Blending shades of self

At a place like Columbia, where how you identify can define the spaces you occupy and the people you interact with, being of mixed race presents an extra challenge. The balancing act between multiple cultures, communities, and colors can leave one wondering where they belong. Last year, Keenan Smith, Columbia College sophomore, founded the Mixed-Race Students Society, which created a forum for multiracial students to discuss issues that directly affect those who don’t fit in one box. The students profiled in this piece aren’t all members of the Society, but they all represent an emerging community of students bringing these conversations into our discussions of race on campus.

Eliana Pipes, Columbia College sophomore

How do you self-identify?

Mixed race, person of color, black Puerto Rican and white.

Do you identify as American?


What challenges have you faced identifying as American and as mixed race?

Being brown. I realized pretty recently that sometimes, in certain contexts, when people look at me, they don’t know if I speak English. Like I finally pieced together that’s what was happening. It’s hard to have an American identity and not be like the American pie, blue eyes, blonde hair thing. Because the assumption is that you’re from another place. It’s just there’s an aspect of inherent belonging that’s gone.

So beyond that what challenges have you faced being at Columbia and being mixed race?

Racial issues are really talked about on this campus and I think that’s really great, but they are talked about as though people are mono-racial. Intersectionality is the big buzzword right? But there’s intersectionality within the issue of race, people have more than one. A lot of people have more than one, and there’s a lot of misunderstandings of the differences between race and ethnicity and nationality. They just all get globbed together.

Where are the lines drawn between race, ethnicity, and nationality?

Race is a method of categorization based on physical appearance. Ethnicity has to do with a person’s background and ancestry. Nationality is the place where a person holds citizenship. So a person can be racially black, ethnically Sudanese, and Canadian in nationality. They really don’t have to line up. And having a more nuanced understanding of those three terms really makes it easier to have a comprehensive conversation about race, ethnicity, and belonging. Because when you’re just using the word race for everything, you’re inherently going to miss something. Like somebody with parents who both look Asian would be considered mono-racial, no matter what those different things were. It’s only until there’s a color mixing in play that a person becomes considered mixed race. It’s bizarre.

Rachel Roth, Columbia College first-year

How do you self-identify?

I typically identify as Ecuadorian and Jewish, but primarily I identify with my Ecuadorian roots. I’m also a lesbian and an artist.

Do you identify as American?

Oh yeah, absolutely.

What challenges have you faced being an American and being mixed race?

I’ve dealt with a lot of challenges being mixed race. Sometimes people think that you have to be only one, then you have to go through very weird identity shifts. My parents have always seen me as half Ecuadorian and half a clusterfuck of all of Europe.I think there something kind of delegitimizing about only being 50 percent of both things, because I really do consider myself 100 percent both. Anyways, back to struggle: Yeah, when I lived in the suburbs it was really difficult because I was one of the only non-white kids where I grew up. It was a majority Italian and Irish. I just dealt with a lot of xenophobia, a lot of people calling me Mexican, a lot of really intense hard core slurs, like being called a spic. Just really classical racism. However, when I moved to the city, I really was not accepted by my peers, my other Latina peers, as being the same because the majority of that community at my high school was Caribbean and Dominican and Colombian. And Ecuadorian Spanish and Dominican Spanish are not really compatible, because I didn’t speak Spanish the same way. It’s easy to just assume that because my name is Rachel Roth and not Gutierrez or something. I wasn’t really allowed to be Ecuadorian when I was in high school, and I had to really whitewash myself and it was really difficult. I kind of had to go through this process of being like look, none of those people have a say in what someone’s racial experience is, my parents don’t, my peers don’t, the only person that really does is me.

Have you faced any challenges being being a Columbia student and being mixed race?

Yeah. The question of white passing is something that’s really weird for me, because some people think I am white passing and some people think I’m not. I don’t know where my privilege is so I just kind of assume that I have privilege as a white passing person, even though a lot of people tell me I’m not white passing, so that’s a new thing. And I’m trying to understand where I’m supposed to be on that spectrum.

What is your definition of white passing?

Someone who is of a minority race whose appearance is compatible with Eurocentric standards to the point that they don’t receive discrimination to the same level. And people have called me white passing in the past, but I’ve totally experienced really hard core discrimination based on my physical appearance. Like I’ve been denied service because people assume I don’t speak English. In Arizona, my mother and I had to deal with a lot of stuff about identification. It was really crazy and weird. I guess white passing is different depending on where you are.

Keenan Smith, Columbia College sophomore, president and founder of the Mixed-Race Students Society

How do you self-identify?

I self-identify as mixed race. And I don’t do that as my first way of identifying myself, primarily I identify as black. In our society when you have both black and white identities, or white and another identity, you’re told to identify as whatever is non-white. But as matter of reclaiming my sense of self, I identify as both at the same time. I identify as black and white. It’s been a struggle, I’ll tell people that I’m biracial and generally people will still assume that I’m black. And that’s fine and well, but my mother was the one who raised me and she’s white and her whole family is white. So, I’ve had to sort of code switch between the two throughout my entire life.

