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Multiracial Students Struggle With Identities

By Edward B. Colby, Crimson Staff Writer

In the 2000 Census, Americans will, for the first time, be able to define themselves as "mixed-race."

The census is only one of the many forms that query people about race. Between college applications and standardized tests, by the time students arrive at Harvard, they have been asked to specify a race on more than a few occasions.

For those who identify with more than one category, such a choice is not that simple.

It is a problem that multiracial students at Harvard face in their daily lives. All agree the question of race poses complex questions of identity and that they do not have a common solution, or even definition, of the problem.

Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy K. Anthony Appiah, whose mother is British and father is Ghanaian, says awareness of the mixed-race problem is increasing.

Immigrants, he says, have different ways of thinking about race when they come to the United States, explaining that people from Africa talk about race differently than people from the Caribbean.

And mixed-race students have not missed the growing dialogue about their race.

Maya Sen '00 says the presence of multiracial people in the U.S. is "such a growing phenomenon."

"I think society has gotten to the point where they do accept multiracial people," she says.

"Down the road...there will be a significant number of mixed-race people in this country," says Joshua W. Brown '01. "People will pay more attention to them as a group."

The terms used to describe mixed-race people are themselves problematic, writes Simon L. Sternin '00 in an e-mail message.

"It has been pretty scientifically proven that there is no such thing as a 'race,' and most people, whether they know it or not, are a mixture of genes from all over the world," Sternin writes.

Sternin thinks that a better term would be "mixed ethnicity."

To avoid using a particular terminology, The Crimson asked the students interviewed for this article to define their own racial background. But like the estimated 5 million Americans who in the mid-1990s identified themselves with more than one race, these students would all say they are multiracial.

All in One

Robyn Sackeyfio '00, whose mother is Scottish and whose father is from Ghana, grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Detroit. She says her parents were surprised by the attention focused on her race when she was growing up.

"I think that they were shocked...that my sister and I were going through problems," she says, adding that comments like "What are you?" were common.

Ethel B. Branch '01, whose mother is Navajo and whose father is part Spanish-Mexican, part Basque and part French, went to an all Native-American grade school in Arizona.

"It's really hard coming to terms with your own identity," she says, adding that people have told her that she is a "white Indian."

"You just don't have that validity that other people have," Branch says.

One major difficulty mixed-race students said they face are assumptions and misconceptions about their racial identity.

Rodolfo N. Cajiri '01, a Bolivian of Japanese, African, Spanish, Native American and Middle Eastern descent, says that people label him as Hispanic despite the many races represented in his background.

"Since I'm brown and have black hair, people assumed I was Mexican," Cajiri says.

Adam P. Bailey '01, who is part Oklahoma Choctaw and part white, says he has never been torn about his identity but that people often don't realize that he is part Native American.

"The question arises when other people come into the situation," he says. "My identity is not what other people see, I guess."

The "one-drop rule" has long been an issue for mixed-race people. This convention refers to the belief that if a person has a single black ancestor, he or she is black, according to Appiah.

"As long as I've been alive, I've always been black," says Brown who is from Kentucky. Brown's father is black and his mother is white.

"No matter what percentage you are black, you're always looked at as black," says Stephanie N. Ajudua '00, whose father is Nigerian and whose mother if Ukranian. She says she feels society wants her to deny or suppress her mother's side of her identity.

"If I don't, I'm a sell-out to the black community," she says. "I don't think that's fair."

"If you look a certain way, you don't have much choice," says Appiah, adding that it won't help to say "No, no, I'm mixed-race!" if someone is chasing you in the street because you are black.

"There's been an increase in the number of people who want to resist the one-drop rule," Appiah says, pointing to people like golf star Tiger Woods, who says he shouldn't be defined by only one race.

"People don't want to have to identify with one side of their the exclusion of the other," he says.

Choosing Sides

Many students interviewed say that perhaps the toughest problem they face is choosing which part of their identity they want to emphasize.

"You feel a pressure to choose a side," Sackeyfio says. "Whatever side you choose, the other side looks at you funny."

