As architecture sophomore Zoe Paris walks around campus she is met with thousands of faces, but at a predominantly white institution she stands out. With her thicker eyebrows, curved eye shape and multiracial upbringing, she said she wonders where she fits in.
Identifying as Chinese and white, Paris said she understands the struggle of others within multiracial populations, as they must navigate how to live with their nuanced identities everywhere and at Cal Poly, she said.
A multiracial background provides individuals with a unique lens, according to Paris.
“Being mixed race I have the perspective as a Chinese person and as a white person, and that comes together as my own complex, unique perspective,” she said.
Paris said that identifying with her biracial identity allows her to see the world in a nuanced way. However, being multiracial often contributes to a feeling of inadequacy in also having to prove oneself, Paris said.
Paris said that speaking the language and knowing different aspects of Chinese culture should not be a requirement to be considered Chinese.
“I shouldn’t need a laundry list of things that I know just for you to accept me as Chinese,” Paris said. “I should just be accepted as Chinese by default.”
Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood in the San Luis Obispo area, Interim Dean of Students Joy Pedersen, who identifies as Chinese and Danish, said she resonated more with white culture in her youth.
It wasn’t until strolling around San Luis Obispo as a high school senior when she and her friends walked into a costume shop in search of the perfect Halloween outfit that this outlook changed, Pedersen said.
“The only princess at that time that had dark hair was Snow White,” Pedersen said. “I remember putting on the costume and looking in the mirror, and it just hit me for the first time, that I wasn’t white.”
In her mind, she had a different image of herself, she said.
“I left the store in a daze,” Pedersen said. “I had never really thought of myself as not being white before.”
The constant question of “What are you?” is a hallmark of the multiracial experience, Pedersen said.
Walking into the MultiCultural Center for the first time as a young faculty member she said she remembers being asked this.
“I became so sensitive to that question,” Pedersen said. “I just want to come here and be accepted.”
Pedersen said she believes that although this experience bonds all multiracial people, it can also be disconnecting.
“Every time someone asks you that, it’s very othering,” Pedersen said. “You’re not like other people, so what are you?”
“Every time someone asks you that, it’s very othering. You’re not like other people, so what are you?”
Being asked this so many times has made her feel more “othered,” she said.
The automatic response to “What are you?” lends individuals to answer “Who am I?” on a more personal level, according to Cuesta College financial aid specialist and Cal Poly graduate student Christina Sholars.
She faced this internal dilemma growing up in processing her Black and Mexican identity.
“I always carried myself — my name first, my skin color second,” she said.
As she got older and more self-conscious, it became easier for her to say that she is Black rather than “mixed,” she said.
“Sometimes you fight something within yourself in saying, ‘I’m not really Black, but I’m not really Mexican,’ but out of convenience for others, this is what I’ll tell you I am,” Sholars said.
Sholars said she recently delved into her familial background and now takes more ownership of her biracial identity.
“Having some kind of historical knowledge of your family’s past makes you have a better understanding of who you are as an individual,” Sholars said. “Growing up I didn’t have that. I knew I was Black, but what does that mean?”
Being multiracial leaves a gray area when it comes to “fitting in,” according to nutrition sophomore Sloane Frye, who identifies as Taiwanese and white.
“It feels like an ‘other,’ extra category,” Frye said. “I might feel pretty white, but I don’t present as completely white to the world, so I can’t fit in. In terms of being Asian, I don’t present as fully Asian either.”
According to Frye, there is a varying degree of “white-passing” amongst people who are biracial.
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you are affected by certain social issues that may affect Asian people because it’s dependent on how you present to the world,” Frye said.
Growing up, Frye attended an Asian church which provided her mother a sense of comfort being immersed in Chinese culture, but Frye said it had an opposite effect on her.
“For me, since it was like all Asian people there, my brother and I were the ‘white people’ there,” she said. “I am the type to chill in the background, but when you look different from everyone you stand out in that way.”
“I am the type to chill in the background, but when you look different from everyone you stand out in that way.”
Multiracial people grapple with favoring one race over the other, according to architecture sophomore Jared Matsubyashi.
Matsubyashi, who identifies as Japanese and Filipino, said that there have been moments in his life where he associates with one side of his identity more. However, he emphasized the constantly evolving nature of his identity.
Matsubyashi is a part of the Filipino interest club Pilipino Cultural Exchange (PCE) and not Japanese Student Alliance (JSA), but he said it doesn’t mean he is neglecting his Japanese side. What he is doing at one point in his life, does not change what he has done in the past in experiencing both cultures, he added.
“Everything I do is another layer to figuring out my two ethnicities and how they interact with each other.”
Matsubyashi said he believes peoples’ racial assumptions of him, or lack thereof, grant him a unique opportunity.
“Sometimes my race is ambiguous, so I’m not put into a box immediately,” Matsubyashi said. “I think they will see me for who I actually am and not just the racial stereotypes they would expect out of someone who is a single race.”
Cal Poly graduate student and data and budget analyst for Cal Poly Scholars Jacob Campbell, who identifies as Chinese, Filipino, Scottish and Irish, said there are “superpowers” the multiracial population has. Although, Campbell said this depends on certain contexts.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to travel and experience the world sort of under the radar,” Campbell said. “It is an interesting experience when your identity can in some context help you blend in and in other contexts makes you feel really isolated or stand out.”
He also said the ambiguity of his race allows him to enter conversations that might have been otherwise closed off.
“[Being mixed race is] a tool that I can use in navigating all kinds of relationships and contexts,” he said.
Campbell said he thinks multiracial people can “code switch” and see things from many perspectives.
Interracial marriage was illegal in the U.S. until the case Loving v. Virginia in 1967, which overturned laws banning interracial marriage, stating it to be a violation of the 14th Amendment.
With interracial marriages being relatively new, there are not many generations of interracial parents nor interracial families, and this leaves individuals like Paris to find original ways to accept their identity, she said.
Paris finds language empowering in expressing her mixed identity.
“There’s always this feeling of my sides, like my Chinese side, my white side,” Paris said. “I think moving forward I want to say, ‘This is like my whole selves.’”
Instead of referring to her races as their separate sides, Paris tries to instead say that she is Chinese and white. In reading an online account of a multiracial person she said she remembers them saying, “I am not some distilled version.’ I am not some watered-down version [of a Chinese person].”
Reimagining her own introspection, Paris said she hopes other multiracial individuals do the same.
“People will always see both sides of you at the same time, but in your head, you can make that distinction,” she said. “You have to be the one accepting of yourself first.”