Don't box us in
Multicultural Americans are increasing in number and defining their own ways of life
Prompted by Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy, The New York Times recently tackled the issue of mixed-race Americans, and did so by profiling a group of students from Rutgers. I read with interest, as I myself am mixed.
Common constructs abound in this article, and in most discussions of multiethnic and multiracial individuals. Invariably, these articles and discussions are about identity and the struggle to find one. What box do we check? Which cultural customs do we adopt? Who will accept us? How do we deal with rejection?
These inquiries and expositions almost always echo, however subtly, the persistent “tragic mulatto” meme transmitted through the decades from antebellum United States. The person born to parents of African and European ancestry (usually a woman, more easily portrayed as a sympathetic victim) struggles to navigate the fine line between a predictably privileged life and one relegated to the underclass. Her inability to find acceptance from others or from herself leads to self-undoing through alcoholism, insanity, or suicide.
But for me, being multicultural has brought great personal freedom. After all, who wants to be confined to a box? Not me. At times I wonder how it feels to grow up as part of a cohesive community, one with strong religious, culinary, and family customs. That must provide a distinct sense of security, belonging, and identity that I am missing.
Missing is a relative word however. I don’t feel deprived or aimlessly adrift because I am “missing” these things. Rather, I consider myself part of the broader world community, more like a global citizen with the independence to absorb and appropriate as part of my own “custom” culture those things that strike a deep chord within me as an individual spirit, and not as part of a larger set of norms dictated to me by family and history.
In a way, it mirrors the Web 2.0 movement. I am my own networking platform like MySpace or Facebook – I am born with a template and can customize it to my liking, and change it when I feel. I can grab applications from other websites and shape them to reflect my personality, principles, and values. I befriend those who find it appealing, regardless of proximity. It’s a sort of “open source” approach to culture, ever changing and improving, only through the contributions of a truly unbounded community.
I am an ethnic mash-up, a cultural sampler, a DJ at my own party. I am “Wikiculture.” (I couldn’t resist.)
It’s also reflected in my circles of friends – at my gatherings, no one race dominates, and many of my closest friends are themselves multicultural who share the sense of boundlessness that guides our consumption of what the world has to offer and our choices of whom to befriend and embrace. We teach each other and learn from one another.
I met many of those friends here at Rutgers as an undergraduate in the 1990s. Rutgers’ diversity provided a gift and a challenge for me. The cultural exposure was second to none; I met students from all walks of life. But the campuses’ heterogeneity meant that groups coalesced around political, personal, and ethnic interests. Today, student groups like Fusion, whose members were featured in the Times article, are providing more places for multicultural students to organize themselves.
The toppling of traditional boundaries is what moved me when I read Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama’s memoir of his life and pursuit of his father’s heritage. But it was his mother’s influence that was central to his creation and his formation as someone who can empathize with many points of view, and someone who continues to shape himself according to the demands placed upon him by his environment.
The book and this New York Times article about his mother’s emphasis on education about other countries and cultures illustrated how this worldview is not exclusive to multicultural people. Sometimes I find myself wishing more people, regardless of race or nationality, were more like Obama’s mother – a white American woman whose hunger for all that was different from her produced a rich life for herself as well as a remarkable public servant for our country.
If there is anything tragic about being a multicultural person, it’s the ongoing exoticization and fetishization that continues even in the new millennium. “What ARE you?” Well, I am human, I’m Ashanti, I’m a woman, a student, a writer. “Well, you know what I mean …what’s your background?”
My background is not particularly unlikely, from my view. My mother, an African-American woman with roots in the South (also with European and Native American heritage), married my father, a Puerto Rican (a mixed-race culture in itself) who arrived in the United States before he started formal schooling. They were both raised in New York City. They were working class – both children of building superintendent fathers and stay-at-home mothers – and college educated. They met while working in the social services. When they recount their upbringings, I hear many more similarities than differences. There are people who are considered “one race” who have more complicated parental stories. Yet I am typically the one regarded as a curiosity.
What am I? I could answer, “I don’t know,” and slide stereotypically into aimless, depressive angst. But I know what I am, and I know who I am – a member of a dynamic community, uniquely prepared to operate in a global world whose arms are open to all.
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