Editors discuss new book on multiracial students' experiences
Mixed (Cornell University Press) is a collection of 12 autobiographical essays written by college students who identify as multiracial. Unlike most books that focus on children with white and black parents, this one is by and about young adults with multiple racial backgrounds. Each chapter is written by a different author, who starts with family history and moves along from early years to college years. All of the contributors are Dartmouth students.
Thomas Lane is one of the authors. In his chapter, "The Development of a Happa," he describes what it was like growing up with a Japanese mother and a white father. He discusses how he felt stuck between two worlds, but associated more with the white side until college. “Before college I knew I was ethnically Asian, but I refused to accept the Asian culture. Since coming to Dartmouth, however, I have learned to appreciate all aspects of being Japanese.”
"In My World 1+1=3,” by Yuki Kondo-Shah, is by a young woman who has a Japanese mother and a Bangladeshi father. She writes that she identified as Japanese when she lived in Japan, but when she moved to the United States, at 7, she had to figure out where she fit in. The author says growing up, she always felt stuck between her two identities and could never fully identify with one or the other. “While I spent most of my childhood being Japanese and my college years identifying as a mixed-race minority, I began my professional career as an Asian American.”
Ana Sofia De Brito wrote the "Good Hair" chapter. As a Cape Verdean, she says her father would always push her to date lighter-skinned men over dark-skinned men, because she would “destroy the race” if she married one. “Although I have never had a strong preference for any particular type and have dated boys from various backgrounds and races, at college my preference has focused on men with darker skin." Within her family, De Brito is considered white because of her European features, but she writes that she identifies as black because society pressures her to choose; she can’t be “other.”
Andrew Garrod, professor emeritus of education at Dartmouth College, is one of the editors. He has co-edited other books about college students of color like Mi Voz, Mi Vida: Latino College Students Tell Their Life Stories. Others include Balancing Two Worlds: Asian American College Students Tell Their Life Stories and First Person, First Peoples: Native American College Graduates Tell Their Life Stories. All three books are part of the Cornell University Press collection. Robert Kilkenny, the founder and executive director of Alliance for Inclusion and Prevention, and Christina Gomez, a sociology professor and coordinator of Northeastern Illinois University’s Latino Studies program, are the other two co-editors. All three participated in an email interview with Inside Higher Ed.
Q: The book addresses how some of the authors, all biracial students themselves, didn’t really understand race relations or weren’t confronted with them directly until high school or college. How are biracial and multiracial students pushed to reflect on their heritage when they interact with others in a predominantly white campus environment?
A: One of the many themes that emerge in the book is the question about their identity. When they are in a predominantly white environment, they are often asked, “What are you?” This question often forces multiracial students to reflect on their heritage in a way that monoracial students don’t. Christopher Collado expresses his frustration in the opening of his essay:
"I used to get annoyed when people would ask me 'What are you?' in a tone similar to one you might use to identify a homemade Halloween costume. I have been mistaken as being black, Mexican, Italian, and on one occasion, Greek. I even had an older woman once ask me, 'Has anyone ever told you that you look like Pete Sampras?' I don’t think I look anything like Pete Sampras. It can be so frustrating to have the very part of you that makes you unique ignored. For the longest time I couldn’t understand why people saw me as anything but biracial or the more socially recognized term, 'mixed.' My dad is Afro-Cuban, meaning that he is a Cuban of African ancestry and basically looks black, and my mom is white, with a European cultural background."
This questioning necessitates an answer that isn’t always so obvious or easy to explain.
Q: In the “Good Hair” chapter, there’s a section where the author talks about the “divide between Us and Them” in her African-American studies course at the time, referring to the divide between lighter-skinned students and African students compared to darker-skinned and African-American students. How might classroom discussions on race in African-American courses impact multicultural and biracial college students?
A: The frame for perceiving one’s minority status can be very context-dependent. In college classes where Caucasian students predominate, non-white students can feel like outsiders by means of the often unspoken imposition of majority attitudes and assumptions. Ironically, however, in courses where minority students predominate (as is often the case in African-American studies courses) new hierarchies of majority/minority status can emerge around the issues of light versus dark skin, hair texture, African vs African American, SES, biracial status, etc. These issues can challenge the legitimacy of one’s own experience as representing the “black experience” or other minority experience. This is especially true for multiracial students who can sometimes be perceived as majority by minority students and as minority by white students. It is this dilemma of being stuck in the middle that is so poignantly captured by the authors of these firsthand accounts. We hope that the stories in this text lend themselves to class discussions that explore the underlying beliefs that both minority and majority students hold regarding the experience of their multiracial peers.
Q: There are always conversations and books on biracial children, the product of black and white parents. This book is different in that it touches on other ethnic blends. Does society treat them different from the child with black and white parents? If so, how?
A: One of the wonderful features of this book is that it considers a variety of racial and ethnic combinations. We hope that other researchers will begin to consider the differences among the variations. Of course, this is tremendously difficult since the combinations are quite varied. Research by Jennifer Lee and Frank Bean (2007) does seem to suggest that black multiracialism is different. As the population of multiracial individuals grows this question will continue to be studied. Our book, which consists of a small sample (12), gives rich narratives about this lived experience.
Q: What is the message that the authors would like readers to leave with once they finish the book?
A: As we state in the introduction:
“The students who have contributed to this book push the boundaries within their communities and therefore open spaces that offer new possibilities. We hope this collection of narratives moves beyond a narrow black-white binary of multiracial identity and instead elucidates the wide variety of multiracial experiences that includes the influences of culture, class, gender, space, sexual orientation, nations and regions. A multiracial identity has taken hold, and forecasters expect that it will be an ongoing trend. These stories paint a portrait of the concerns and experiences inherent in this new identity. By sharing the stories of students who have written and reflected so thoughtfully about what their mixed identity means for their lives, we hope this book will help others on their journey.”