September 18, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Create a Mixed-Race Studies Department at Cornell

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We shouldn’t continue to exclude the fastest-growing population in the United States from higher education. Many mixed-race people grapple with defining their experiences and identities which can leak into their academic and professional lives.

The importance of ethnic and racial identity cannot be more relevant than it is now. The recent resurgence of racial tensions in the U.S. has highlighted the distinct experiences of historically oppressed racial minorities, especially those who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Black Lives Matter has gained incredible traction within mainstream political conversation, yet its issues (such as police brutality and system racism) do not affect only monoracial people. Understanding that the mixed experience includes many of the same racial prejudices as monoracial POC is crucial for the inclusivity of mixed people in spaces generally reserved for people of a singular race. Especially with the push Cornell is taking to create an anti-racist campus, this is the perfect time and place to create a mixed-race studies department that would give legitimacy to mixed people on campus and beyond.

There is a lack of ethnic-racial typicality associated with being mixed-race, but this does not negate the already-existing shared experiences of mixed people of all backgrounds. Such experiences include the feeling of being “in-between” and “not enough,” having to choose between displaying loyalty to one aspect of their identity instead of embracing both, language barriers between family members (especially between immigrant families residing in the U.S.) and other mix-specific experiences.

As students, we are committed to growing our knowledge, not just of science, language or math, but also of ourselves. Cornell’s existing ethnic studies are a great first step towards supporting racial diversity on campus. However, this initiative cannot be truly complete without the creation of a mixed-race studies program. The intended goals of this program would be to facilitate on- and off-campus conversation about mixed people, bringing to light their specific struggles and privileges that have not been addressed in this context on a mass scale before.

The effects of academia on society-at-large are also staggering. Modern-day activism is pushed in part by educated individuals sharing pictures, infographics, and written pieces based on their studies. This information is spread throughout that person’s social circle, which is in turn shared with those people’s social circles, until a large majority of the population is aware of a certain issue and has the tools to understand it. Drake Avila ’21, who is white and Mexican, gave an example of this academic trickle-down effect affecting him directly: “I actually didn’t learn the term ‘white-passing’ until I was reading a college newspaper of a school I was thinking of attending… I did not know that there was a label that actually described me, and that would also mean there are other people like me” — Drake’s academic exposure gave him the language to talk about his identity. Frankie Reed ’24, who is white and Filipino, seconded this notion: “I don’t have the resources to learn about myself.” For the most part, monoracial people have grown up within an existing societal structure that has made the understanding of one’s identity easier than most. That mixed-race people have not been given the language to express their identities speaks to the dire need for increased discourse around multiracial individuals, which begins at the academic level.

While general ethnic studies programs exist at Cornell and most other colleges, there is very little precedent for how to create a department specifically devoted to the study of mixed-race individuals. The closest existing program is the Critical Mixed Race Studies Minor at San Francisco State University. Their program seeks to “address mono-racialization within the structure of racial hierarchies; historical and contemporary constructions of mixed race within legal, scientific, and cultural spheres … critique processes of racialization and racialized social stratification through colonialism and imperialism … and the determined refusal of mono-racialization by multiple mixed heritage, mixed race, and transnational adoptee individuals, families, and communities.”  This mission statement encompasses exactly what we wish to do at Cornell with a mixed race studies department. It can also be built upon by our unique role as a world-class institution of higher education.

The future is mixed. Since its founding, Cornell has served as a shining beacon in the fight for the inclusivity of women, POC, the LGBT+ community and people with disabilities in higher education. If Cornell truly believes in its motto, “Any Person, Any Study,” this new area of study and research into mixed-race individuals would fit like a glove into the ideals of this institution, and be a good step in developing future curricula as the United States’ demographic evolves. We are seen as an ethical lighthouse for the nation, and the world, and if for nothing else, Cornell should create a department for mixed-race studies to perpetuate its status as an academic pioneer. The next step in our growth as a university would be to invest in a mixed-race studies department. Not only would this encourage essential conversations about mixed-race culture(s), but it would be the first step towards building a bridge over America’s racial divide.

Katherine Luong is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. Comments can be sent to Guest Room runs periodically this semester.