Mixed heritage: communities on a racially separate campus

If you were to walk around campus, and attend the various events, forums and performances – maybe walk through Baxter Dining Hall, or take a look at upperclass housing patterns – would you notice that Williams students tend to cluster themselves along racial lines? Most people notice, most people recognize it immediately and most people follow the pattern. We have Asian-American tables at the dining halls, there are Outing Club events attended almost solely by whites and we have a few performance art organizations that cater towards black expression.

I do not intend to generalize anyone or any organization; rather my intention is quickly to raise one salient point, and to expound on one unfortunately silent question. The point: despite the diversity at Williams, we are a racially fragmented student body and too often a racially separate campus. The phenomenon is extremely visible in our day-to-day lives; its effects are too multifaceted and extensive for this article.

The question is, “What do students of mixed heritage face, socially, academically or otherwise when they are presented with a racially fragmented community like Williams?” We are a diverse community, but we are also diverse individuals, with unique personal heritages and family histories. What issues might one confront on a racially separate campus, when you have ties to more than one community?

This is the question that will be raised at an open campus-wide forum this Thursday, November 18, in the Goodrich Living Room at 7 p.m., part of a monthly series sponsored by the Black Student Union, and in conjunction with VISTA’s celebration of Latino/a Heritage Month.

The situation may seem simple to those of us who fit easily into the homogeneous categories of racial identity, but students of mixed heritage must inherently have different experiences. It bears asking, would you be forced to choose between certain aspects of your heritage, or might you be able to connect and be accepted by more than one community? One hopes the latter would be the case, but dual or multiple identification is not something that comes easy in the social construction of American racial identity.

The most prevalent historical example might be the institution of hypodescent, commonly known as “the one drop rule,” which has been the dominant tenet of racial categorization throughout American history. In order to maintain the so-called “purity” of the white race, the rule holds that any individual with any black blood-relative, or “one drop of black blood,” should be considered black.

The notion of hypodescent helped create and sustain a bipolar relationship between white America and black America, which has only in recent years begun to fade. One need only look at the controversy around Tiger Woods’ self-identification as equal members of each racial or ethnic group within his family lineage to understand that multiracial identification is not necessarily met with open arms in this country.

Despite the increasing favor displayed for the expression of multiracial identity during the 1990s, which is increasingly apparent in college applications and discussion over the 2000 census, the national discourse has seemingly not found its way to the Williams campus, or been discussed at a more local level within our community. Imagine, for a moment, a student with a Latino parent and a Chinese-American parent. Would this student be able to walk into a VISTA meeting and feel welcome? Would this student be able to walk in to a CASO meeting and fit in? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Often students of mixed heritage feel somewhat out of place in environments that are only able to address one particular aspect of their ethnicity. Some voice their concerns that allegiance to one group can be interpreted as accepting one part of their history, and ignoring the other.

Sometimes, based solely on appearance, a student might not fit the image of a particular ethnic community. A student with a Jewish and African-American background might stand out at a function at the Jewish Religious Center, being a minority within a minority. At the same time, this individual might never feel fully comfortable in the black community for many of the same reasons. This leaves the greater white Protestant community, which unfortunately has historically been inept at handling issues of diversity and acceptance.

No individual should have to choose one aspect of their background, and reject the rest of their personal history just in order to conform to American societal categorizations of race. We should all have the liberty to recognize, appreciate, embrace and uplift all aspects of our heritage – it is the only way that we can truly appreciate our family histories and lineage. Yet too often our society instinctively demands that individuals choose one racial or ethnic identification so that they may be placed into the appropriate category.

With the onset of the “Browning of America,” the increasing number of interracial marriages and the growing awareness of multiracial identification, the American system of racial classification must slowly give way to new concepts and definitions of race and ethnicity.

As a nation we will need to inquire about what the future holds for individuals who, by their presence alone, not only bring diversity with respects to dominant cultural settings, but whose growing presence might command a new racial doctrine to address their own individual diversity.

As a campus community, one fragmented across racial lines, we must first ask ourselves, what choices, concerns, or issues might students of mixed heritage face during their four years at Williams? Our discussion begins here, a diverse community of diverse individuals. The BSU, VISTA and concerned supporters invite you to join our forum on Thursday, November 18 at 7 p.m. in the Goodrich Living Room, and ask the question: “Students of Mixed Heritage: Choosing Communities on a Racially Separate Campus?”