***Please note: my use of the term “cultural org” includes both cultural orgs associated with cultural houses and those that are not.
As someone who identifies as biracial, I’m never quite sure where I stand or what my role is in the discussion of race. I am half-White, and have thus benefited from certain privileges awarded to white people. However, I am also half-Afghan, and have consequently faced discrimination typically inflicted upon those of a Middle Eastern background, though I am an American-born citizen. When I try and contribute to conversations on race from both a White and non-White perspective, I often feel (and have been told) that I am “playing both sides” on a field that has been clearly divided into two distinct teams. While some may argue my position as a biracial person offers valuable insight in racial dialogue, I’ve noticed that a multiracial, multicultural point of view is not often sought. It is assumed that you are either White, or you are not White. Where is the space for individuals who are both?
Even the language used to discuss race can marginalize and diminish the voices of those from multiple racial/ethnic/cultural backgrounds, particularly those who also identify as white. The stark separation between Whiteness and non-Whiteness is enforced, perhaps subconsciously, within the terminology we use to group and label individuals based on race. There is a very short, specific list of qualities one must have in order to be considered “White.” Conversely, the term “People of Color,” or “POC,” embodies a much larger population, implies a lack of Whiteness, and is most often used to describe those who are any race or ethnicity other than White.
Mount Holyoke is an institution trademarked for its diverse student population. Nonetheless, I’d like to emphasize that diversity on a campus is not just the presence of students of different races, cultures, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, etc.; it is the sharing and communication between members of these different backgrounds that creates a truly diverse atmosphere.
The cultural houses on campus are a wonderful, necessary space for students of similar cultural backgrounds to congregate and speak native languages, cook favorite meals, observe holidays and traditional practices, and form long-lasting connections. Unfortunately, these spaces are physically isolated from the center of Mount Holyoke life; they are scattered along the skirts of campus, eerily symbolic of the social marginalization of people of color. I would argue that very few students not directly associated with a cultural org on campus have been to a cultural house, or even know where they are.
While they allow students of similar backgrounds to come together, cultural organizations, the events they put on, and the spaces they occupy are open to all, and serve as fantastic opportunities for communal growth and learning. Yet many audiences of these cultural meetings and events are made up of homogenous attendees, and our campus diversity goes underrepresented.
In talking to my peers about this, I’ve found that some students don’t see the value in attending events that don’t pertain to their own individual cultures and identities. Simultaneously, there is a prevalent fear that they are invading social spheres in which they don’t belong. However, it is important that we recognize the difference between cultural appropriation and the exploration of cultures different from our own. It is not enough to say we experience diversity simply by occupying the same space as students of various backgrounds. We have an obligation to really take advantage of the ‘diverse’ campus we inhabit by challenging our individual, comfortable perceptions and actively putting ourselves into unfamiliar cultural contexts.
Though not intentional, the cultural orgs at Mount Holyoke are inherently exclusive, and can result in the creation of student factions. I don’t personally know anyone who is a member of a cultural org that isn’t also a member of that culture, nor do I know anyone who would feel comfortable doing so without having said connection. Moreover, even students who directly identify with a culture feel they don’t fit the unspoken qualifications needed to be accepted within a cultural house or organization. The existence, or illusion, of exclusivity amongst the organizations enforces a one-dimensional illustration of each respective culture, and ignores the complex identities of students who connect with their cultures in varying degrees. A balance between maintaining the distinct identities of cultural orgs and accepting students interested in connection must be found in order to prevent further singularity and polarization.
Additionally, students have noted a huge disconnect between the cultural orgs, specifically between orgs affiliated with cultural houses and those that are not. I believe there can and should be more communication and collaboration between these groups in order to enhance the experience of diversity at Mount Holyoke. Multiracial/multicultural individuals are physical embodiments of this cross-cultural experience, yet there is no space for us to be our holistic selves. We are often forced to choose between the multiple racial/ethnic/cultural facets of our identities and then face the challenge of ‘not being enough.’ I believe that the first step in furthering our inclusiveness at Mount Holyoke is to not only recognize the existence of multiracial voices, but acknowledge the value of multiracial/multicultural experiences in racial discourse.
The next step, being the establishment of another cultural org for discussion and formation of connections between those of multiracial identities, cannot be the last step taken. In order for our campus to truly experience diversity and honestly live up to our reputation as a diverse institution, this necessary communication and sharing of identity must be embraced, while also being inclusive of multiracial individuals, whose very existence brings together various cultures. Creating a space for biracial/multiracial voices would intrinsically encourage more communication and crossover between our existing cultural orgs. Additionally, this acknowledgement of multiracial voices would, ideally, encourage cultural orgs to open their doors to students who partially/don't identify with said culture, but want to get involved.