Through the eyes of a Serbian transfer student: America’s racism discussion

Lucas Vega • Staff Writer

If you live in the United States of America, chances are you took the STAAR test in third grade. While filling out the tedious requirements for the test booklet, you ran into this demand: “Please mark your race in the designated square below.” More than likely, you filled it in without a thought. Then you repeated this process as a junior for the SAT/ACT, as a senior for college applications and many more times in between.

Maybe you thought about the race question throughout the years then you had as a third grader. Maybe you never thought about it at all. You bubbled in the correct race, believing there are differences between us–right?

“I didn’t know how to answer that,” Marijana Jovanovic, an international student athlete, said. “I was like: Can I just leave that blank? I’m not white, I don’t want to be white. I don’t want a label. I want to be seen as human.”

Jovanovic received a full-ride scholarship to play tennis at UT Tyler. Due to this scholarship, her visa was fairly easy to obtain, and allowed her to overcome the large hurdle affordability of college life.

“You don’t run into a lot of problems when you get a full ride,” Jovanovic said. “I know people from Serbia and Russia with tennis scholarships and they received their visas just fine. I can’t comment on the other individuals who didn’t have a full ride, however I imagine it’s harder [to receive a visa].”

Jovanovic radiated with genuineness, and her voice was passionate with honesty- she seemed to pour her heart into every question asked of her. But, as with many international students who come to the United States, did she have to face racism or intolerance?

“I never understood the concept of racism, like I came here and I had no idea what it was,” Jovanovic said. “I never saw anybody as anything other than a person. The concept of racism and labels are something completely new to me, I never even considered it while in Serbia.”

Her honesty and genuineness never faded. Jovanovic meant everything she said, and was speaking in the most literal sense. This was not a strong condemnation of racism, this was a true unfamiliarity with the concept.

“We never had even thought about that in Serbia,” Jovanovic said. “I mean you had different types of people, like I saw black people sometimes, but I didn’t call them black people. They were just people. Their skin did not give them a label. My friends and I would see the skin of course, but we would just say: ‘Look at her beautiful skin.’ It was never: ‘Look at that black lady, she’s so pretty.’”

To Jovanovic, one’s skin color was never worthy of acknowledgement. They were just there. The idea of considering skin color as a part of one’s identity was truly a foreign concept to her.

America has been a troubled melting pot, with long periods of prejudice tainting it’s history. While the days of mass slavery, segregation, and Japanese internment camps are behind us, these events left scars that persisted through the process of healing. To this day, America watches vigilantly for any signs of systemic racism, and makes a routine effort to call it out on all scales. We are compelled to discuss it in our classrooms, we are compelled to hold rallies against it, we are compelled to publicize any notable individual who makes racist remarks, and condemn them on a national platform. It is an issue that has transformed into a nationwide conversation, and is given attention on a near daily basis. Today, racism is one of the most frequently debated, discussed, and spotlighted conversations in all of America. It is near impossible to be an informed, educated citizen, while at the same time staying clear of this discussion.

All of these measures are taken as a direct result of America’s history, and are seen as necessary by the residents of the nation. Yet to an individual like Jovanovic, who’s country never experienced a history of racism, the sheer amount of attention given to racism only fortifies the differences she never wanted to see.

“I truly understand why these actions are taking place, it makes sense for this country,” Jovanovic said. “But there’s just so much focus given to racism, so much focus. It feels like there’s no time for healing or to ignore the things that make us different. I hear a lot of people say that they belong to a certain community, like the black community or the white community or the Latino community. They can do that, I understand why they would want to, but I don’t want to be a part of that. You need to get away from me if you’re going to come at me with that. Don’t tell me that I am a part of a group. I don’t care if your intention is good or bad, I hate this labeling regardless. Don’t tell me I'm white, don’t tell me he’s black, I don’t even want to hear those labels. Like I said, I still struggle to comprehend the idea of racism, because in Serbia we never had categories of people in the first place.”

Jovanovic believes America needs to have a conversation about race since systemic racism was such an intrinsic part of its history. Without that discussion, Jovanovic says, racism could get worse.

“But at the same time, I feel like people talk about it too much.” Jovanovic said. “I feel like interjecting the topic of racism into several aspects of your life will unintentionally remind you of what makes us different. I don’t feel like that is good for accomplishing the end goal of seeing everyone as equals. Even if you are talking bad about racism, you are still talking about it, so the idea will constantly be reinforced along with our differences. A label is still a label, whether the intention is good or bad.”

How does a nation recover from a prejudice history? The answer to this question cannot be found in any textbook or database. Perhaps this is why so many Americans are talking about racism. Perhaps in the midst of the rallies, school debates, and daily stories, Americans are desperately searching for an answer. Is an all-out offensive approach the answer? Should we ignore the issue entirely? Is the answer somewhere in between? It is, currently, an unanswerable question.

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