When Associate Professor of English Jené Schoenfeld asked the panel of three Kenyon students with mixed-race backgrounds if any of them had ever been asked “What are you?” they all looked at each other knowingly. Schoenfeld understood the message. “Yeah, you all get that,” she said, then asked them how they responded to the question.
Last week, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI) organized three programs as a part of a celebration of multiracial identities and relationships. After the panel on Wednesday, which included Kyla Spencer ’18, Cayla Anderson ’18 and Camila Wise ’20, ODEI screened the 2016 movie Loving on Friday and hosted Sheryll Cashin as a keynote speaker on Saturday. Loving dramatizes the relationship of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court Decision Loving v. Virginia, which overruled state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Cashin is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law, Civil Rights and Social Justice at Georgetown University, and her book Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy expands upon Loving v. Virginia and argues that interracial relationships could eventually subvert white supremacy.
Assistant Director of ODEI Jacky Neri Arias ’13 got the idea for the celebration after she noticed that she was frequently having conversations about multiracial identities and relationships at Kenyon. When she was in graduate school at the University of Maryland, she participated in a panel featuring multiracial identities and couples with her then boyfriend, who is now her husband. She found the response to be positive and wanted to bring something similar to Kenyon.
“Many people of color on campus are married to someone from a different ethnicity,” she said. “I just realized all these people are having these conversations. Clearly there’s some interest.”
At the panel, close to 40 students, faculty and staff members gathered in Peirce Lounge to hear the panelists. Neri Arias expected 10 to 12. She was thrilled by the turnout.
In response to Schoenfeld’s question, Spencer answered that when someone asks her “What are you?” it shows that there is some disconnect between what she looks like and what the speaker thinks people with her identity should look like. It also shows that they don’t have anything interesting to say. “It makes you look stupid,” she said of the question asker.
The two other panelists agreed. “The implication for me is that you are less than human,” Anderson said.
Another of Schoenfeld’s questions to the panelists asked how they navigate between their two identities. Each panelist had a different experience. Spencer mentioned that she had never met her biological father and “didn’t realize that [she] was not white until middle school.” For Anderson, it depended on which side of her family she was with. Wise joked, “when it’s the World Cup, I’m 100 percent Colombian.”
When Wise told her mother she was participating in this panel, her mother was confused. “You look white and you don’t have an accent,” she had said.
“It seems like for the students on the panel, part of celebrating multiracialism is celebrating a flexibility or fluidity to racial identity,” Schoenfeld said. She pointed out that other multiracial individuals chose to identify primarily as multiracial or as one race over the other. “There are lots of modes of being multiracial,” she said.
Wise saw the week’s events as a helpful extension to the work already being done by groups like Adelante and the Black Student Union in raising awareness for underrepresented groups on campus. At the end of the panel, she acknowledged that her ability to pass as white gave her a certain level of privilege that other people of color did not have. But that ability to pass could result in uncomfortable situations. Later, she recounted a story in which a friend of hers made a remark that she did not think was acceptable. “I was like, ‘Why would you say that?’ and they were like ‘Oh, I forgot you were Latino for a second,’” she said.
The panel didn’t address it, but Wise wished she could have talked about what she saw as an extension of the “What are you?” question: the “How are you a thing?” question. In middle school, she had an experience where a boy turned to her in class and asked her how her parents’ green card marriage was going.
“One thing I didn’t address was the constant belittling of my parents wanting to be together and my existence in the first place,” she said. “There’s a sense that I have to choose one side or the other, and there’s a sense that I can’t choose one side or the other.”