A Choice to Make?: Tokenism and the complex navigation of multicultural identities
multicultural identity; intersectionality; passing; personal identity; cultural broker; tokenism; diasporic history
Children experience different psychological stages of identity development depending on where their identity falls in the social hegemony. For those who identify with majority or minority cultures, their development follows specific steps; embracing the dominant culture, conforming to a divisive, hierarchical status quo, and finally resisting and redefining oneself in spite of those norms. It’s a process of realization that leads to a strong sense of identity, both as an individual and as part of a larger group.
For multicultural people, whose identities encompass two or more cultures, the process is cyclical and varies depending on the social situation. There is an awareness of differences between themselves and both groups, re-emphasized by varying perspectives, traditions, and experiences. As their peers grow into their identities, multicultural children commonly feel pressured to pick one identity over the other, an especially difficult process if they feel disconnected from both groups. Multicultural individuals are more likely to become cultural brokers, whether voluntarily or not, because they theoretically fill disconnects between the cultures which can reduce conflict.
Eva is a first year college student enrolled in a living-learning community at her university. The program is rooted in community service and encourages students to examine the intersectionality of their identities. Multiple classes are spent assessing privileges and underlying biases that may affect their ability to work with local communities.
Eva is a multicultural person, with both white and Mexican-American identities. Growing up with both identities was not complex until her elementary classmates started forming their own identities. There was unspoken pressure to pick one, which most multicultural kids feel and internalize. Eva felt out of place in just her Chicana identity. Though the culture was part of her, passed through her mother and grandmother, she could not speak Spanish. Her friends tried to teach her, but the insecurity was compounded by outside perspectives saying this invalidated her as a “real Mexican.” She saw her family’s experiences with racism firsthand and felt it in instances where her differences were recognized as well. Living in the southern United States, people who only saw Eva’s whiteness were too comfortable engaging in microagressions and revealing prejudices against her friends and her family. She would do her best to confront them, but it could be emotionally draining when no one else seemed willing. Other times, when they did know, they would remind her she wasn’t “white enough” either.
Eva’s first time actively serving as a cultural broker was in high school, trying to bridge a gap between her white peers and a cultural experience not often considered in their studies. She acknowledged the privileges of her whiteness up front while also freely speaking up for herself and her family in discussions surrounding identity and power. Some students were willing to listen, but conflict persisted. One time during a discussion, a white classmate compared their skin tones and said he was “more Mexican” than Eva because he was tanner. She recognized he was trying to undermine her voice by simplifying being Mexican to a skin tone, while having total disregard for the culture and cultural implications of said skin tone in the US. Eva endured many similar conversations throughout her education. Though she saw through arguments like this, she further internalized that she didn’t fit anywhere entirely. While completing high school, Eva began trying to rationalize her identity as an intersectional mix rather than two halves. Initially, the process was smooth, but her social context shifted leading into college.
While Eva’s university prides itself on the diversity of student identities, the demographics of the program are reflective of the school status as a primarily white institution. Out of 50 students in the community service living and learning program, there are six students of color, a number which varies depending on who is asked. Eva does not count herself as a student of color on account of the many privileges she has being both white and “white passing.” With the exception of Eva, the program has no students of Latin American descent.
A few of the community partners that students in Eva’s program work with are in a majority-minority community: While the neighborhood is known for its amalgamation of cultures, it has one of the most predominant Latin American populations in the area. Before they were allowed to do research in the field, the program director assigned a month’s worth of projects on the city’s history. Through the readings, Eva learned that the Mexican-American and other growing Latinx populations in her new city had historical difficulties receiving recognition from the local government. She tried to discuss this with her peers, but most students glossed over it and expected someone else to present on it. When presentation day arrived, Eva used her time slot to cover the most influential points of a Latinx experience in the city and emphasize the need to listen to every voice within the community.
As the semester went on, class discussions on social disparities and the city continued. It became increasingly more obvious that Eva’s peers turned to her alone for a Latinx perspective. She was actively learning from the community and felt an obligation to educate her classmates as the only Latinx student in the cohort. Yet this led to an unfair emotional strain for her and the other students of color in the program who are constantly advocating to have their perspectives heard. She doesn’t mind sometimes, but her multicultural identity makes her uncomfortable speaking on topics or for cultures where she has less experience. Not to mention, she is a stranger to the historical dynamics within her college town and the full scope of Latin American cultures represented there. Yet, Eva knows if she does not speak up, her classmates are unlikely to look for the perspective elsewhere and it may not be a positive or well-rounded one.
As you consider this case, discuss:
How can multicultural identities vary in saliency and across social situations?
Why should multicultural identities be viewed as intersectional of the individual and not counteractive of each other?
How does Eva’s situation reflect the dangers of tokenism?
Should it be a student’s responsibility to teach their classmates or their faculty about their identity/background?
How could the other students avoid relying on tokenism in the future?
How can the program director create assignments or initiatives to bring additional voices into the educational experiences of students?
How could the program ethically avoid the underrepresentation of people of color in the program in the future? Can they?
Additional recommended resources to explore the central themes in this case are available.