Sengen Meyer

What is Marin Academy missing?

December 11, 2017

“When I was a little kid my mother always told me, ‘Multiracial—you get the best of both worlds’. And now I laugh. Yeah, I don’t know if it’s the best of both worlds, but it’s interesting to have a foot in both worlds. It can be stressful at times when you’re negotiating, but it can also really widen your perspective and your way of looking at the world.” -Nicole Stanton

My own background is partly mixed race.  My mother is half Japanese and half Irish, and my father is a quarter German, a quarter Swiss, a quarter Scottish, and a quarter English.  So I am three-quarters Caucasian and one-quarter Asian, but my name represents a part of my ethnic background. People frequently ask me about the origins of my name. I tell them that it is from Japanese Mythology and that my mother wanted to honor and acknowledge that ancestry by giving my brother and I Japanese first names. Their first reaction is usually surprise — surprise that I am Japanese because “You don’t look Asian.” Personally, I have always been confused about whether or not I should fill out the Asian bubble on standardized tests and college applications. Most often, I do not. I am only one-quarter Japanese and I am not at all culturally Japanese. I was raised by and have lived solely around White people. My mother’s father is Japanese, but she is not at all “culturally” Japanese because her mother was Irish and it seems as if one’s mother often has a very strong influence on how one is raised.  In general, I never really think about my race as being a factor in my life.

Sengen Meyer
Marin Academy seniors, Elly Labay and Coco Lemberg, stop for a quick pose in the courtyard after our interview.

MA seniors Elly Labay and Coco Lemberg explained that being multiethnic or multiracial does not play much of a role in their lives at school, but it more often does off campus. Labay, whose mother is White (and British) and father is half Filipino and half European, leads an identity and equity group called Mixed Ethnicities. She said that being multiethnic at MA has “only been impactful […] because I’ve led Mixed Ethnicities, but I feel that if you’re mixed in any way it doesn’t really matter” here at MA.

However, Labay encountered a similar issue to mine with her college applications—which bubble to fill: “I’m Filipino, a quarter Filipino, [and] that was hard for me because it’s not strictly Asian. I don’t identify in the Asian community just because of people being like, ‘you’re not a real Asian,’ and it was difficult because Filipino isn’t considered a real Asian.” She ended up marking the bubble for the Pacific Islander community, but Filipinos are specifically excluded from the Pacific Islander community.  Interestingly, this quandary led her to write one of her college essays on the topic.  She ended up writing about why she chose to identify as a Pacific Islander: “I don’t think I needed to, but I thought it was necessary to explain my choices. It’s a common theme behind the historical background of people not accepting Filipino people in the Asian culture.”  Interestingly, Labay says that because she is dark-haired and fairly dark-skinned, she herself identifies more as Filipino than White. She even says that she feels better, more confident in her identity, when she’s tan because having darker skin makes her feel more clearly that she is Filipino.

Sengen Meyer
Garcia diligently working at his desk while he awaits more students to come into tutorial.

English Teacher Marcos Garcia provided some fascinating historical context on the quandary of selecting race/ethnicity bubbles or boxes.  Garcia grew up in Utah, with one side of his family Mormon and white, and the other side of his family Catholic and Mexican: “So for Latinos, if you were in the census in the late 19th century you would just be marked as white. There was not a racial category.” In contrast to current times, this issue manifests differently, especially when applying for a job: “You get to the page that’s for demographic information. There’s an ethnicity box. And the only ethnicity in there is Latino, either you are or you aren’t.  So it’s either [Latino], Black, Asian, White, Native American, Eskimo.”  Often nothing that allows you to be mixed race/ethnic. 

Lemberg provided a different perspective from Garcia and Labay: “Personally, mine’s pretty easy because I grew up relatively Japanese, not super [Japanese], but enough so I feel comfortable clicking Asian and White,” she said. “[Some of my friends] who look more white have big struggles on deciding whether or not they click what their ethnicity actually is because they feel like they’ve never been treated like that ethnicity.”

This feeling of not being “enough” of a certain race or ethnicity to be considered part of their category, is something that people from mixed ethnicities and races are constantly talking about. What does it mean/take to be considered authentically a race or ethnicity?  For MA English teacher Nicole Stanton, she is regularly asked what is means to be authentically Black.

Sengen Meyer
Stanton working on a document for her freshman English class.

“Right. Can you dance? And eat fried chicken? And I had two left feet and was a vegetarian!” laughed Stanton. “I identify mostly as a Multiracial Black woman. You know I’ve always identified primarily as African American and that’s mostly because I grew up in a largely Black city, and of course with Black people you have this kind of ‘one drop rule,’ where for most of Black history, if you were at all part Black, you were considered Black. And we don’t really have that for like Asian Americans or Latinos, where you don’t really say, oh if you’ve got one drop of Latino blood, you’re just Latino. But with Blackness, because of the history of slavery and everything, we do have that kind of rule.”

Garcia agreed and added his own experience, “Right. Were you really a Mexican?  Were you really a Mormon? And the experience of someone who’s halfway between both of those communities is that you never can [be one or the other]. You’re never as Mexican as the Mexican Mexicans, and you don’t look like the White Mormons. And I wasn’t a Mormon; I was raised Catholic. So for me, I just sort of got used to not being a part of any group. There’s never a sort of home base. And I think for people I’ve talked to who are mixed race or mixed ethnicity or even mixed religion, there’s always that feeling.”

Sengen Meyer
A sign every Marin Academy student sees at least once a day. 

The two students and the two teachers agreed that often at MA when we talk about multiracial we talk about Black-White relations, which may be a disservice to the diversity we actually have at MA.

“For students at MA, I think when we talk about multiracial identity, I feel like we often talk about mine,” says Stanton whose father is Black and mother is White. “I feel like that comes up in various things, but I actually feel like most of our students are a mix of Asian and White, and I feel like we don’t talk about that enough at MA. And I know I’ve had some students who identify very strongly with their Asian kind of culture and heritage and other students who don’t at all.”

Before Stanton said this I had never thought about how little MA’s curriculum focuses on multiethnic/racial people. Garcia noted that although MA has an African American Literature class, there is not currently an Asian American Literature class or a Latin American Literature class.  Although MA may have offered those in the past, it may be time to make them a fixture in the curriculum.

“So I think that even something as simple as having something on the curriculum tells students that we value that experience, we want to learn about it, we want to teach it,” noted Garcia.

These interviews were all extremely enlightening for me. I have gained an entirely new viewpoint. I never knew about all the unique perspectives and struggles people of mixed ethnicities/races have with their identity and the common thread of not feeling as though they are enough of one ethnicity/race to identify with that group and the immense struggle that can come with that inner conflict.  

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