Branch is currently co-chair of Native Americans at Harvard College (NAHC), but she says she has switched back and forth in her involvement with NAHC and RAZA, the campus' large Latino group, many times. Branch has also been chair of the Minority Students Alliance, an umbrella organization for racial groups on campus.

"Which community do you give back to?" Branch asks. "It's really hard to do them both equally."

Krystle L. Dunwell '01, whose mother is Irish, Polish and Swedish, and whose father is Jamaican, Chinese and Native American, says she didn't fit in with either black or white people in high school.

"It's really hard to fit into a specific ethnic group," Dunwell says. "Not being able to identify with one or the other is probably the hardest thing."

Dunwell says she used to think of her complicated identity as a "curse," but she now thinks being multiracial is "great."

"In general, I feel a little more accepted [at Harvard]," she says. "I'm an individual, I'm different," she adds.

A Club for Everyone?

With a plethora of ethnic and social groups on campus, there seems to be a group for everyone, from the Asian American Association to the Black Student Association to the Southeastern Europe Society.

"It's very difficult to fit in," Sen says. Sen, whose mother is Mexican and whose father is Indian, adds that the people who go to the South Asian Association (SAA) or RAZA are exclusively South Asian or Mexican, respectively.

Sen says she feels alienated from these ethnic groups.

"It's really hard when you come here and are targeted [by groups]," she says. "Society doesn't usually ask you to identify as one or the other, unlike groups here, which do ask you to identify as one or the other."

And though Ajudua says there is "no stigma" to being a mixed-race person on campus, she hasn't "identified with the black community."

"When you come to school, you're expected to conform to one group, and that's hard," she says. "It's like being pre-med and going to law school but not knowing anything about law."

Both Cajiri and Sameer Doshi '02 say they have tried out different student groups but without success. Cajiri says he didn't fit into the Harvard-Radcliffe Japan Society, the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Arab Students (HRSAS) and RAZA, while Doshi says that HRSAS and SAA were not right for him.

"They didn't inform my choices, nor did I have a very good sense of the culture of either," Doshi says.

Twice as Good

Beyond the complicated and often confusing difficulties of multiracial identity, students say this background enriches their lives.

Maya S. Turre '00 says she is more accepting of different cultures, more open-minded, and is able to pick and choose positive traits of different cultures and incorporate them into her life as a result of her multiracial identity.

Her mother is part black and Native American, while her father is part Mexican, Swedish and Italian.

Dunwell says having a mixed-race identity has enabled her to learn about the different cultures of the world in a more in-depth way than people of a single race can.

"I've got to experience a lot firsthand that a lot of people who aren't multicultural, multiracial, don't get to experience so closely," Dunwell says.

Isaac J. Weiler '02, whose mother is white and Jewish and whose father is black, says that his background allows him to have a "unique perspective."

"The best part is I can see different issues from different angles," says Weiler, one of the organizers of an "Hyphenated Jew Discussion" held at Hillel last week for students who only have one Jewish parent.

Branch, meanwhile, appreciates the versatility of her background, saying that she is like a "chameleon."

"You have the option of adopting one when it's convenient," Branch says.

But some students say they avoid "choosing sides" by focusing on themselves as individuals.

Adjudua, of Nigerian and Ukrainian parentage, says she has struggled with her black-white identity.

She was raised in "total, white society" on Long Island, and says she didn't think of herself as black or white sides until she came to college.

"Your race wasn't an issue until you hit the real world," she says.

At Harvard, however, Ajudua hasn't "really identified with the black community," though she says they have been accepting.

"You come to college and you're supposed to find your own way," she says. "I found it was hard for me to do that."

Now, Ajudua says she simply wants to be herself.

"I want to be like, 'We think of you as Stephanie,'" she says. "That's who I want to be and who I'm proud of being."

Doshi says he has come to a similar conclusion. Doshi, a member of the Multicultural Issues Forum--a group which aims to raise awareness of diversity and tolerance of multicultural issues on campus--says he sees his identity as "peripheral," though he has become more conscious of his identity since coming to Harvard.

"I've always wrestled with my identity and who I am," says Doshi, who father is from Gujarat in western India and whose mother is from Quebec, though her family is from Lebanon.

"Is there a basic Sameer under all those? I think the answer is yes," he concludes.

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