I am Mixed-Race. I am both Black and white. I am also American and have therefore been raised in a culture that seems to be constantly divided along racial boundaries, whether they are in campus diversity and inclusion programs or identity-based organizations, with little regard for those of us who fall among the shades of gray.
Regardless of how those of us on the grayscale identify, we are often forced by society to pick a side, whether it be on college applications or social circles. We are encouraged to choose only one lineage, to look at our racial background and choose which identity we will bear.
Because I am biracial, choosing a background has meant recognizing the fact that one of my racial identities is responsible for the oppression of the other. This internal struggle has been illustrated by current events like the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the church shooting in Charleston that killed nine Black brothers and sisters, the countless murders of Black women, men (both cis and trans), and gender-nonconforming individuals at the hands of our police force, and the protests organized by brave students at Mizzou and Yale. This tension has also impacted my personal life. For example, I've had to explain to my mother why racial "color-blindness" is harmful and that she shouldn't take it personally when I complain about white people.
And these are just a few examples of the mulattx struggle. Though the experience of every Mixed-Race person is unique, I am often forced to take pause and remember that part of my lineage is responsible for the oppression that Black folks face today.
This conflict only serves to create a greater sense of otherness, of being a deviation from the norm. As Claudia de Lavalle reminded us in her recent op-ed, it is common for Mixed students to attempt to join groups based around one of their racial, ethnic, or cultural identities in order to find some sense of community, while feeling that they cannot completely empathize with the group's sentiments. Don't get me wrong—generally speaking, these groups are not exclusive or hostile toward Mixed people. As a matter of fact, I have found that identity-based student groups are much more inclusive of the Mixed experience now than they have been in years prior.
Mixed individuals experience a sense of disconnect that has little to do with the identity-based communities they lay claim to. We also often feel that our involvement in these student groups is disingenuous. Who am I, a light-skinned Mixed man who's rather racially ambiguous, to speak on colorism or racial profiling? Often, society's perception deviates from the traditional racial or ethnic narrative, which places us somewhere outside of what should be a relatable experience. For me to say that I am Black can often feel audacious. Who am I to be so bold? Where, if you will, are the proverbial receipts?
I don't think it's unreasonable to want to avoid self-induced imposter syndrome. But the notion that I am somehow less Black because I have light skin and a white mom comes from a faulty understanding of genetics and the physical properties of identity, a method practiced originally to determine a person's value at the time of the Atlantic slave trade.
These racial divisions lead many to believe that people with intersectional racial identities and experiences would find it difficult to relate to one another. People have argued that a patchwork community of Mixed people wouldn't work because Mixed experiences are so different from one another. How could someone who's Black and white relate to someone who's Colombian and Korean? Or Jamaican and Chinese? Or Palestinian and Mexican? Those questions arise from the culture we live in, which hinges upon binaries and false dichotomies—Democrat or Republican, gay or straight, trans or cis, sex-positive or prude—that do nothing but associate certain social stereotypes with people who don't necessarily fit that mold. Someone can't be bisexual or sexually queer without being "confused," people could never be in between or outside the West's two genders without being "extra," and certainly no one could have multiple racial identities without being an outsider. That's just not simple enough for our society. There's no spectrum in sight.
So, in response to this feeling of otherness I have shared with many other Mixed-Race students on campus, I decided to create the Mixed-Race Students Society—a space for us, a space for those without a space, a space for the in-betweeners. We, as Mixed-Race students attending Columbia, needed to make visible the intricacies and diversities of Mixed experiences. We wanted to create a community for the victims of what often feels like a societal "push-of-war" (where neither side wants the metaphorical flag, which is the Mixed Race). We wanted to make a space where people have the ability to be themselves "100 percent of the time, not sometimes one half, sometimes the other," as Claudia put it in her excellent op-ed.
The responses the MRSS has received from both the Columbia and Barnard communities have been incredible. Ever since the inception of the MRSS, a plethora of students of similarly varied backgrounds have reached out and become a part of our project. Even the founder of a similar organization at Cornell has reached out to me, offering advice in the unbroken ground of Mixed-Race community organizing. And several alumni have reached out to members of the MRSS board to say they wished this had existed while they were here.
I don't think anyone anticipated how much unity can come from constantly being told, "You're not enough." The MRSS is on its way to making Columbia just a little bit more welcoming, just a little bit more accommodating.
We as a community live within a paradigm of "one or the other," when life is never that black and white. Now, I think it's time for Columbia to explore the gray.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in creative writing and history. He is the president of the Mixed-Race Students Society.
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