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Cassandra Yoo

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Cassandra Yoo is the child of her Korean father and white, American mother and because of this, she has struggled to define her identity, never seeming to fit in with any one group. Her perception of her own race and ethnicity has changed throughout her academic career, influenced by her schoolmates, friends, family, and classes.

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When meeting a new person I am often asked the same question: “What are you?” Although I have my father’s small nose and lips with tan skin and dark brown hair, my mother’s large brown eyes often “cancel out” the delicate Asian features. On the outside I am not obviously Asian or obviously white, and on the inside I have never felt like I completely belonged to any group.

My father immigrated from South Korea as a child, while my mother grew up in a small town in northern Wisconsin. They met in the city of Milwaukee, in 1998, and a year later I was born and raised into a very “American” household. Looking at my family, many people assume we’re not related. My older half sister takes strongly after her dad’s side. My younger brother and I took very different features from our parents. But, there’s one feature that connects us all- we all have my mother’s eyes.

When I was young, I looked at the world through my big brown eyes my mother gave me and took in the different colors and cultures that surrounded me. I knew my dad didn’t look like my mom. I knew my sister didn’t look like me. But my family was my family and I had no more questions about it. It wasn’t until I started school where lines of race and ethnicity began to be drawn. My brother was the only other Asian student at our predominantly-white elementary school. My grandmother told me I was Korean, which to me only meant bringing smelly shrimp crackers and kimchi for lunches that my friends would make fun of me for. Nevertheless, I had a typical American childhood.

My high school had much more diversity. It resided on the north side, home to most of Wisconsin’s black population in America’s most segregated city. Although this place introduced me to so much culture and diversity, here I began to question my identity and belonging more than I ever had before. I fit in but I didn’t belong anywhere. I’m “too ethnic” for the white kids. I’m not “Asian enough” for the Asians. I struggle to “check a box.” Come my freshman year of college, I found most of my friends through connections with Casa Sol, the Latinx Living Learning Community on campus. I love my friends and family and all the beautiful diversity and cultures they bring to my life. But, I’ve always felt in between and outside all at once.

Sophomore year of college is teaching me to embrace my in between-ness, my intersectionalities. I found a student group called Unembellished. Our mission is to create an all-inclusive environment where you don’t have to perform one of your identities over another. “What are you?” people ask me. There are many answers, but there is never just one. I am not just Asian or I’m not just white. I am not just an American. I am not just a woman. I am not just the daughter of my parents or the sister of my siblings. I am learning how to be all these things and more, all at once, unapologetically.