MERGE Mission Statement: “To provide a safe space for people of mixed heritage in which we may discuss issues of multi-ethnic identity and to raise awareness within the Claremont University Consortium community about the multi-ethnic experience.”
In the fall of 2010, I began my first semester of school at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. Like my peers, I was shuttled between activity booths, clubs, activist organizations and affinity groups by an administration eager to help their students feel at home on campus. They were particularly keen on easing this transition for the more “diverse” quotient of the student body. As a result, I was sent a letter from the Black Student Affairs office that encouraged me to visit their center and indicated that I would be receiving a black student mentor. A mentor? I thought that this seemed unnecessary and a little impertinent, but I wasn’t about to turn down an offer of friendship so early in the game.
I met with my black student affairs mentor over dinner later that week along with two other girls from my class. When our mentor saw us, she descended upon us like a mother hen coming to roost, telling us to call her mom and herding us protectively to a table near the windows. The other girls and I, who I noticed almost immediately were also mixed with light skin and curly hair, looked at one another sheepishly, each of us silently thinking, “What did we just sign up for?”
My fellow mentees, Katie Robinson and Sophie Howard, and I, became instant friends through our shared sense of unease with the enthusiastic induction to the black community that our “mother hen” had impressed upon us. The next week, we met up to discuss our initial perceptions about campus life and, more importantly, our struggles to identify as mixed race in a space that did not recognize us. We bemoaned the lack of an organized multi-ethnic presence at the Claremont Colleges and felt equally resentful toward the black student affairs office for assuming that we wanted to be a part of an exclusively black community. “Well hey, what if we started our own club?” As fledglings in an entirely new environment, the idea seemed ambitious, but also amazingly simple. All we needed was a space and enough interest, which, from our interactions with other students, seemed to already be present.
The following semester, after a number of forms had been filled out and ads printed, we had a room booked and a steady following of a grand total of about five students. A few months after our first meeting, we had a name: MERGE, the Multi Ethnic and Racial Group Experience.
During the second semester of MERGE, we received our first, and thankfully only, piece of hate mail. At that time, we had been sending out our meeting notes on a public email forum that was open to all students at Pitzer College. A student responded to the notes, commenting that she did not see the purpose of creating another race-based group on campus that only succeeded in further dividing the student body. ‘Why create MERGE when there are plenty of other ethnic groups on campus?’ Having somewhat naively created the club under the assumption that it existed more as a support group than a haven from insidious racism, the comment came as a startling wake up call. Admittedly, we had titled MERGE as a “safe sapce” as more of a nominal formality than a serious consideration of what we felt we needed to be safe from.
But it was not just from faceless white students that we felt hostility. A few semesters later, Katie reported back to the club about an incident that occurred in one of those very “other ethnic groups” on campus. At the time, students from one of the cultural resource centers on campus were hosting a weekly discussion group for members to have an open dialogue about a selected topic. Katie had decided to attend the fishbowl style discussion meeting on mixed race identity. Ideally, anyone sitting outside the fishbowl—who were the observers of the discussion— could opt to take a seat in the inner ring of chairs to join the discussion, regardless of their self-identified race. As could be expected, however, it was mostly mixed students who made up the inner circle. The discussion leaders had, perhaps inadvertently, had alienated these mixed students by making them suddenly highly visible, separate, and the subject of open scrutiny. While being ogled by a circle of her monoracial peers, Katie said that the most demeaning question she received that evening was “What’s your favorite part about being mixed?”
These examples demonstrate a marked lack of understanding on campus about being mixed. Students seemed to think that it was a trivial delineation of racial identity rather than a complex experience worthy of serious attention. This also showed me that there was in fact a need for a club like MERGE: to improve education around the topic, and, first and foremost, to provide a platform from which students could convene to tactically discuss these situations.
