’ because I have Black friends on the football team.”
  • Until I got into MIT: “it’s only because she’s black…I wish I was ‘half black’ too.”

Except for,

  • A kid named Miles at my high school who would jokingly ask, “What does Ethiopian food taste like? It either tastes like nothing, or tastes like the food donated from all the other countries!” “You know it’s just a joke. I’m not really a bad guy.” (THEN HE WON A KINDNESS AWARD) (A KINDNESS AWARD)

When I was 12, there was some family drama, and I tried to run away from home. I got about five blocks from the house before my mother caught me. I had never felt more alien in my entire life. I had never really had a country, but at least I had people — family, right? But on that day, I felt that I didn’t even have that.

This past spring, while a student at MIT, more family drama unfolded back home. I stared at the Charles River. I thought about jumping in. I wondered what it would feel like to feel the cold March river water seeping into my heavy winter coat, covering my skin, shocking my nerve endings.

The physical. Reality. Facts that no one can take away from you, that no one can distort, that no one can argue away from you simply because they are better at arguing:

  • It is March.
  • Water is cold.
  • The Charles River is in front of me.
  • There is a chip in the sidewalk.


  • There is a small rock in my shoe.

In the fall of 2015, University of Missouri and Yale happened, and I felt glad that I was at MIT. I wrote an essay on the MIT Admissions Blog, “Colors”, where I expressed pride in the efforts of MIT students and administration to wrestle with issues of race. Little did I know that there are many bigots at MIT as well — yes, bigots. I have written many posts on the many amazing people at MIT, and I stand by them. But there are bigoted, subtle and unsubtle racist people here as well.

Sadly, many more than I initially thought.

One of my good friends at MIT, Netsanet (name changed), is an Ethiopian born in the United States, but who lived her entire life in Africa. Though I find it difficult to cope with the complexities of racial tensions in America, I didn’t realize until I met Netsanet and heard her story that all I had been doing this entire time was exactly that — coping. I had been trained, in a way, from preschool to college. I had an armory in my head full of counterarguments, of examples, and most of all, patience and experience.

Netsanet, like Vincent Anioke, comes from a country of Black people, where “black” is neither a useful adjective when describing people nor a word charged with meaning in daily conversation.

Netsanet was floored when she came to MIT.

At first, she experienced all of the little things that Ben Oberlin talked about. Things that made her uncomfortable — things that are “borderline” and difficult to explain. She would regularly hear someone in the lounge point out “Blackness” in a way that always seemed negative, or simply weird.

“…and today I saw two Black women in the subway who were going ham on two bags of McDonald’s each and it was disgusting!”
“ . . . who is that random black woman dancing? Yum!”
“Haha, everyone knows Asian girls have no butts.”

Netsanet felt it was strange, and dangerous. If we were white, she thought, would he just have said woman instead of Black woman?

Once, this same student said something so out of line that even the other people in the lounge exclaimed woah and hey, that’s not cool. The man turned to Netsanet, looked at her, and said, “Well, you’re Black . . . what do you think about it?”

She told me that that was the point where she felt most ostracized, hurt, and upset. Before walking away, she replied,“Why are you pointing me out? What am I supposed to say?”

Netsanet’s floormates regularly discussed in the lounge how they didn’t believe that racism was still alive. They even once invited her to join them in a picture and said, “Oh good, we have at least one Black person!” Netsanet squirmed — she didn’t feel Black. She was African. But was she Black, too?

On one occasion, they had a debate about whether it was okay to use the word nigger. Netsanet realized that a lot of people didn’t understand and didn’t care about her unique experience: they didn’t treat her as an individual. At the same time, she found it difficult to share her feelings with others, to say, “I am uncomfortable.” After all, this was MIT — hard enough as it is — during her first year living in the United States — even more difficult to navigate.

In Simmons dormitory during my freshman year, there was an individual who said eating cheesecake was fancy because it made them feel “like an owner of a slave-run plantation during the 1800s.”

Another friend of mine recounted an experience at MIT while she was waiting for the elevator. A group of people, many of whom were biology students, were talking about the ethics of modifying human genes, especially in children yet to be born, and the strangely controversial concept of “designer babies.”