Do you identify as American?

Yes. I identify as American.

What about being mixed race and American is difficult?

In a larger meta sense, America is often assumed to be the culmination of the “immigrant nation,” the mixed race identity. And that’s cool in a very objective way, but when you’re living the experience it’s much more challenging because we’re an incredibly racialized nation. And to have both identities and to have experiences within both spaces, it’s challenging, because there’s often a sense of not belonging to one or the other and one more so than the other. The thing about being mixed race is that I can “pass” for black, but I can’t pass for white. And I’ll never be able to fully say “I’m white” and have nobody else question that. It’s also complicated in the biological sense because in the United States, we have this obsession with biological racism in the sense that we measure racial identity and we’re supposed to derive some sort of cultural sense of value from those numbers. So, me being mixed race has made it so that I can half identify with blackness, and I can only identify with half of those experiences and those sorts of cultural understandings. But it’s also difficult and weird because I can, as an American, supposedly, identify with all of whiteness because whiteness is the mainstream. And it’s incredibly invalidating.

And then the last major challenge is that, especially in the contemporary moment, we’re experiencing a situation where a lot of aspects of black culture are becoming a part of the mainstream and part of the popular norm. So, there’s this fetishization of my being and my experiences because I’m considered to be “black-light.” It’s an approachable sense of blackness: what you see when you look at Empire or you look at other popular portraits of blackness in the United States. These are light-skinned people. These are people that aren’t necessarily the figures that makes women clutch their purses on the train. You have the coolness, “the black cool” as it’s referred to, of being able to be in black spaces listening to rap music, partaking in cultural experiences that have been deemed cool by the mainstream now while having a mixture of features that are also European and therefore deemed beautiful. And you’re validated because of your whiteness, and that takes away some of the fear that comes with your blackness, and you’re resented for that by other people who are mono-racially black Americans.From the mainstream, you’re sort of looked at in this perverse sexualized way and then from your black identity you have people saying that you’re not really one of them: They like you more, you’re deemed better than us, so you don’t belong here either. It’s like a tug-of-war, but it’s more like a push-of-war.

Grace Nkem, Columbia College first-year

How do you self-identify?

I self-identify as Russian and Nigerian specifically. Race is kind of like iffy and vague, so ethnically, Slavic and Eboe.

Do you identify as American?

I don’t, but I think I might more so if I was born here.

What challenges have you faced being in America and being mixed race?

I think specifically, just being half black or half African, what that means in America is different from what it would mean in another part of the world, because here there’s the whole idea of the African-American, which has been here since the slave trade. I can’t rightfully identify African-American, as in African-American versus black, but being black here at tends not to connote actual Africa as much, which is what it connotes in my family. So there is this weird kind of disparity between what I thought being black was and what everyone around me thought being black was, and how that impacted very clearly impacted their perception of me.That’s the primary issue of being mixed race, is which race you are definitely affects how people perceive you. People who are, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say mixed with black or latin, tend to get the butt of negativity when it comes to being mixed race. They tend to have it harder.

Have you faced any challenges being mixed race and a student at Columbia?

No, I don’t think so. Not that stems specifically from being mixed. Like everywhere, sometimes I get a weird vibe from someone, like, is it because I’m half black and very much look like I’m half black? Or they just like having a bad day or something? In the Russian part of Brooklyn, though, someone yelled the n-word at me.

Breana Beaudreault, Barnard College first-year

How do you self-identify?

Well, I self-identify as biracial. My father is from a tiny place in western Massachusetts. His mom is French-Canadian and Polish, so he’s very white. And my mom is originally from Panama and she immigrated here when she was 14. So she struggles with the language a little bit because she never fully learned Spanish or English.She’s found a lot of people from the Caribbean who have very similar cultures and foods and ideas and vernacular, which has been really good for her. She’s exposed me to a lot of that, and definitely the food. And my grandma makes a lot of Polish food for me too. Having a little bit of both of those has been truly interesting in the family dynamic on both sides, to see the differences in how they treat me and what they think of me and my achievement. That’s been a very transformative experience for me.

Do you identify as American?

Yes, I do.

Because you identify as American and biracial, what challenges do the mixing of those two identities present?

I’ve identified with American since I was born, just because when my mom came here she told me about the whole process of becoming an American citizen. I knew it was very different from what I’d been through, I’d just been born into it. It was just something I was used to. I went to a predominantly white preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school. I’m very used to very Western, very very white cultures. But it’s never been something I really thought about until my mom started introducing me to people who were not originally from America and seeing their cultural discrepancies and some of their sayings and their thoughts about life, which were very different. Those are the only times I’ve really come in direct contact with being American. It’s been very in my face in that way. But otherwise, I think it’s less to me about “American” and more about life being American and more about what it means to be both black and white. And whether you fit into either of those worlds entirely or at all, which has definitely been something that is both a blessing and a curse. Being able to belong to two worlds, but not belonging fully, has been interesting, to say the least. There have been times where like I’ve been made to feel ashamed of who I am or where I’ve come from or where I’m going, but otherwise I don’t think it’s something I would regret. I love having both cultures, I love being both people. I think it’s something that I carry with me all the time, and I think about it definitely a lot.