In response to questions regarding the viability and importance of a group like MERGE, I have chosen to write about my observations of mixed student academic and emotional needs and how well this club met those needs. Using my own observations, research, and an informal survey conducted within MERGE, I found is that, at the Claremont Colleges, mixed race student spaces function as safe spaces for students to share their experiences and form communities out of which educational outreach may occur.
The conversations had within the inner sanctum of MERGE often regarded sensitive, personal or painful topics. Through the process of forming our own self-defined identities, we developed a close sense of community with others who could share in the collective sense of pain and joy that accompanies the mixed experience. So, MERGE was necessarily advertised as a “safe-space.” This is a contentious term that has generally been used to indicate a physical or metaphorical space in which members of a victimized, minority group may seek protection and community. The controversy exists in that safe space movement has been criticized for being separatist and non-inclusive. This sets up an interesting dilemma for mixed-race student groups, which through intentionally fostering cross-cultural discussions, are to a certain degree inherently open and accepting, yet still require the distance that “safe space” implies.
I argue that sensitive, discursive spaces need only be open to those students who can engage with the experience of being a part of multiple racial or cultural categories. Despite the overarching goal of clubs like MERGE to question the importance of racial categories, to a certain extent, race must be used to create boundaries within which these identity constructions can occur. The educational platform of the group, while important, need not interfere with the creation and defense of safe space; education is instead a discrete entity of the organization that is created organically from and secondary to safe spaces.
When Katie, Sophie and I sat down to write out the mission statement for MERGE, our conception of a mixed identity initially seemed fairly straightforward. Our goals for MERGE were to make it into the niche that we couldn’t find when we arrived on campus, in which people who didn’t feel like they fit into just one ethnic category could express the fullness of their own proclaimed identities. We were careful to avoid using the word “race,” however, erring on the side of cautious consideration. We recognized that not everyone who could contribute valuable insight on the mixed experience defined that perspective by race alone. Cultural or ethnic plurality was in fact possible while still maintaining a monoracial identity. And indeed, we attracted a few transracial adoptees, exchange students, and American students who had spent most of their lives growing up in another culture. These students came into discussion groups with a similar understanding of what it meant to exist outside of a single ethnic, cultural, or racial category.
Gloria Anzaldua’s definition of a mestiza or mixed consciousness perfectly captures these ideas because it expands our notion of transgressions against hegemonic identity categories to include all those experiences which embrace plurality. The mestiza consciousness, she says, “constantly has to shift out of habitual formations; from convergent thinking, analytical reasoning that tends to use rationality to move toward a single goal (a Western mode), to divergent thinking, characterized by movement away from set patterns and goals and toward a more whole perspective, one that includes rather than excludes.” (2004, p. 141) Anzaldua clarifies a perspective of many types of people whose experience has allowed them to see the world through a lens of wholeness in multiplicity rather than segregation and divergence.
However, there is a balance to be had between embracing indefinite borders and enforcing boundaries. While Anzaldua uses the mestiza consciousness as a platform for establishing “bridges” between constructed racial borders, she recognizes the inherent function of those borders saying, “Effective bridging comes from knowing when to close ranks to those outside our home, group, community, nation—and when to keep the gates open.” (2002, p. 3) She effectively illustrates what Larana et al identify in their study on “New Social Movements” as boundary maintenance. Collective identities, they argue, are formed out of an identity movement; through members’ commonalities, a shared “we” is defined. This is naturally accompanied by an “us” vs. “them” mentality which distinguishes the group and their frame of reference from others who, in this case, do not share a mixed identity. These boundaries “can be thought of as activities and definitions that reinforce collective definitions through we-they distinctions, which are often marked by differences in physical appearance, dress, speech, demeanor, and other behaviors.” (Larana et al, 1994, p. 20)
These boundaries become complicated when we consider that part of the underlying goals of the club are to deconstruct the validity of racial categories. Says sociologist Judith Lorber, “We want to erase the boundaries between categories of race, gender and sexuality, but to do so, we have to use them, for without clear categories, you can have neither a politics of identity nor a politics of transgression. Categories are needed for group power and boundaries are needed to transgress against” (Lorber in Bernstein, 2009, p. 729). It is necessary to create restrictions on who is allowed to participate in informing the creation of new identities. Thus, when validating the distinction of a mixed race identity, only those who are typically categorized as belonging to more than one racial, cultural or ethnic group should be invited to participate in this in-group discussion.