The same cheesecake person from Simmons had jumped into the biology conversation, saying,

“ . . . but, if we could modify our genes so we could look or do anything, don’t you think everyone would just want to be white? Like wouldn’t all the black families start having white children?”

My friend said that she didn’t even think the student should be blamed for the statements. She believed that they genuinely held those beliefs. But regardless, if you heard this, if you heard that others could see no benefit in being the color of your skin and everything it connotes — culture and music and food and families — would that be hurtful?

Imagine that all of this comes on top of everything else you have to deal with in your life. Imagine that it is summer and you’re living in Boston and in-between long days of exciting research at the MIT Media lab and resume reviews at MIT’s Global Education and Career Development Office.

You are planning an international public service and engineering project, building wells in rural Ethiopia. You make international calls for your project from 9:30 AM–11:00 AM, fix the prototype for your research from 1:30 PM–3:00 PM, hit the gym at 7:00 PM, return to the Media Lab at 8:00 PM to finish note taking and planning for tomorrow, and at 9:45 PM, decide it is time to head home.

No one in their right mind would say that you don’t work hard. You think that you have escaped bigoted wealthy white people from suburban Colorado. You think that here at MIT, people see you for who you are. You are worried about lots of things — your family, your friends, your life. You are worried because one of your high school friends hasn’t been responding to your messages for a while, and you have been texting all your other high school friends to try and figure it out. You consider whether you’ll have enough time tomorrow to complete all of the work you need to do and still go to the gym; you wonder how you will pay for your trip to Ethiopia with grants that are paid out as reimbursements, and then….

And then, you read all of the articles about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

You try not to think about it, but you do. You read what your friends and classmates are saying, some of them the same people who made fun of you for listening to rap music in high school, the same people who said that you were not really Black, but who now are at least trying to understand, it seems.

And then questions begin to overwhelm as you battle the feeling that all of your work is meaningless.

What good are resume reviews if you’ll only get hired because you’re a “hot mixed girl”?

Or maybe you won’t get hired because pretty girls can’t be smart, or maybe you’re in fact too fat for the job. Maybe you won’t get hired because she clearly only got into MIT on Affirmative Action, even though you’re not in the box that says Black but in the box that says Other.

And what does all your hard work mean if people will only say:

“See, those are the Asian genes working!”
“I knew you were Chinese!!! I can tell, you know. And you’re so good at school!”

And what does any of it at all mean when in America, strange men shout at you when you are walking to Central Square, saying:

“Ayyy! Are you Hawaiian? Cape Verdean? Asian? Damn! What are you???”

And in China

“African? African American?” “非洲人,对吧?”

And in Ethiopia

“China? Japan?” “ቻይና ሰው?”

And nobody seems to want to know what your name is or where you go to school or what you like to do or that you enjoy cooking and going to farmer’s markets or what your recommendations are for restaurants in Boston because they are so obsessed, obsessed, obsessed, to the point of shouting at you in the street randomly and following you for several blocks, with figuring out


you are.

And if that is so important — the what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you what are you — will you find yourself staring hard at the mirror, looking for a tail or some ears or maybe a patch of fur or antennae, wondering why it is never “who are you”. You must not be human.

You feel like an alien.

And you can’t focus. So today in the Media Lab, instead of all that work you were worried about finishing, you spend your first hour writing a rambly rant about Black lives and Black bodies and mixed lives and mixed bodies and how everyone is really the same, but everyone is really not, and everyone is mixed (and everyone is originally Ethiopian), and then you delete the entire thing.

And so, I try not to think about it. I focus on other things…

I try not to think too much about other people.

You cannot change the way other people think. You can only believe in yourself, and simply recognize that even if you are an alien, with no home on this planet, Earth is stuck with you for now — you might as well show them what aliens are capable of.

Maybe on another day, I would have written something more optimistic, with a little more of a fighting spirit.

But today, I am simply tired.

I called my father today.

I’m sorry, he said at the end, with a sigh and half a laugh.

“It’s not fair, but your generation has a lot of work to do.”

Selam Gano is a member of the MIT Class of 2018. She is currently majoring in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on robotics, and is also an expected minor in Chinese Language and Culture.

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