O.C.D. (Obsessed w/ Culture Disorder)

Maybe "obsessed" is a strong word, but my husband definitely agrees that I think about race and identitiy more than the average person.

Last weekend I attended "So...What Are You Anyway? Harvard's 3rd Annual Conference on Multiracial Identity" (SWAYA) organized by the Harvard Half-Asian People's Association (HAPA).  Because many interracial relationships produce multiracial children or involve adopted children who are of a different race from one (or both) of the adults in an interracial relationship, I thought I'd come and be a fly on the wall.

Upon entering Holden Chapel, I took a quick scan of the room, realized I was the only monoracial person present, and began humming the "One of These Things Is Not Like The Other" song from Sesame Street.  I walked briskly across the room with my head held high and settled into a seat at the front of the room.  Soon after, the Harvard HAPA President delivered her welcome and I found it hard to understand some of the words that were coming out of her mouth (and the mouths of people around me).  I'd only recently read about the term "Blasian"--one who identifies as Black and Asian-- but never heard someone actually say it in conversation until that evening.  And while many people proudly embraced terms like HAPA and "Half" to as part of their ethnic identity, those labels just didn't still well with me.

SWAYA is not only a student-run conference but also a heavily student-attended conference.  During the "Dinner and Meet & Greet" portion of the evening, I met a number of students from Ohio State, the largest group represented at the conference.  Other campuses in attendance included: Tufts, Wellesley, Northeastern, Brown, Villanova, University of Hartford, University of Massachusetts, Perdue, California Polytechnic, University of Maryland-College Park, and a bunch more that I couldn't write down fast enough (not that it matters because I can barely decipher my handwriting).

I'm very much the Early Bird, not the Night Owl, so by 8:00 pm, after a long week and three slices of pizza, I wanted to curl up in the corner and fall asleep.  But I stayed awake long enough to watch the screening of "One Big Hapa Family," the first feature documentary by Jeff Chiba Stearns, a Canadian filmmaker of Japanese and European heritage.  His film explores the high Japanese-Canadian interracial marriage rate (almost 100%) and how his own family reflects this trend in that everyone after his grandparents' generation married interracially.  After the screening Jeff spent some time discussing his own personal evolution in indentifying as multiracial person.  He pushed back on the notion of people using fractions to identify themselves (1/2 black, 1/4 white, etc.), inferring that such an approach dilutes and weakens a sense of self and potentially creates a "cult of confusion" among multiracial children.

Day Two of the conference began with me suffering from another case of chronic earliness (I had about an hour to kill).  After a breakfast of fruit and Fruit Loops (I did mention this was a student-run conference right?), Dean Evelyn Hammonds of Harvard College opened the day with her talk "New Technologies of 'Race'."  A historian of science by training, Dean Hammonds provided a useful retrospective of the history of race and science in medicine, acknowledging America as a "profoundly mixed nation" and asking the question: "What will it take to bring America back to its unhypenated whole?"  When I asked for her thoughts on recent media headlines over the latest Census data she responded: "Categories create identity.  Those boxes will never tell the full story of identity in America."  She also mentioned the need for "more public and civil discourse" about "what it means to be American," and in light of the recent Jalen Rose-Duke University controversy, "what it means to be African-American."

Next was a panel discussion "Raising Mixed Race Children."  I must say, the panel definitely left me raise my children under a GEICO rock.  As I listened to panelists discuss the joys and challenges of raising mixed race children, I experienced a whole range of emotions.  Sadness, as I listened to a child say that her biggest cultural shock/challenge was that her mother can't "deal with black hair"  (I think I actually let out an audible gasp and an "Oh no!" while placing my hand over put my upper chest).  Shock, as I listened to more than one parent talk about how they choose not to emphasize racial identity in their homes.  Empathy, as I listened to a wife recall how her husband's family tried to stop their wedding.  Joy, as laughed over a father's story about his failed attempt to compliment his future grandmother-in-law's cooking in Chinese (instead of saying she had "fine food" he ended up saying she had a "fine a--").  And relief when a father corrected his wife's assumption that "education makes a huge difference in being more accepting" by pointing out that one of his most bigoted relatives earned a PhD from Harvard.