While a mixed race identity may be theoretically broad-reaching in validating many types of plural identities, in practice, there must limitations on who may allowed to contribute to the collective identity. The boundaries MERGE drew were sometimes too soft, allowing non-mixed people to join conversations. However, the group made itself primarily available to anyone who did not feel as though they belonged to a single racial, cultural, ethnic or national identity. It is only within insular “safe spaces” that students were able to confront the challenges that a mixed race identity brings and define it within their own counter-hegemonic parameters.
Tantamount to the creation of a mixed race identity is the creation of a safe space where a consciousness of counterhegemonic plurality may be nurtured and validated. Within the protective sphere of like-minded people, peers may begin to understand and share with one another how their relationships and the ways in which the world sees them have also shaped their perspectives on the world. Creating a safe space is necessary for maintaining a collectively formed identity based on this “between the cracks” perspective.
Literally, the phrase “safe space” is attributed to those physical and psychological spaces in which members of an oppressed group may find shelter from harassment, pain or discomfort caused by their association with that group (Stengel, 2010). It is a notion that Fetner et al stated as a relatively common sense reaction to “the negative consequences of social isolation and marginalization.” (2012, p. 189) In the case of MERGE, this means that mixed race students may find recourse from criticism they may feel from their student peers or monoethnic resource groups.
More abstractly, in response to the constraints of imposed ill-fitting racial categories, mixed race students have created ideological safe spaces that allow for the generation of a collectively created identity that defies those expectations. Creating a collective counter-hegemonic identity has been fundamental to social movements (Polleta & Jasper, 2009). For instance, in her book on Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill-Collins recognizes safe space as crucial to rebuffing harmful images perpetuated about black women and creating frameworks authentic to a more heterogeneous experience of racial identity. They encourage the re-conceptualization of racial frameworks, advocating for a “unique and authentic voice in which “[marginalized groups] must ‘jump outside’ the frames and systems authorities provide and create their own frame.” (p.110) Much like the community of black women Collins discusses, safe spaces provide these students with the opportunity to lean on one another. Through the expression of common experiences and frustrations, students use the space to validate their own definitions of their racial and/or cultural identity. Actual safety from harassment, while still a potential threat, is less of a concern than the ability for students to give voice to radicalized notions of their racial identity.
Gloria Anzaldua complicates this notion of safe space in her essay “(Un)natural Bridges, (Un)safe Space.” She argues that it is in the nature of mixed race identity that people act as bridges between the communities they represent. However, I’d like to draw an important distinction. The type of “bridging” that Anzaldua advocates relies upon the movement’s outward, educational mission. While this is an important element of the mixed race movement, safe spaces form the foundation in which this type of movement must necessarily be rooted. Says Patricia Hill-Collins, “safe spaces rely on exclusionary practices, but their overall purpose most certainly aims for a more inclusionary, just society.” (p.121) It is only following the creation of these intimate circles, then, that bridging may effectively occur.
To determine how well MERGE was meeting the ideals for a mixed-race safe space, I developed a survey at the end of the 2014 school year and distributed it to members of the club. I used an online survey service for the question platform and distributed it as a post on our group Facebook page. I chose this forum as a way to restrict participation to existing group members. This was a completely voluntary and anonymous response survey that was open and available for Facebook group members for approximately 1 month. (See Appendix A for the full list of survey questions.)
Why did students become involved?
