Multiracial Week celebrates cultural mix

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

This year’s Multiracial Heritage Week celebrates the multiracial community as one defined not by individual ethnicity but instead by a cultural mix. The week is sponsored in part by the Brown Organization of Multiracial and Biracial Students, Brown’s part-Asian group Hapa and the Third World Center.

At Brown – the only university in the nation with a multiracial heritage week, according to Third World Center Assistant Director Jennifer Soroko MA’06 – the celebration kicked off with a convocation last night in Salomon 101.

The event included reflections from multiracial students Kimberly Arredondo ’11, Daniel Hyman ’11 and Christine Goding ’08, and featured keynote speaker Kit Fulbeck, a Hapa artist, filmmaker, writer, slam poet and spoken word performer. Fulbeck spoke about the concept of constructed identity and shared stories about feeling too white to fit into his Chinese family as a child while simultaneously encountering stereotypes and ridicule for his Asian heritage at school.

Through poetry, short films and an unscripted speech, Fulbeck urged listeners to take control of their own identities – much in the way the part-Asian community reassumed control of the word “Hapa,” which was once a racial slur. He went on to explain that when he was born in 1965, his parents’ interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states, and that it was not until 2000 that the U.S. census allowed citizens to check more than one race-identifying box.

Fulbeck showed images from his newest book, “Part Asian: 100% Hapa,” a series of portraits of people who identify as Hapa. For the book, Fulbeck instructed his subjects to provide a simple explanation of who they were, including background, upbringing or any fact the subject felt to be relevant. Fulbeck said he only included portraits of people with the most interesting self-explanations, such as a young Hapa boy who wrote, “boy. Elijah. purple belt.”

Fulbeck, who wore jeans and began his presentation with references to Britney Spears, Nicole Richie and Radiohead, was able to connect with his audience exactly as event planners predicted.

“He’s entertaining and funny and his humor cuts across all races and ethnicities,” said Amy Tan ’09, one of the event’s coordinators.

This year’s theme for Multiracial Heritage Week is “Spectrums of Identity: Illuminating our Connections.” Event coordinators Amy Tan ’09 and Kevin O’Brien ’09 told The Herald they are using the week to present issues that permanently affect the multiracial community, such as “passing,” “exotification” and the push to classify multiracial people into their individual backgrounds.

“I think it really goes back to this sense of confusion about identity, balancing different backgrounds, how that plays out in the household, how your parents raise you, whether or not they try to instill values from their culture, whether one dominates that discussion,” O’Brien said.

Tan said many people don’t realize that identifying as multiracial is an option before coming to Brown. She told a story about a friend’s experience explaining to a freshman that a Hapa is a person who is part Asian.

“She said, ‘Oh! I think that’s what I am!’ ” Tan said, laughing.

This experience with encountering identity is overreaching in the multiracial community, O’Brien explained, citing the general urge to categorize a multiracial person with what he calls the “uncomfortable question.”

“People always ask, ‘What are you?’ Why can’t I just be me? Why do you have to box me in? Why do you have to see me as one race or another?” O’Brien said.

Tan agreed. “People have asked me what my ethnic background is before they ask my name,” she said.

This need to classify according to one background or another is exactly what O’Brien and Tan hope Multiracial Heritage week will help eradicate. “People find themselves straddling two disparate worlds and have had to make a choice,” Tan said.

The other issues to be addressed by Multiracial Heritage Week, passing and exotification, are also relevant in Brown’s multiracial community. Passing, as the name suggests, is when a multiracial person can pass for a single ethnicity.

“If people think you’re only Asian, let’s say, they’ll say things about white men dating Asian women and how that’s a problem,” Tan said. “But I’m the product of an interracial relationship.”

Exotification, on the other hand, is a term given for the stereotypes and physical expectations placed on multiracial people.

“I know some people will say, ‘Oh, Hapas are so hot,’ and that’s not true,” Tan said. “There are beautiful and ugly people in every ethnicity. Having this idealized type of a race is a problem, and it’s also incorrect.”

Soroko expressed concern regarding the accessibility of Multicultural Heritage Week to all cultures. “None of the events that we co-sponsor are exclusive to any one group – all people are welcome,” Soroko said. “We’d love for people to come, ask questions that they are intrigued or challenged by, use it as an opportunity for not only education but also to learn about multiracial education.”

Events for Multiracial Heritage Week are scheduled through the beginning of November, including an interracial dating forum Monday that usually draws the largest crowd, event organizers noted. Full schedules of the week’s events were dropped in every student mailbox and are also available through a link on the Third World Center’s Web site.