The last two presentations made me wish I'd paid more attention in freshman statistics and psychology.  Dean David Smith lectured on "The Challenges and Potential of Critical Mixed Race Studies."  Now, I'd never even heard of "Mixed Race Studies"!  I'm I the only person?  Gotta get out from under my GEICO rock more often.  Then Arnold K. Ho presented preliminary findings of his ongoing research: "The Categorization and Perception of Biracials in Contemporary America: The 'One Drop of Blood' Rule Revisited."  His talk focused on social dominance theory and how the nature of hierarchies impact how we see people from multiracial groups and how patterns of interracial marriage mirror prevailing hierarchies in society.  The term "hypodescent" was thrown around a bunch and I'm sure all the experts he quoted and cross-referenced were all really smart, important, accomplished people, but I had a pressing issue that I needed answered:

Me: "Hi! Um, thanks for your presentation.  It was really informative and I learned alot.  Now, you've quoted a lot of experts and social scientists, but what I'd really like to know is: what is your opinion of Halle Berry?"
Arnold: "Oh! Halle Berry?!"
Me: "Uh, yes.  Since you study this stuff for a living, what do you think about Halle Berry and the comments she made about her daughter's racial identity based on the one-drop rule?"
Arnold: "Oh.  Well the statement she made basically supports what I've been finding in my research."
Me: "Oh, how convenient!"

Overall, I found the conference a truly educational experience.  I applaud Harvard HAPA for all the hard work put into a really engaging and informative weekend and look forward to joining them next year.


  1. Thanks for this summary of your conference experience. Some parts of it seemed satirical & some seemed concerned & mystified.

    Your question about Halle Berry's identification of her child was a good one. I'm really surprised by the answer you were given. I don't know the specifics of his research, but I don't agree with the outcome.

    Have you & your husband decided how you'll encourage your children to identify? Of course, children become adults & they don't always do follow their parents' rule in all things.

  2. @temple
    You're welcome.

    It was definitely the first time I experienced "mixed race" as an identity unto itself. I was chatting with one student during lunch who identified as White and Okinawa. I just assumed Okinawa was always part of Japan, but she explained that before Okinawa became a Japanese territory, it was its own kingdom with its own language, traditions and culture! I had no idea! I guess the closest comparison I could make are people identifying as "Taiwanese" vs. "Chinese."

    I'm sorry I had to give such a truncated description of his research because the presentation was quite substantive and at times over my head. BUT basically social dominance theory has to do with social heirarchies in societies. He compared America's racial heirarchies (whites at the top, then Asians, the Hispanics, and Blacks at the bottom - and yes, I did make a "stank face" when he put that slide up - sorry Mr. Ho!) to India's caste system as an example. His research basically shows that when the intermarriage between two diffferent "strata" of the hierarchy occur, the child is usually identified racially with the "lower" group regardless of genetics. So Halle proved his point in that genetically, her daughter may actually have more White/European genetic make-up, but is still identified as "Black." And that's just a REALLY quick summary--I'm not doing his research justice.

    Good question re: my children. I know we don't have complete control over that, but we can exert a lot of influence. I just want to make sure that we (and the rest of the village that will raise them) teach them about all the people/places/things that made their lives possible. I don't plan on teaching them to refer to themselves as "half" anything. But I do want to prepare them for how the world will perceive them, even if those perceptions are wrong.

  3. Tinu--
    Oh, great reply. This does give me a better idea of what the speaker was saying to you. That based on his research, Ms. Berry has accepted the historical American racial caste system.

    My cousin IDs as Taiwanese, not Chinese. I've never questioned her about the reason(s). I think I'll have that conversation with her.

    Thanks for answering my question about the ID of your children. After I posted I thought that it was too personal.

  4. I have a friend whose husband is white, but his grandmother looks black----albeit light skinned Lena Horne type----sometimes things and people arent what they seem---his father has passed for white but my friend who is black didn't even know her father in law had a lightskinned black mom---I didnt either UNTIL I saw a portrait of her by herself---she was a schoolteacher in OK and married a white guy with a nordic sounding name--you never know--that 'one drop' system isn't and wasnt accurate---my friends husband is blond with blue eyes as well--average WM