MSA discussion on race, ethnicity and identity
As Black History Month begins, we are given the opportunity to inform ourselves about the importance of understanding a racial background that may or may not be our own.
On Wednesday, Jan. 27, the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (MSA) hosted “Who Am I? Unraveling Racial and Ethnic Identity,” an “interactive discussion about race, ethnicity and how it affects day to day experiences,” according to the event’s Facebook page.
This discussion was co-sponsored by the Association of Latin American Students (ALAS), The African American Student Union (TAASU) and Lambda Theta Phi Latin Fraternity, Inc.
The discussion was held in the Student Union Room 402. A large turnout of students, faculty, staff and community members representing many racial and ethnic backgrounds discussed their thoughts on racial identity.
Marissa Garcia, Students Services Coordinator for MSA, helped plan the event.
“[The discussion] opens the door for diverse individuals to discover commonalities, appreciate differences and come together as a community,” Garcia said.
“Understanding our racial and ethnic backgrounds can help us feel comfortable, confident and have the ability to stand strong in knowing who we are as individuals,” Garcia said. “Learning about our backgrounds and other people’s backgrounds can help break down misconceptions, assumptions and stereotypes.”
The event featured food from different cultures and plenty of laughter and conversation.
Garcia, graduate assistant Byron Ceasar, Solissa Franco and Veronica Castro facilitated the discussion.
To begin the evening, MSA posted five signs representing various racial identities.
Among them were Latino or Hispanic, White, Asian, Black or African-American, and one titled “Undecided based on options given.”
The participants were then asked to gather around the one race they identified with.
For some, it was an easy choice, while others took a while longer to finally choose one race that best represented them.
When asked who had a hard time identifying with just one race, about half of the audience raised their hands.
Some felt it was difficult to choose because of their upbringings.
One common reason was people could not identify with a race they were not accustomed to.
It was agreed by many that these racial identities were based on stereotypes and social expectations.
When the participants were asked whether or not they could identify with a race that was not their own, many agreed that this was possible.
Matt Janes, an undergraduate student in secondary math education who came to the discussion with his wife, Thu Janes, said his racial identity was made easy during the activity because of the placement of the two races he most identified with.
“I’m glad White was next to Asian because my wife is Vietnamese, and I’ve been working on being Asian-American for 20 years,” Janes said.
Since there was a slight misunderstanding on what defines a race and what defines an ethnicity, participants were given definitions of both.
Ceasar presented the crowd with definitions of race and ethnicity compiled from the several cultural psychologists’ research.
J.E. Helms in his 2007 article in the Journal of Psychology said:
“Racial groups are not psychological constructs, but are better defined as sociopolitical constructions. The reason they are not considered psychological constructs is because being part of a particular racial group does not indicate particular ‘behaviors, traits, or biological or environment conditions.”’
He then displayed how ethnicity is defined by Hector Betancourt and Steven Regester Lopez, authors of “The Study of Culture, Ethnicity and Race in American Psychology,” and insight from Helms:
“Ethnic groups are psychological culture-defined constructs, unlike racial groups. They can be defined as self-identified groups of people characterized by the cultural values, language, and traditions that are all specific to the group as well as the transfer of these characteristics to group members.’”
“Race does not indicate membership,” Ceasar said.
“Ethnic groups are psychological culture-defined constructs unlike racial groups,” Helms said.
“They can be defined as self-identified groups of people characterize by the cultural values, language and traditions that are all specific to the group as well as the transfer of these characteristics to group members,” Betancourt and Lopez said.
Supplemental videos were shown to illustrate racial identity.
One video in particular was of a Latino man interviewing other Latinos, asking them what race they considered themselves.
The majority of those interviewed said they identified with being White because they didn’t really know what to call themselves.
This video led to the topic of U.S. classification and the Census.
It was mutually agreed that not many people know exactly what box to check on the Census form.
There are two sections on a modern form, one specifically for Hispanic, Latin, and Spanish origin, and the other for race in general.
It presents the question as to why the people of the Hispanic, Latin, and Spanish origin must be distinguished separately from every other race and ethnicity in the U.S.
Since these misconceptions, assumptions and stereotypes are believed to be prominent in American culture like Garcia mentioned, the question was brought up whether or not that meant we had to accept them.
“Why can’t they just be in the culture and live?” MSA Asst. Director Keichanda Dees-Burnet said. “It would be nice to live in a society and be a citizen and not have to be specific with who you are.”