From its inception as a club in 2011, members expressed their need for a space where they could openly discuss issues that pertained to the mixed experience. Their primary goal was validation of an identity that existed outside of normal racial parameters through the creation of community of similar people. This came up most prominently in the meetings following the controversial email that had questioned the role of MERGE on campus. Students re-affirmed that a shared consciousness of being mixed is what brought people together; someone was quoted from this meeting as having said that mixed people have, “No shared history or culture…Being mixed is its own culture.” (2011, personal communication) Being mixed, for these students, appeared to transcend categorical racial differences. The experience of being mixed race mattered much more than the given race of any member of the group.
This idea was reinforced in the survey answers I collected. Students stated that they were primarily concerned with finding a space in which they could feel comfortable discussing common experiences of being mixed and find a sense of connection, belonging, and/or community. They frequently used language like “comfortable” “acceptance” or “open” to describe their desired environment regarding developing their mixed race identity.
When asked if they thought that MERGE had achieved its mission of creating a safe space for students to develop this sense of acceptance and community, 11 out of the 13 total respondents replied unequivocally that it had. A few provided reasons for why they felt this way; one student stated that, “I felt like it was a safe space for me to talk and everyone was there to listen to what I had to say. It was also comforting to know that others shared the same experiences as me.” Other respondents echoed the importance of feeling that their position and experiences were well received by the group. The only time that students felt that this safe space had been breached was when a non-mixed student entered the group. A majority of respondents said that they were comfortable with this occurrence but also implied that discussion would necessarily shift to become educational “learning spaces” rather than an exchange of common experiences. “I think that since spaces for mixed race folk are limited, when they do exist it’s important for them to be specifically for mixed folk.” This is important to note because it demonstrates the importance of racial boundary maintenance in the formation of safe spaces.
In some cases, this need for community seemed to arise as a result of students not feeling that mixed identity was given enough validity within the campus setting or that mixed race narratives were often silenced. Said one student, “I grew up feeling inadequate, being forced to identify as a specific race/ethnicity/culture. And [the college administration] has just made that three million times worse. ZERO attention has been paid to mixed students. I’m constantly being boxed in by the institution. And MERGE has provided a community where I finally feel accepted as a singular identity that is comprised of many different identities.” On the same topic, another student said, “I think often times the narratives of mixed individual are silenced and a group like MERGE could help combat that specifically at the 5Cs and beyond that due to influence. It both serves as support for those whose narratives may be silenced, or who may feel silenced at times, and to fight against that silencing.” The act of creating a space specifically targeted toward students from a multi-ethnic background worked to simultaneously generate a supportive community and a platforms for taking action against identity silencing.
Why was MERGE a necessary presence on campus?
As a result of developing a positive community support base, students felt empowered to take on the role as educators for their mono-racial peers. While survey respondents did not feel like organizing was a primary goal of the group, they implied that educational works resulted as a natural outgrowth of being a part of a safe-space community. Rather than feeling isolated in their struggles with mixed race identity, their acceptance into a group of people with similar experiences inspired them to seek recognition for an identity that suddenly seemed larger than themselves; respondents commented that they felt that they had something to stand for and comrades to stand with. “I think it’s presence here has made me feel like there’s more than just me – that I’m not speaking up merely for myself but for a group of people on campus who are affected by the politics of mixed race and identity. It’s motivated me more to speak up when I feel like mixed identity isn’t a part of a conversation it should be a part of.” At the very least, it has encouraged these students to bring their ideas into the foreground of their consciousness and given them the confidence to constructively confront issues of prejudice or ignorance amongst their peers. MERGE’s presence on campus encouraged many mixed-race students to give voice to a silenced perspective both as independent activists and as a part of the group’s educational campaigns.
How did we accomplish this?
The importance of forming a safe space for the discussion and validation of mixed identities is also evident in the way that we prioritized each semesters’ agenda. Much of the first semester of the year was devoted to community building through discussion based events and mixers. These were crucial to building a support base and forming trust within safe spaces. A smaller percentage of our energy as a group was devoted to outreach and educational activities.