Julia Muhsen, Columbia College sophomore

How do you self-identify?

I self-identify as an Arab-Latina. My mother’s family is from Mexico and my father’s family is from Palestine. I used to make up words for myself when I was a little kid. My mom used to call me “Mexistinian.” It was a process in trying to identify myself as both while also being one person. I’m at the point where I’ll just be like, “I’m Arab-Latina or I’m Mexican and Palestinian.” I will say both as a self identifier.

Do you identify as American?

I do identify as American. I could apply for Mexican citizenship because of my mom, and I do have a lot of ties to Mexico. And my family all lives there but I was born here, I am an American. I actually identify more with Chicanismo or Chicana, more than I do with being an American. I would never call myself an American, but I’m a Chicana, which is Mexican-American. So, yeah, American is in there, but a different political, social process in and of itself.

What about being mixed race and American is difficult?

Being mixed race and being American is really weird because Americans, and I say this as an American, they like to do this thing where they put literally everyone into a box. We see it on the Census, we see it in schools, standardized testing, anything you could possibly label, Americans like to label. Mixed race people will present this as a cognitive dissonance. It’s really hard to be two things at once, or at least from a Westernized perspective. So when we want to check two things off it kind of becomes a little hard. So I think it’s distinctly more difficult in America to be mixed race than it is in a lot of other places.

Isabella Heshmatpour, Barnard first-year

How do you self identify?

I self identify as Costa Rican-American and Iranian.

Do you identify as American?

I do, and I think that my identity as an American is kind of a sense of pride in that melting pot that you find here. And even though there’s lots of things that are wrong with our country, when I think of an American, ideally I think of someone who’s mixed and diverse in whatever way that means.

What about being mixed race and American is difficult?

Well, I think that as someone who is a complete history nerd and potential history major, when you learn about this country, even though on a surface level you get this white American picture, when you really go into the history of it, it’s a very diverse place, and beyond ethnicity. And I think that that’s something that I’m proud to own up to, even amidst the things that I’m not so proud to own up to when it comes to being an American.

Hebah Akram Khan, Barnard junior

How do you self-identify?

My gender pronouns are she/her/hers. I identify as a Muslim, I identify as a Desi, so like a South Asian, I identify as diasporic, I identify as the child of immigrants, so first-generation in that sense. American as it pertains to immigration status, more than an identity that was chosen but rather that was self-imposed. So that’s not really self-identified, but more forced to because—passport and papers.

And there are other things, like I love to cook, I identify as an artist, as an organizer, which are also identities that are left out in this type of question. “Where are you from” means I am from groups of people who do things, but that’s not what people ask. When people ask where I’m from, I’m from people who gather in a kitchen. “Where are you from,” I’m from people who take care of old people in their house and hella kids, and all their family moves in a 10-mile radius because they want to be close to each other, and now it’s kind of a nursing home there, but you know, that’s my family. And then where are they from? They’re Arabized South Asians who live in Texas who came from India before partition. And all those generations are sitting in the same room, right now. I will go have Thanksgiving with them. So, “where are you from?” I’m from all of that. And that’s something that’s very difficult for people to understand. There’s a frustration with somebody I might meet at school who might not understand that I come from many contested things.

What is your definition of “diasporic”?

People who relocate completely to a place that is completely different in an intergenerational way. People who move around a lot, and not always because they have to, but in a way that has a cultural impact on them. What does that look like when I think of that? For my family, my ancestors would have been in South Asia for a long time, more or less, at least from my dad’s side. From my mom’s side, there’s more invader blood, but that’s another story. Given that we’re from from India and Pakistan, from India basically, but we’d never call ourselves that now because of nationalism and politics and religious identity. So more Pakistan, and then they moved to the Middle East. Then they moved to the States, and then they moved around in the States, so they just keep moving. But they still think of themselves as Pakistani or Desi. They don’t think of themselves as American now. I don’t know if those are all necessary conditions for the term “diasporic,” but that’s what it makes me think about.

You mentioned that the identity of being “American” is something that may feel forced. What challenges does being American bring to your relationship to being Pakistani?

I’m a darker skinned South Asian Muslim living in McKinney, Texas, in post-9/11 the South. There are a lot of things that happen like the fuzz showing up at your house, people being arrested, but you don’t really know what’s going on. My father’s a cardiologist, some of his friends’ practices shutting down or relocating because people don’t want a brown doctor anymore. That was very real in the South. I’m here because I’m here. I was born here. God decided the passport and the situation, but does that mean I’m a patriot? No. I don’t identify as American because I’m a patriot, I can identify as American because it’s true, because I have the privilege to have that passport, so I can do whatever the fuck I want. It’s written on the passport that I’m American, although if I really rejected this identity on a fundamental level, I would have to leave this country. Well, maybe not. Even if I fundamentally rejected it, there are still privileges to being American.

Editor’s note: The interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.