How do you respond to someone who asks, “What are you?” Clearly, there’s no right answer to such a weighty inquisition; yet, when I was asked this very question at the age of eight — by a classmate, no less — I felt compelled to answer, “human.” My peer was still perplexed, however. He asked, “I’m White, but you’re definitely not, so what are you?” It was at this point that I realized two things: First, identity can be equated with race, which derives from one’s heritage, and second, this identity requires a label. I only recognized both ideas to be characteristics of the society, though they never meant anything to me personally.
It takes your brain about 39 milliseconds to form a first impression of a person. Evolutionarily, this neuronal speed is amazingly beneficial: Survival has required fast responses to an ever-changing environment. In the modern world, however, this processing has its drawbacks mostly due to the difficulty in changing that rapid first impression. Our pre-conceived notions about people are highly connected to first impressions, and it’s simply easier for the brain to group new acquaintances into preset categories. To the brain, the additional cognitive energy needed to overcome this initial impression — which preexistent opinions likely underscore — just doesn’t seem worthwhile. What amounts to mere cognitive indolence, quickly devolves into the formation of stereotypes. And just like that, racism is born.
When I realized that my third-grade classmates equated race with identity, I had never thought to call them racist. Racism, the word, carries powerful, negative connotations that are almost always derogatory. As an eight-year-old, I already had a sense of this correlation and didn’t think the questioning deserved this name — after all, I had come out unscathed. Without the social stigma, racism is only, as Merriam-Webster defines it, “the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities.”
Though many would agree that race is but one component of identity, the two elements are too often used interchangeably. Of course, racial pride is healthy and normal. In fact, in March, Michigan State University psychologists found that people who identify more strongly with their racial identity are generally happier.
Identifying strongly with a race should not be all -encompassing. Individuals are more than their skin color, their heritage and their culture, and people should recognize that about themselves and others. Should we fail on this point, we would be submitting to preexisting notions about ourselves and just continuing the idea that race and identity are coterminous. It’s one thing to be proud of your heritage, but it’s entirely different to also limit your identity to it.
I confused my third-grade classmate largely because I didn’t fit the racial groups that already existed in his immature brain. I am half-Caucasian and half-Chinese, making my physical appearance slightly different from that of either a White or Asian person. My mixed-race doesn’t make me any better than anyone else: The mixed-race demographic is the fastest growing one in America and quickly becoming its own racial entity, just like any other. Equating my mixed-race identity with my entire identity would be equal to any person equating his or her identity with his or her race.
Certainly it’s easier to identify with one’s race and base one’s entire identity on it — to do so, though, would cut off the nonracial elements of one’s identity as well as limit one’s perspective about the rest of the world. Being multiracial, while not ostensibly easier than belonging to any other race, makes embracing these other elements easier.
A 2009 study led by researchers from Stanford University, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Kansas found that high school students who identified with multiple racial groups tended to be happier, less stressed and more socially engaged in school. In 2008, Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks of the University of Michigan led research that found individuals who associated themselves simultaneously with more than one identity were more creative and better at solving problems. All of these advantages stemmed from the subjects’ multifaceted self-identification. When we detach identity from race, anyone, multiracial or not, can have this layered self-identification.
Since my encounter with my inquisitive classmate, I have met many like him who pose similar questions and exhibit similar maturity. In college, where so much time and energy is invested in identity edification, race labeling is especially dangerous. Students’ self-segregation into cultural or racial cliques only stunts their full self-understanding. We really should be asking ourselves who we are, not what we are.
Caitlin Gilbert is a sophomore in the College. She can be reached at [email protected] The Cortext appears every other Tuesday.
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