Discussion groups served as MERGE’s organizational backbone. We hosted these safe-space gatherings regularly, discovering that discussion events every 2-4 weeks garnered highest attendance while still meeting the needs of the community. Each discussion had a theme and a moderator who kept discussants focused on the given topic and encouraged equal participation from members of the group. Every year, discussion topics fell into a regular pattern. New members, especially younger members, who had not had the chance to discuss things like being asked “What are you” before joining MERGE, needed to have these common experiences validated before moving on to more nuanced or complex topics. Other common subjects included discussions on the meaning of words like “hapa” or “mulatto,” surveys that force a “choose one” option, “passing,” mixed privilege, and interracial dating. Less frequently, we discussed colorism and the role of race in forming our identities. Chiefly, however, members used the space to bond with one another over shared experiences rather than to deconstruct, question, or deeply investigate mixed race identity.
The outreach events that we hosted were similarly focused on validating a mixed race identity. By partnering with cultural resource groups on campus, we were able to develop programs, discussions and events that allowed members to reach out to those minority communities they struggled to feel like they belonged to. These were usually small and only open to people from MERGE and the associated cultural center. This largely eliminated white student participants, but, as evidenced by Katie’s experience at another resource center’s discussion about the mixed race experience, it was not exemplary of a safe space for mixed race students because it required them to educate their non-mixed peers.
Other programs, like movie screenings and speaker series, were open to the general public, which helped to generate discussion and awareness about being mixed beyond our immediate circles. Because of the size of these kinds of events, mixed race students were not required to speak about their experience at all. As such, these events were more impersonal and educational.
The discussions that we had as a group were intimate and dealt primarily with individuals’ personal struggles with being mixed. These in-group dialogues are the best example of building a safe space for mixed race students because students could rely on one another to validate their experiences and identities. These types of events had the largest effect and benefit on the mixed race student community. Other programs, like joint discussions with other cultural centers and large events open to the general public, offered students the opportunity to educate and create a bridge between the mixed race community and other communities. This was important for the advancement of the group, but could not be possible, or at least would be less successful without first having a safe space in which students could find a community they felt they belonged to.
When Katie, Sophie and I began MERGE, we felt like mavericks in Claremont’s small sphere of student organizing. Unaware of what other nationwide groups had done, we set out to create a space in which we could bring together other mixed-race students to deeply discuss some of the issues we faced as college students trying to make sense of our racial identities. We blazed forward, energized and excited to see others take interest in our intimate, seemingly obscure group because it allowed us to continually recognize and take ownership of a marginalized identity. Through the discussions we had amongst our peers we, along with our peers, learned to translate personal experience into a political, educational motive. In this fashion, I believe we ultimately succeeded in creating a safe space for this type of growth, communication and empowerment to occur. But it cost us far more time and energy to reach some semblance of solid ground than it could have. The extent to which this type of discussion has taken root around the country is staggering. It is important, therefore, that organizers understand how these discussions and movements evolve on different campuses so that we can successfully foster safe spaces for mixed-race college students and powerful movement organizing tactics. My hope is that the study and conclusions I presented here are used as a reference point for other university group leaders or for further academic study.
Appendix A: Survey Questions
- What is your school and class year?
- How did you hear about MERGE?
- Why did you decide to get involved?
- How long have you been involved and do you plan on continuing in the club?
- Do you think MERGE is a necessary group at the 5Cs? Why or why not?
- What could be improved?
- How do you racially/ethnically identify yourself?
- Are you a part of any other race/ethnic-based resource centers at the 5Cs? If so, how does your experience at those centers compare with your experience with MERGE?
- Do you ever feel uncomfortable during discussions? Why or why not?
- How do you feel when someone who does not identify as mixed-race joins a discussion?
- Do you think MERGE lives up to its mission statement in providing a safe space for mixed students to convene? Why or why not?
- Do you think the politics of mixed race issues are socially relevant and important? How, if at all, do you think MERGE has prepared you to motivate change or educate peers around this topic?
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