Multiracial identity in the bigger picture of diversity

April 5 2018

Students at Wheaton College are hardly strangers to the conversation of diversity. From chapel messages, to campus events, to student publications, the diversity dialogue seems to be everywhere you look.

By nature, that dialogue is often dichotomous, dividing students into majority and minority races. But what does this mean for multiracial students? Those who often have one foot in each respective and opposing camp? How is their experience different and how do they fit in to this conversation?

Freshman Esther Stevenson, who is of White and Korean descent but grew up in various countries, including China and Egypt, has felt hesitant to join the conversation of diversity on campus. “To be very honest, in Wheaton, it’s more of a Black versus White talk,” Stevenson said. “This past month or two I’ve had to shift my perspective and really recognize that diversity encompasses the entire school: Asians, Middle Easterns … and when multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, kids are brought in, it kind of opens the discussion to something a little bit bigger than the just systematic racism we’re used to.”

Junior Izzy Case has taken years to process her identity as a “half Black, half White” woman, and describes it as an ongoing journey. “But there’s a fear that I still have that I’m going to mess up or I’m going to say something that isn’t well representative [of the black community] … that specifically the black community on campus is going to take my black card away from me,” Case said, “Which isn’t something that Willie-O has specifically put on me, it’s just been a fear that was largely cultivated in high school just from the rejection of a lot of Black and White peers for not fitting into their boxes.”

Other multiracial students identified with Case’s experience of failing to be measured against conventional “race boxes.” While many minorities struggle with being put into the stereotypical boxes associated with their races, multiracial people oftentimes get placed in either the wrong box, or multiple interchangeable boxes based on the perspective of the person placing them there.

Junior David Seung, who is half White and half Korean, shared some of his own experiences of being placed into the wrong “boxes” people create for him once they discover his mixed heritage. “There’s no half-Korean box,” Seung said, “There’s just the Korean box.”

And why are boxes so necessary at all? Seung added that people often try to figure out his racial makeup as if he were a riddle. “It’s weird that they always need to know. They always need to know like, ‘What exactly are you? What’s your composition? Give me the chart,’” Seung said, “I’m like, ‘Why is everyone curious? Is that going to drastically inform how they interact with me?’”

Stevenson frequently experienced this kind of “box-hopping” as she moved from country to country. She explained that, in Egypt, Asians were seen as a sort of novelty and, in Asia, Caucasians were discriminated against. “Just because I was Asian, I was automatically put into this ‘beauty, K-pop’ box [in Egypt]. And that was very weird for me, coming from Asia where I was in this Caucasian, ‘you must always eat McDonald’s’ box,” Stevenson said, “It was definitely like jumping from ice water into really hot water. It was weird to navigate.”

Stevenson has noticed that many people immediately tend to overgeneralize her “halfness” by discounting her Caucasian half and trying to find things in common with her minority half in an attempt to better relate to her. And though she understands that it comes from a well-meaning place, she encourages people not to try so hard and jump to such conclusions. “It’s okay to just treat me like a normal person,” Stevenson said, “And keep in mind that I’m half, but don’t just put me way out in that corner.”

Sophomore Nat Lewis has encountered a similar lack of appropriate ways to categorize his multiracial experience as a person of Chinese, White and Korean descent. “I think having a foot in multiple camps has been interesting. It’s been isolating because you’re never in either camp fully,” Lewis said, “It’s really my firm belief that you’re really more neither than you are both. It’s almost liberating in a way.”

When the topic of racial identity and the processing that accompanies multiracial heritage comes up, many Christians are quick to say things like, “Our identity is found in Christ,” which, although it is a true statement, is oftentimes used to discount or undermine racial and cultural identity. Lewis believes that this statement is often used because of a lack of awareness of the different facets of identity and representation. “It’s not that I disagree with that statement,” Lewis said, “I disagree with how it’s used which is, ‘Your identity is here, therefore your [racial and cultural] identity here doesn’t matter and this processing isn’t necessary.’ That’s what I disagree with. I think that’s just a misapplication of the truth.”

Just because we as Christians are identified with Christ does not necessarily mean our racial identities have no bearing on who we are. Seung said that he believes this perspective is a fundamentally problematic one: “If you’re not willing to understand how people’s identities are influenced by their social context, by their environments, by their race, by their split race, by all these different intersecting facets of personhood, if you’re not willing to directly confront those and acknowledge the fact that other people’s experiences might have a lot more interfering with them than your own, you’re going to disregard the fundamental complexity of community, of the shared human experience.”

Rather than believing that finding identity in race and finding identity in Christ are somehow mutually exclusive, Case believes that there is in fact significant interplay between the two. “By saying that, you are discounting my identity and a good chunk of what informs the reason why I depend so heavily and so sincerely on Jesus Christ my Savior. Because that statement in and of itself, of just discounting my experience, is incredibly hurtful and I don’t think it’s the correct Christian outlook on it,” Case said. She went on to talk about the various places in the Bible where racial and cultural differences are highlighted, such as Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, and explained that the discussion of ethnicity is much more present in Scripture than many people acknowledge.

Because research on the multiracial demographic has only recently begun, Lewis said, “I don’t think the need is pressing enough for people to take us into account. I think some terminology is due. I think we’re really trying to grasp for ways to articulate what we’re feeling and I just don’t feel like the rhetoric exists yet, but maybe it will soon.”

As the knowledge about the multiracial demographic increases, Case believes that the conversations about multiracial identity and the voices of multiracial people in those conversations should also increase. In the conversation of diversity, she has felt conflicted in the past due to her mixed heritage, but by the same token, she says that she and other multiracial people can offer a unique perspective.

Though “championing the voices of the oppressed peoples” is undoubtedly important, Case thinks that there is another valuable piece that is often missing from the puzzle of diversity that multiracial people can supply. “It gives me an interesting platform and voice about how racial reconciliation can happen because I’m a physical manifestation of that,” Case says, “[Multiracial people] complicate things that much further, but I also think that we provide solutions to problems that much further because I’m here, you’re here, we’re important, we’re both of them, we’re neither of them. So let’s talk about that more and let’s give ourselves a healthier picture of how these things can interplay in a real way.”

 

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