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 inspired...to 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?"
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.