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The ‘other’ checkbox

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I don’t really look that white — my eyes are just almond-shaped enough, my skin a shade hinting toward olive, my features arranged in such a way that many assume I am Latina or Pacific Islander. My brothers have hooded eyelids and hair as dark as coal, characteristics that lead people to assume and ask which “type” of Asian they are.

And that’s how it goes — the natural, human tendency to group and stereotype others on fleeting physical features means that multiracial and often ethnically ambiguous students are assigned to whichever genetic traits make themselves more prominent, whichever physical features align more with stereotypical racial indicators.

So in this world of surface-level absolutes, multiracial and multicultural students are in the limbo of race — both physically and emotionally — as the “other” and, themselves, seek to find continuity and acceptance in the tradition of racial “or” rather than “and.”

Until recent history, multiracialism was not an acknowledged nor accepted concept; physical race indicators were used simultaneously as tools for single-race categorization and, often, as means for discrimination. The infamous “one-drop rule”, implemented in tandem with the Jim Crow laws and propagated primarily in the American South, systematically categorized mixed-Black persons under their minority roots, acting as a way to extend discrimination to anyone of any black heritage.

One of the most famous cases of this was in Homer Plessy, a man seven-eighths white and one-eighth black. Plessy, who had predominantly white physical characteristics, was categorized and segregated as black because of his distant black relatives; he refused to abide to segregation laws while boarding a train car and was subsequently arrested. The resulting court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, would go down in history as a crucial probe on the 14th Amendment, but it also persists as a prime example of the enduring impact of the one-drop rule in structural racism. It fundamentally classified and compared races in relation to each other — one race being deemed the “one-drop” contaminant, a pollutant to the “ethnic purity” of a racial whole.

The base of multiracialism, especially for marginalized ethnic groups, is thus rooted in inequity: inequity with the racially homogenous and inequity within the mixed community itself. Of course, every mixed-race experience will be unique simply because each combination of ethnicities — even those of the same “combinations” — manifests itself in different physicalities, added on top of socioeconomic differences that inevitably shape cultural attitudes. A person who is half-black and half-white would have a very different experience in society than a person half-Asian, half-white, for example; physical categorizations of race explain that to us and prove that a large part of the multiracial experience is in how others perceive and subsequently stereotype us.

Recent conversation regarding race has come to include mixed-race individuals as a sum of their parts or a perfectly blended solution of differing elements. Phrases like “Blexican,” “Blasian” or, in my case, “Swietnamese,” are thrown around to refer to mixed-race persons, often just in jest, but also as an important indicator of what it means to be multiracial.

By nature, being multiracial means you belong to different communities, different languages and different cultures. You’re a sum of often incongruous parts but are never entirely composed of one, continuous whole — it’s not easy to come to terms with the internal plurality that exists genetically within you but that fails to psychologically reconcile a cultural totality.

As the child of a Swedish father and a Vietnamese mother, I feel pulled in opposite directions by two cultures that diverge sharply in their typical religions, practices and values. Because I speak neither Swedish nor Vietnamese and have lived in America my whole life, identifying entirely with my Asian side has never been appropriate, nor has been altogether belonging in the Scandinavian, white community to which I genetically have access. And although I am proud of being half-Asian, I still feel outsider to the wide array of Asian communities active on campus — half could never equate to whole, partial could never correspond to membership.

For Jade Lintott ’21 — who identifies as Chinese, White and hapa — partial proves to be a divide even within the bounds of her family: “My nonwhite features make me stand out when my dad’s side gets together, and my Chinese is too broken to ever let me feel connected to the Chinese side. As far as I am concerned, my immediate family is basically an island.”  

And because existing on the island of multiracialism means being stranded, stranger to the shores of racial wholes, there is a fear of missing out on the “full” racial experience. It is a desire to feel deep belongingness in one identity, rather than feeling a shallow connection to a plethora of cultures.

There does exist a vitality in the unique mixture of multiculturalism, however. When unforced to declare fidelity to just one facet of their cultural background, mixed-race persons have the ability to grasp onto the hybrid experiences of their cultural backgrounds and have unfettered access to their melange of identities. Throughout my childhood, my family established a mixed-culture tradition in celebrating the Lunar New Year with my Vietnamese mother and cooking traditional Swedish cuisine with my Swedish grandmother. My siblings and I would alternate between telling people we were just Asian, or just white. We accepted the racial pluralism within our genes yet embraced a single checked box for race in encounters with society.

