The Silent Demographic

With a biracial president and a demographic that has, according to the 2010 Census, grown by 32% in the last decade, multiracial Americans are receiving more attention than ever before. In a drastic shift from the society that considered mixture of races a taboo subject just decades ago, artists now document multiracial lives with ventures like Jenna Park’s The Mixed Race Project (which captures the lives of multiracial families across the country) and Martin Schoeller’s The Changing Face of America (which compares multiracial individuals’ self-identification to their census identification). So why is there still no official platform for the mixed race voice?

As a multiracial student in the 21st century, born to a Caucasian father and East Asian mother, I understand that I face far fewer difficulties than I might have a few generations ago. But I still feel like part of myself is erased because I live in the United States. My feelings might be different if my mother had been raised in America—then, at least, the culture clash would not manifest within the walls of our own house. But I have also grappled with internally and externally perceived contradictions between the way I live and the way I look. I don’t get to meet many mixed race students in settings conducive to talking about identity. While cultural organizations constantly spring up on college campuses to deal with identity issues, one does not yet exist on our campus for students of mixed race.

Why might this be? Multiracial Americans are hardly new arrivals. It’s been estimated that three-quarters of African Americans have at least one white ancestor. Colonial law, however, attributed a mixed race child the social status of its mother, and its mother was almost invariably the parent of African descent. Early multiracial Americans were constrained from birth.

Generations of mixed race children, then, were denied exploration of the “lighter” parent’s culture and often ascribed a label of “illegitimacy” on sight within the “darker” parent’s. A pervasive inability to wholly identify with a single group or place followed. Many people of mixed black/white ancestry, some of whom became leaders of the abolitionist and civil rights movements, internally resolved this discomfort by embracing a singly African American cultural identity. This strategy is sometimes called living with the identity of the parent of color, and it is a common approach, though it poses difficulty for children of multiple non-white races (they are often attributed the identity of the “darkest” race—take, for example, half-black/half-Asian Tiger Woods).

Now that America is finally beginning to create a social space for its mixed race citizens, multiracial children have greater choice in their cultural identities. Why shouldn’t an organization exist to help direct this new freedom?

There is a real and sometimes unrecognized difference between struggling with one identity and juggling several. My mother has influenced the food I eat, my artistic taste, my basic East Asian language skills. But I live in my father’s country, in much greater proximity to my father’s relatives than my mother’s (the majority of whom, including her parents, are still in Taiwan). I am more culturally white than racially so, and despite my desire to understand my Asian heritage, I think that joining the Taiwanese American Students Association is only part of the solution. I am certain it could help me achieve a deeper understanding of my mother and her culture, but understanding it without the ability to reconcile it with my father’s culture would ultimately be unproductive.

As it stands, I am between two worlds both racially and culturally, but I know there are many who grapple with one type of identity confusion or the other (take, for instance, someone considered racially white who compromises between one parent’s Jewish culture and another parent’s Catholic one). I would argue, then, for the creation of a students’ association that addresses both types of “mixing.” It could facilitate discussions and awareness of our growing population. And it could serve a personal, social function: I want to know other people like me, to learn about how they relate to their roots.

The extent to which other multiracial members would be “like me” is, of course, debatable. Many people object to the multiracial “checkbox” because it lumps together people of widely varying backgrounds while creating a false sense of progress by acknowledging a mixed race presence. I understand that a multiracial and/or multicultural students’ association is in danger of doing the same thing. But I think that can be escaped by steering its purpose from one of identification to one of reconciliation: students can come with a host of cultural and racial identities and use the organization to discover what mixing of identities really means and how, perhaps, it differs across distinct groups.

And what about over time? Could multiracial organizations expand beyond college campuses? As America continues becoming less of a “tossed salad” and more of a “melting pot” society, will a multiracial students’ organization become more obsolete or more relevant? I don’t know the answer. But I think a venue for discussing the issue is the first step to finding one.

-Alice Frederick