Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Where Do I Fit? Multiculturalism & Multiracial Sudents in Higher Education

Above is the slide-show for a presentation I gave on the panel "Higher-Ed Challenges for Multiracial Students" at the 1st Annual Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference in Chicago November 5th-6th.
My comments centered around the ideas of cultural diversity and multiculturalism and the ways in which these concepts pose challenges to multiracial students as well as “monoracially” identified students of color in higher education. For me the dilemma about how to support and create spaces for multiracial students really stems from how we’ve come to institutionalize and practice “multiculturalism” and cultural diversity in higher education and elsewhere. What we really need is as the conference organizers expressed in their opening remarks --a paradigm shift-- basically a huge change from the structural right down to the individual. How to create this is the key and most difficult question.  

The end goal should be creating models and strategies for how students, faculty, staff and administration can work toward imagining and implementing first radical models of multiculturalism and cultural diversity and how these models can support and empower multiracial students, as well as monoracially identified students and even create proactive ways to confront racial tensions and microagressions that still occur on campus. 

The concept which we now know as multiculturalism really began to solidify itself as an important social and political model in the Late 1980s and early1990s during the Reagan Administration throughout the Bush Sr. Administration and then through the early part of the Clinton Era. And its really been here to stay since then with a few minor alterations. Despite countless critiques and challenges the basic framework has remained the same. It was conceived as an ideological and socio-political intervention in education, culture and democracy in the United States and it sought to recognize differences in race, ethnicity, gender and to varying degrees back in the 1990s sexuality and socio-economic class, religion and spirituality-- with the latter three really coming into the fore over the past decade. The recognition of these “differences” was a huge project of early multiculturalism because of the idea that intolerance, tensions, violence, racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination and oppression were tied to ignorance of or denial of differences.

The origins of multiculturalism really began in the major social movements of the 1960s and 1970s and then within the academy which theorized and structured it and offered models of behavior practice and implementation and thus, academic disciplines and departments were created, core curriculums and “canons” were challenged. Nationally, the rise and institutionalization of multiculturalism also coincided with the institutionalization of grassroots organizing and social movements and the subsequent rise of the liberal non-profit sector. There was also an influx of immigrants to the United States as well as he coming of age of 2nd and 3rd generation American-born immigrant children of color. Finally the country was experiencing a climb back to an economic boom during the Clinton years after decades of recession and economic instability.

By the mid 90s, however, multiculturalism had morphed into something else and as described by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner in their introduction to Critical Multiculturalism published in 1994: “Multiculturalism promised to make political culture open and responsible, not only to diverse viewpoints, but also to the conflicts that liberal procedures normally screen out; now, it easily appears to turn into a fantasy of “looking like America.” In this defanged version, “multicultural” identities are being conceived as genetic and iconizing sources of ethnicity, of political validity, and of authenticity."

In key ways I feel like this quote is just as relevant and apt today as it was back in 1994 even as we head at breakneck speed toward post-racial era and no where is this idea of multicultural identities being iconizing sources of ethnicity, political validity and authenticity most evident than in the common racial/ethnic classification system. 

The neat boxes multiculturalism provides, hide all manner of complexities about what the boxes are not telling us. These succint little boxes do not reflect the range of racial, ethnic, cultural, political, socioeconomic, geographic and (trans)national factors that shape how people identify at any given time within and outside these categories. Yet these are the boxes that are recognized and which have become essentialized and institutionalized all across the board from the US Census to our school system. And if this system is essentializing to officially recognized racial and ethnic communities, then how can we expect it to work for such a diverse identity as multiracials. So the answer isn’t creating more and more boxes. In that problematic solution we would just be creating an exclusive monolithic multiracial identity. The great promise of recognizing multiraciality is that it also forces us to confront all the factors that shape and change identification at any given time.

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