And that checkbox? It’s the eternal existential crisis of multiracialism. Those checkboxes in college applications, job searches and census reporting are the representation of the eternal and often forced categorization — the mixed are either the “other” or can only be marked as one part of their ethnic whole, often at the expense of their other ethnic identities. Alternately, by checking the “mixed” box, multiracial students could choose to transcend the boundaries of monolithic race groups but at the cost of diminishing the prevalence and importance of the individual races that make up their ethnic being. Throughout all of these identity “options” of being mixed-race, ambiguity runs strong.

Do mixed persons have an ethical, racial obligation to act more “Asian” or more “Hispanic” based on how they look? Must the multiracial be categorized culturally by the way they express their race? Is there such thing as a shared experience of being simply “mixed”?

Is “mixed” a race of its own?

An internal struggle arises in this crisis of self-categorization, and yet our own decision to identify with just one side of our ethnic identity is often overridden by society’s decision to categorize us on its own desire for physical, racial absolutes. Belongingness to an established whole — full Asian or fully Latinx, for example — thus feels incomplete to the mixed person, while belongingness to an ambiguous “multiracial” is unacknowledged in the larger society.

Within society at Stanford, this trend rings surprisingly true. In terms of diversity and support for the different races on campus, Stanford is successful in providing a wide variety of communities. It boasts over 30 different Asian American-associated clubs and a dozen different groups in the Native American Cultural Center. For those ethnically categorized and comfortable with it, Stanford likely has a club for their background.

Not as much if you’re multiracial.

Stanford boasts a 10 percent mixed-race population — a percentage significantly higher than the national average — yet multiracialism has had a spotty and incomplete history on campus. There have been numerous attempts, both successful and not, to establish working multiracial communities where these students could connect with each other on their uncertain identities and checkbox crises.

In April of 1990, a group of students formed two multiracial support groups: Spectrum, for biracial students, and Asian-Americans of Multiracial Descent. At NSO in 1991, Stanford implemented the first “Faces of Community” program, still active today, to open the door for dialogue on the multiracial, multicultural student body on campus. In June of last year, the Asian American Theatre Project (AATP) put on a production of “Purple Rain” to discuss the implications of a mixed-race heritage. Sigma Psi Zeta Sorority and Sigma Theta Psi are notably the only explicitly multicultural-oriented Greek organizations at Stanford, both of whom only include female members, while the Multiracial Identified Community at Stanford (MICS) is less than a year old in activity on campus.  

Although these groups have existed across different contexts and time differences of over 20 years, they were founded with strikingly similar goals and intentions. Spectrum aimed toprovide a support base for students who may have had little or no interaction with other multiracial students before attending Stanford,” while MICS president Becky Peoples ’19 says that the goal of the organization is to “create a space where people could come together and not have to feel like they had to choose one racial side over the other.” Through all these attempts at community, these ideas run strong: support, open discourse and understanding of a common, yet unique, experience.

Yet an underlying, unfortunate point of communion among these groups is their failure to exist and be active on campus for sustained amounts of time. With the exception of MICS and the multicultural sororities, every mixed-race group formed thus far has faced difficulties in creating a solid group for an indefinable group of peoples, and in finding ways to relate to the multitude of experiences a mixed-race student may experience. As Peoples noted, “if leadership is representative of just one particular [racial] mix, then it’s a lot harder to get people involved and keep these groups alive.”

Many of the older multiracial groups were founded by predominantly Asian-American students, which were eventually subsumed under the Asian American Activities Center. Groups like MICS were sometimes put under hiatus after difficulties defining group goals, often resulting from diverging visions from group members with differing racial experiences.

But perhaps the reason why these groups haven’t lasted for decades is because of the ambiguity of simply being of mixed-race. We cannot even categorize ourselves into a racial check box because we are a beautiful mix of opposites, a heterogeneous combination of color.

We live in the gray space of race.

Having no ethnic, overriding common ground to align ourselves with means that there inherently isn’t a solid basis on which we can discuss our unique experiences … except for the understanding of not having common experiences with our forced racial categories. But though the uncertainty of multiracialism can perhaps explain the difficulty of forming these types of groups at Stanford, it doesn’t mean the cycle of forced categorization needs to continue.

Ultimately what determines your identity as a person is a conglomerate of your experiences and influences, separate and at once intertwined with your physical appearances, your background, your genetic makeup. The multiracial checkbox can be seen as a diluter on your ethnic mix, or it can feel freeing from the monolithic categorization of race. You can choose to live in the gray space; you can choose “other.” Each checkbox narrative, whether it be monolithic identification or the embrace of the “mixed identity,” is a narrative that deserves to be heard — we must think of race outside of the box.

 

Contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at elindqw ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Elizabeth Lindqwister is a junior from Peoria, Illinois, majoring in history. She was the Vol. 257 Deputy Editor and Vice President. Find her at CoHo or elindqw 'at' stanford.edu.