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Navigating Racial Liminality

Opinion | March 28, 2016

Kindergarten was the first time my racial identity was called into question. My mom came into my class to do a show-and-tell about my family’s time in the Republic of Macedonia, where I lived from ages one to four while my mom worked for a non-governmental organization (NGO) that aided refugees fleeing from neighboring, war-torn Kosovo. During the presentation, a classmate raised his hand and asked my mom, “Is that why you’re so dark?” Another classmate asked, “Is Conrad half-Chinese?” While I was unaware of any greater pattern at the time, this story was the beginning of many social interactions throughout my childhood that would ultimately lead me to have a warped perspective of my outward appearance and racial identity.

Accordingly, I began to hate my nose when I was twelve. Looking at pictures of myself from a long-forgotten party, I realized that my nose was large and ugly in comparison to my White friends’ noses. I stopped smiling fully in order to make my nose appear smaller, and later in my teens I would daydream about getting plastic surgery. My physical appearance—my dark olive skin, my thick black hair, and my big ugly nose—became something that I was more and more aware of throughout my childhood, and through comparing myself with others, I began to think less highly of how I looked. My family rarely talked about their racial identities, as neither of my parents identify as mixed race or as people of color (POC). Unlike many POC, I was afforded the privilege of going through most of my childhood unaware of structures of racism I maintained and was affected by.

I entered college with a deep discomfort about the way I looked—not so much like my childhood belief that I was unattractive, just somehow feeling out of place. I had never necessarily identified as White, since I was aware that I looked very different than those with White features, yet I didn’t identify as anything else either. From my first day on campus I was asked in almost every new interaction, primarily by White people, what race or ethnicity I identified with. Sometimes this question would come in the form of “where are you from…no but where are you really from?”, or the blunter, “are one of your parents Asian?”, to the deeply uncomfortable, “what are you?” As each new person questioned my racial and ethnic background, my discomfort grew. Eventually, I understood that I felt uncomfortable in my own skin because my appearance doesn’t fit into people’s preconceived boxes of race. My racial identity is a liminal one, occupying a space between “the same” and “other” in many people’s minds that is deeply uncomfortable in our society’s binary conceptualization of race. People ask me about my race to get more clarity, but giving other people that clarity comes at the price of feeling comfortable with myself.

The only voice within the multiracial community that I can speak for is my own, and my experiences on this campus thus far have led me to the conclusion that the issues that multiracial students face at Tufts are often overlooked amidst larger discussions of race on campus. Erasure of multiracial narratives ultimately leaves the mixed race community without space to talk about the complex experiences they face. I am still on a path of self-discovery, and in identifying with the struggles of other mixed race students at Tufts, one thing has become clear to me—we need to change the way we talk about multiracial identities at Tufts.

It wasn’t until the beginning of this semester that I found the Association of Multiracial Peoples at Tufts (AMPT), a community that not only explores multiracial peoples’ common struggles and experiences, but also celebrates their differences. Shana Merrifield, an AMPT executive board member, explained why having a community of mixed race people is so important: “It’s difficult to find spaces where you can talk about who you are, and what it means to be mixed race…once you come to terms with that conflict, and you try to confront it, what do you do if you don’t have the avenues to talk about it?”

In order to create such spaces and avenues, AMPT has begun to offer peer groups, where multiracial students can get together weekly to discuss issues of race that they experience in their lives. As the multiracial narrative is not a singular one, there are three groups for discussing different experiences: a White passing peer group, a mixed Black peer group, and a mixed race relations peer group. Merrifield along with Patrick Mahaney are the student leaders and mentors for the mixed race relations peer group I joined this semester. Joining this community has connected me with peers that can understand and validate my own experiences and allow me to critically discuss my own race within a larger academic environment where experiences with race can often be forgotten.

Like me, both Merrifield and Mahaney said that coming to college has made them take a much more critical look at their own racial identities and how they affect the community at large. To Mahaney, “A big experience for me was coming into Tufts not identifying as a POC, just from my history and the way I grew up it was easy for me to pass as white. I think that is something that a lot of mixed White POC struggle with.” I had personally never identified as mixed race or as a POC before coming to Tufts, but the incessant questioning of my racial identity and family history made me take a critical look at how I was perceived by others—and this ultimately led me to find the AMPT community.

Questioning my identity and place within the mixed race community has been emotionally taxing, and before I knew about AMPT, I found no structure of support at Tufts to discuss those struggles. For those that identify as mixed race White, Mahaney said, “We are both the oppressor and the oppressed in the same body…How do we reconcile that? We don’t want to steal power away from the person of color struggle, but at the same time we are people of color. How can we find the balance to contribute to that cause but not take up space that isn’t ours, and make our own space?” Struggling to find where I may take up space and being constantly asked about my racial identity makes both self-acceptance and interpersonal experiences difficult to navigate.

For a long time, I couldn’t explain why being asked about my racial identity made me uncomfortable. Dr. Jessica Remedios, Tufts Professor of Social Psychology and principal investigator in the Social Identity and Stigma Laboratory helped me understand why being asked about my racial identity can be so discomforting. Remedios suggested that for people who are unsure of their racial identity or what community they fit into, being asked questions such as “where are you from?” or “what are you?” can make that person internalize feelings of alienation and further invalidate that person’s racial identity. I now realize that these questions make my anxiety towards racial identity physically manifest in interactions I have with my peers, making me all the more aware of my inability to fit in.

When the topic of being mixed race does come up, it’s crucial to be conscious of whose voice ends up being the loudest. “I think what the mixed race community is trying to do now is showcase their voice in a way that is inclusive…but can it be inclusive when you have identities across all racial lines? Whose voice gets heard? Right now much of the narrative is around mixed race White and Asian people, and that’s something we’re trying to work on,” said Merrifield. The multiracial narrative is not a singular one. Through productive discussions within peer groups, the community is working to elevate the voices of all multiracial identities.

When asked what they feel are the next steps for AMPT’s future, Merrifield and Mahaney agree that it’s all about recognition and community building. Mahaney explained, “We are so invisible to everyone, and the only way we are ever going to be visible is if people talk about it, and work through it in their own minds and come to the conclusion that we exist.” My own delayed response in finding AMPT will hopefully not be the case for future students—I hope to see and be a part of an effort to increase the dialogue surrounding mixed race identities and include their experiences more deeply into discussions of race on our campus. This greater recognition of all multiracial narratives will undoubtedly help students like me feel more validated in their identity and more comfortable at Tufts.

While there is obviously work to do to bring all multiracial narratives to the consciousness of our school community, nothing can happen without first growing internally. In growing as individuals with a mixed race identity and as a community, creating a sense of validation and comfort is crucial. As Merrifield said, “We can’t talk about being multiracial if we don’t like being multiracial. We can’t go forward if we don’t feel comfortable in our own skin.”