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GUMBO: understanding the internal melting pot

October 2, 2008

They say college is a time that defines you. I’m a senior, and I’m not sure yet whether I believe that. But I do know that from the time I applied to college onward, I have been asked to define myself in discrete terms. From the applications that requested that I “please check only one” racial or ethnic background, to the essays about a defining event in my life, to the questions of “Where are you from?” and “What are you?”, to the debates in philosophy class about the state of humanity, my experience at Georgetown has been one that pushes me toward defining myself.

Self-discovery and identity formation are not inherently bad things. The problem arises when people are asked to fit themselves into overly narrow pre-existing social constructs, because the vast majority of human beings are people who can’t be summed up by just one trait.

I’m a multi-racial individual. I moved often growing up, and I spent my middle school years living outside the U.S. There are no easy answers to the questions “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” Which is more important: the part of me that loves to make my paternal grandmother’s Indian recipes, or the part of me that loves to bake Christmas cookies with my maternal grandmother? The fact that my dad is Indian or that he’s Catholic? The fact that I don’t have a drop of Chinese blood in me, or the fact that I lived in Hong Kong and soaked up its traditions and culture? These are questions I’ve struggled with for a long time, and I know I’m not much closer to finding the answers than I was three years ago.

What I have found during my time at Georgetown are other people who understand these dilemmas. I know they exist everywhere, but there is a particularly high concentration of them in the multi- and biracial community. It is a sense of being together in figuring out what it means to be mixed or multi-cultural that drew me to GUMBO (Georgetown University Multi- and Biracial Organization) my freshman year, and has kept me involved throughout my years here. None of us are sure what our answer to the question “What are you?” is, and so, while we haven’t had identical experiences, there’s an understanding of the unique challenges to creating an identity when you have multiple options from which to choose. Do you choose one or the other, as some have suggested we should? Or do you create a unique blend on your own and accept that this means there will never be a culture with which you fully identify because mixed culture is unique and self-constructed?

While the term “multi- and biracial” suggests that we focus on the issues solely in the context of race, the truth is it’s about a lot more than just race. It’s about culture, experience, appearance, ethnicity, heritage, identity, and values. I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone at Georgetown who hasn’t struggled with at least one of those issues. GUMBO is a place where everyone knows that the answer to “What are you?” isn’t as simple as “I’m half-white and half-Chinese” or “I’m black.” It’s a place to explore why that question matters so much and how to deal with a society that hasn’t quite figured out how to deal with you yet. But it’s not about whining or playing the blame game; it’s about celebrating a unique background, finding a sense of self, being proactive, and knowing you’re not alone.

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