UMass Graduate Reflects On Lessons From 'The Whitest Place I'd Ever Seen'

May 18, 2017

Commentator Hannah Tran-Trinh graduated last week from UMass Amherst. She says she learned a lot there, but the best lessons were hard-won.

I grew up in Boston. My friends were quite the colorful bunch, but I never thought twice about the fact that we were a diverse group of kids. I just loved feeling comfortable. Being a part of something I felt I belonged to.

But then I showed up in western Mass. and it was the whitest place I'd ever seen.

One of the first freshman I met told me, "I've never had a non-white friend before."  I figured she must be from a small town in the middle of nowhere. And I was right.

I stuck out. Someone told me it was cool my group of friends had a "pretty Asian girl."

I was asked five separate times in one semester to be the subject of a paper on cultural differences.

Some time after my first year, I realized that my experience with friends in college was different from my experience with friends in high school. That's because my main group of friends in college was completely white, and my main group at home was completely non-white.

I realized that though I'd made lots of friends freshman year, there's no one I felt like talking to about really important stuff, like missing the spring rolls and hot noodle soups my mom makes. There was no one's shoulder I felt like crying on, no person I felt comfortable turning to turn to when Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson during my sophomore year. Instead, I reached out to friends 100 miles away.

I went on social media and shared memes about police brutality against people of color, but not without worrying -- a lot -- about being perceived as overly sensitive.

I held back from calling them out when my friends dismissed me when I tried to explain the concept of white privilege.

I wasn't standing up for myself in the ways I would have back in Boston. I didn’t react when an ignorant man at an Amherst bar attempted to flirt with me by ordering a sake bomb from the bartender. It was ridiculous regardless, but I'm not Japanese. I'm Vietnamese and Chinese.

When my friends met a “hot Asian guy” and aggressively encouraged that I date him because "two Asian people look great together," I laughed it off.

But I wasn't amused.

I got to the point where being quiet was worse than speaking my mind, even if it meant offending people. The best thing I learned in college.

Having all white friends at UMass is like being the only person of color at an all-white party. It’s like dancing alone to your own soundtrack every day for four years.

Hannah Tran-Trinh majored in journalism. She's looking for a job in broadcasting.

Hannah published a previous version of her essay in the Amherst Wire.