“So, like, what are you?”
“No, you know what I mean, what are you? What’s your background?”
This exchange is one that is probably familiar to many on campus and in America whose physical appearance doesn’t fit comfortably into one of the major racial categories that we often rely on to identify, make assumptions about and relate to other people. While people of mixed heritage are certainly not the only ones subject to the “what are you” question, they can face the question and the prospect of giving an answer more complicated than a single-word: Asian, Black, Latino/a, Native or White.
But we are in a strange time; despite the fact that the “what are you” question and the desire for choose-one identities persist, the visibility of mixed people is higher than it has ever been. President Barack Obama’s white mother/black father parentage was a central part of the story he told on his path to the White House in 2008. And in advertising, mass media and academia, an increasing amount of attention has been paid to mixed folks. So-called “racially ambiguous” people, including many with mixed heritage, are in high demand by marketers and talent scouts (think of former SNLers Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph). In academia, Critical Mixed Race Studies exists as a field of study, a biennial conference, an academic journal, and a community in the process of forming the Critical Mixed Race Studies Association.
When I (Gaby) came to UC Davis from high school, I did not identify as mixed and was not even aware that I could. As the child of a Mexican father and a white mother, I was often perceived as a white woman, with my Mexican heritage invisible and ignored. I remember attending a Chican@/Latin@ welcome event for new students; I stopped at an organization’s table and one student asked me, “Oh, so are you Latina?” At that moment, I became aware of how much appearance mattered, how difficult it was for people to accept more than one answer, and how much my own experience and perspective differed from many others, not just at this event but all over campus. I didn’t want to choose only one ethnicity. I wanted to be in an ethnically diverse space that recognized my mixed identity and experience.
In 2013, a friend approached me about reviving Mixed Student Union, started in 2004 but inactive for several years. I started to explore my mixed heritage and what it meant. Now, as MSU President and as the Multi-Ethnic Community and Mixed Heritage Week Student Coordinator at the Cross Cultural Center, I implement programs that create space for people of mixed heritage to share experiences and create community. One of these programs is the 11th Annual UC Davis Mixed Heritage Week, “Mixed Roots, Same Earth”, which will take place on campus next week, from March 2 to March 6. Organized by the Cross Cultural Center and MSU, MHW is a week long event, open to all, dedicated to the celebration and empowerment of the mixed heritage community, providing space for sharing, learning and connection.
The challenges of creating a strong mixed community have a lot to do with the diversity of experiences and perspectives. But this diversity is also a strength. Listening to mixed folk and thinking about mixed identity can help us think critically about what it means to live in the 21st century, about equality and inequality, and about the realities and possibilities of our multi-cultural nation (and globe).
One of us (Gaby) came to thinking about mixed identity through her own experience as a new undergraduate on campus, the other one (Simon) came to it as a graduate student who studies race and also as a husband and father. I (Simon) am a white man, my son is a child of mixed heritage and we live in a community with many mixed children. I see first-hand the beauties, questions and challenges of this common ground. My son, German-Jewish, Finnish-American, Peruvian and Scottish, plays with other children and close friends, who are combinations of Ecuadorian, Mexican, African American, Korean, Jewish American, Salvadoran, Portuguese and Spanish ancestries. They play and share the wonder of love and acceptance from families and friends. They share the diversity of traditions and languages, all aware of how to navigate different cultures. And yet, times will come, and already have, when they will be judged by appearance and a presumed racial identity. Some, judged white, will be considered “normal,” well-behaved Americans. Some, black, will be viewed as threatening, more likely to be stopped by police. Some, Latino/a, may be asked where they are “really from.” And some will be asked, “So, what are you?”
As long as that question persists, let’s forget the myth that mixed folk are representative of some kumbaya future when “we are all the same.” Instead, let’s take the time to listen, learn and think about the challenges as well as the beauties. If anything, it will be the thinking, not always easy, that will make for an equitable, harmonious and mixed future.
Gabriela Preciado, third-year Spanish major, food and nutrition minor
Simon Abramowitsch, Ph.D candidate, English
Graphic by Jennifer Wu