Panel talks multiracial identity in academics

Monday, October 26, 2015 - 7:54pm

Art & Design Prof. Edward West discusses his works examining the lives and experiences of multiracial people during the Faculty Panel in Hatcher Graduate Library on Monday.

Art & Design Prof. Edward West discusses his works examining the lives and experiences of multiracial people during the Faculty Panel in Hatcher Graduate Library on Monday. Buy this photo
Ryan McLoughlin/Daily

 

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, 6.9 percent of all Americans 18 and older identify as multiracial. According to the University’s Office of the Registrar, last year, just over 3 percent of students identified as two or more races.

A panel of University faculty met Monday night to discuss how multiracialism influences academic work for the first of their yearlong series dedicated to discussing the multiracial experience.

“We were really hoping to create a sense of community,” said Karen Downing, the University Library’s head of social sciences and the education liaison librarian. “This is a population that is often hidden because we don’t walk around with signs on us saying we’re multiracial. It’s hard to connect sometimes with other multiracial people.”

Downing said the organizers hope to share their stories and find some commonalities with one another during the course of this series.

“There’s also a growing multiracial population in our country and on our campus,” Downing said. “There’s a growing need for more inclusive research and teaching pedagogies that acknowledge intersections of social identities, and there’s a growing pipeline of multiracial students, staff and faculty.”

The panel included Martha Jones, a professor of history and Afroamerican and African Studies and co-director of the Michigan Law Program in Race, Law and History, as well as Edward West, professor emeritus in the School of Art & Design, and Mark Kamimura-Jimenez, Rackham director of Graduate Student Success.

All three faculty panelists raised points about the experiences of multiracial people, the diversity of multiracial students on campus and responded to the question, “What does it mean to be multiracial in a monoracial world?” Each also focused on an aspect specific to their own story, research and work at the University.

West, the first to speak, was born to an African-American father from Cincinnati and a German mother from Berlin. West, who grew up in New York City, has been a practicing artist since he was 17 years old and a teacher since he was 22, both professions are what he refers to as “central strands” of who he is as a person.

“Being mixed is about living within a very particular state of consciousness, and so is being an artist,” West said. “Being mixed is about seeing things, accessing experiences in new combinations, and so is being an artist. Whether we like it or not, whether we choose it or not, being mixed is also about being a teacher, about the conversations that always arise as we explain to others who we are.”

West said the interlacing of place, person and time has always been key to his work, as well as thinking how these contexts change who a person is, how people see themselves and how others see them.

West has dedicated more than a decade to his photography project, “So Called.” Centered primarily on mixed race, the project focuses on geography, as West explored many different locations to complete his project, including Honolulu and Havana, Cuba.

“So much of mixed-race literature and commentary had revolved around the pressures to choose one race or ethnic identity over the multiplicity of one’s true lineage,” West said. “I wanted (my daughter) to know that there were places where her cultural conditioning were the norm, not the exception. I wanted her to understand that she didn’t have to subsume one part of her heritage in favor of another. I wanted her to be proud of being this and that.”

According to West, to say mixed race or multiethnic means attempting to unpack the concept of race among broader cultural context.

“ ‘So Called’ is a modifier that calls out the limits of naming,” West said. “For this project it also calls out the limits of any attempt to quantify, qualify and delimit who we are as mixed people.”

Jones retold the story of how she began researching for a book about racial identity in the United States, particularly mixed-race identity. While doing research, Jones said she discovered aspects of her own identity that were unknown to her.

“If the generations before mine had kept their silence, preferring dissemblance to socially awkward disclosure, I was different,” Jones said. “I was prepared to put it out there and let others make of it what they liked.”

Jones said one of the very first articles she wrote was for a news outlet, editors gave her article the title “Biracial, and also black.”

“It was a reflection on shifting categories, one that used my family history to tell about how we got from the one drop pool to mixed race,” Jones said. “It was powerful to hear people respond to the work. Detractors told me I couldn’t be both black and biracial.”

Jones referenced feminist writer and poet Helene Cixous’ famous line, “Blackness isn’t black. It is the last degree of reds.” For Jones, Cixous’ line reminded her that writing a family history of race is more than social science.

“My family’s story has banished the red, leaving blackness to stand alone, stand in for the whole,” Jones said.

She posed questions to attendees: “Can a color be remembered? Does it carry with it memories of red, of black, of white … ? What happens to my blackness when it becomes also red? Is it then blackness at all?”

Going through school, Kamimura-Jimenez said people would often ask, “What are you?” and after listing off different ethnicities, he said they would often call him a “mutt.”

“The only mutt I knew was my neighbor’s dog,” Kamimura-Jimenez said jokingly. “You have these notions of attaching identity to these different events in your life … (As a child) it becomes really complicated to negotiate and understand the world we’re in.”

Kamimura-Jimenez said racial history in the United States informs a lot of the climate around mixed-race identities.  

When beginning his dissertation, Kamimura-Jimenez said a faculty member asked him why he was studying race and told him to study something more important.  

So Kamimura-Jimenez wrote his dissertation on multiple race groups and mixed race as related to identity development. In his dissertation, he asked the question, “How do mixed-race people understand themselves and others?”

Kamimura-Jimenez found in his research that mixed race people understood others much more than they understood themselves because mixed-race people are constantly trying to negotiate their environment with situational identity.

“Do we create environments in which students are being forced to think about who they are all the time?” Kamimura-Jimenez asked. “We need to create environments in which students can be themselves. They need to be free to be who they are.”

A multiracial student panel will take place in winter 2016.