Am I Enough? A Multi-Race Teacher’s Experience In-Between Contested Race, Gender, Class, and Power

Am I Enough? A Multi-Race Teacher’s Experience In-Between Contested Race, Gender, Class, and Power

Journal of Curriculum Theorizing
Volume 28, Number 3, 2012
pages 128-141

Sonia Janis, Lecturer of Social Studies Education
University of Georgia

AM NOT WHITE. I am not Black. I am mixed. I am one half Polish, one quarter Russian, and one-quarter Japanese. I was born, raised, and educated in public schools in the suburbs of Chicago, and then abruptly transitioned to public schools located in north Alabama when I was an adolescent. My inquiry explores my mixed race experience of childhood, adolescence, college years, teaching and administration positions, pursuing curriculum studies, and working as a pre-service teacher educator in a predominantly White institution. My inquiry explores the spaces in-between race and place from my perspective as an educator who is multiracial and/or hapa according to the latest race-based verbiage. I search for language to portray the experience of people of mixed race such as myself and come across a long list of such words as: Afroasian, Ainoko, Ameriasian, biracial, Eurasian, Haafu, half-breed, hapa haole or hapa, griffe, melange, mestizo(a), miscegenation, mixie, mono-racial, mulatto(a), multiracial, octoroon, quadroon, spurious issue, trans-racial, and zebra (Broyard, 2007; Murphy-Shigematsu, 2001; Root, 1996a; Spencer, 1999). I find that most of these words, whether they are verbs, nouns, or adjectives, have negative connotations. I use “multiracial,” “biracial,” and “mixed race” interchangeably throughout my writing.

As I reflect on my experience as a seventh grade student, a public school administrator, and now as a pre-service teacher educator in a predominantly White institution, I explore my rememory (Morrison, 1990) of lives in two distinct regions of the United States: the Midwest and the South. Many of the stories take place in the South, a culturally distinct part of the United States with a unique history of race. This history revolves almost exclusively around the interactions between people described by the simplified racial duality of White and Black. Though other races are recognized in the South, the United States, and the rest of the world, the emphasis on the duality of Black and White relations remains poignantly more significant in the Southeastern region of the United States. These Black and White, inevitably racist, relations are still engulfed in the everyday experience of people living in the South resulting in an unexplainable and immeasurable divide. I feel abandoned in a wedge-shaped space in-between Black and White race. As I cross this divide in my social and political surroundings, I find myself back, forth, and in-between this divide, entrenched in a duality that excludes me on a daily, if not hourly, basis, sometimes by force, and other times by choice. Perpetually tying racial tensions exclusively to Black and White races is only one of the ways malpracticed multicultural education, especially in the South, has exploited a liberating theory of multiculturalism. My experiences challenging this divide, personifies how multiculturalism remains marginalized in a confining Black and White duality of the social construction of race. I constantly imagine the spaces beyond Black and White (Seller & Weis, 1997).

Into which category does my experience fit? Does my experience have a category? Is my experience in many different categories? Or is my experience in-between categories? If my experience is in-between, what categories is it in-between? One’s space in-between can be explored by, from, and through the voices of others who experience contradictory spaces regarding race, gender, sexuality, power, ethnicity, and class (e.g., Anzaldua & Keating, 2002; He, 2003, 2010). Recognizing the fluidity of lived experiences, He (2003) unfolded an inquiry into cross-cultural lives of three women living in-between two continents that tried to “make sense of ‘in-betweenness’” (p. 2). He’s (2010) exploration into in-betweenness continues as she delves into her experience as an academic with cultural, geographical, linguistic, and historical awakening in-between exiled spaces. My inquiry explores my experience in a contested space, in-between race and place, as a multiracial female residing in-between the Midwest and the South. Acknowledging lived experience in-between race and place, I hope that other educators are challenged to explore their own undefined experiences along with those of their students…

…As a multiracial educator, who is a proponent of the ideas and theories supporting multiculturalism, I feel anguished to know that I have not encountered any school that facilitates a multicultural space with an understanding of the liberating goal—cultural emancipation—as the driving force. This idealistic, but unmarked, goal of cultural emancipation is one route to problematize the social construction of race, along with its oppressive counterpart—racism. Rather than believing cultural emancipation is a possibility, my experiences reveal that schools view multicultural education as one more thing on their compliance list that they need to demonstrate evidence of completing by the end of each routine school year. Celebrating cultural signifiers, such as food, clothing, customs, and festivals, is a widely utilized practice for fulfilling this requirement (Loutzenheiser, 2003). Is accomplishing the original reasoning, “educational equity for all,” behind adding “multicultural education” to schools’ lists of compliance even considered? I imagine it is added because a stakeholder with financial and/or political power expects multiculturalism to appear on the “highly effective list” without any rationale, just as a mandate. My inquiry is intended to challenge the shallow multicultural practices by revealing how misconceptions of race and culture have disguised themselves as cultural understanding and competence. These embedded and proliferating misunderstandings influence the daily experiences of young people from all cultural backgrounds to their detriment, and ultimately to our society’s damage…

…I encountered a challenge to my beliefs about multi-race studies when I began to read Rainier Spencer’s (1999) ideas. He is boldly critical of multi-race theory, which pushed me to think critically about my own understandings of multiracialism. In his book, Spurious Issues: Race and Multiracial Identity Politics in the United States, Spencer (1999) starts: “‘You’re not worried about me marrying your daughter,’ James Baldwin told a White southerner during a television debate. ‘You’re worried about me marrying your wife’s daughter. I’ve been marrying your daughter even since the days of slavery’” (p. 1). This quote re-ignites the reality of White superiority directly into one of society’s most personal, yet significantly political, spaces: marriage. Spencer does not hesitate to be confrontational about how historically oppressive and unreliable notions of multiracialism are, if we are ever to become a society without racism. He discusses how multiracial and antiracial ideologies could disrupt the U.S. racial ordering of society by asking “how can mixed-race or multiracial persons place themselves with consistency and meaning within that system?” (p. 5). The pain and frustration associated with multi-racialism remains as long as the myth of race remains. Spencer believes it is well past time to begin problematizing race categories altogether. He believes we must move away from classifications of people and promotes the ideology that we are all members of the human race…

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