Living Both/And in an Either/Or Society

“You don’t look Black.”

I have had to defend myself against this statement on an almost weekly basis my entire life. As a light-skinned, biracial woman with a White mom and Black father, I have never neatly fit into Either/Or boxes. Instead, I spend most of my time trying to invite people to come visit me in my figurative Both/And spaces facing rejection and isolation.

Biracial/multiracial/mixed folks at an intersection of a whole bunch of identities experience this regularly. As student affairs professionals who are committed to supporting identity formation and development, how do we lift the voices of the Both/And students?

The thoughts I contributed to Involvio in the past came in the form of systematic “how to” articles about supporting marginalized students. I wrote about first-generation college students and others who may experience imposter syndrome. I offered ways to support marginalized students post-election. Today I write with vulnerability and no promise of an answer. The following list are thoughts I believe we should consider when trying to push ourselves, our students, and our field beyond Either/Or mentality.

1) Agency

Heather C. Lou co-facilitated a session at ACPA in Columbus, Ohio this year and said something about agency and multiracial identity that I sat with for days. Essentially, she questioned whether she had agency in her racial identity after realizing a White woman mistakenly identified her as Black. This question felt so familiar to me because I am regularly mistaken as a Latina. I move through the world knowing with certainty that people are assigning me a racial identity that does not belong to me AND all of the stereotypes that correspond with that identity without ever speaking a word.

Is it possible we, SAPros, do this with our residents in housing and residential life? Do we make these mistakes in student leader selection or graduate and professional hiring? Have we placed people in neat Either/Or boxes only to learn we made a mistake? The answer is yes.

We must constantly challenge our internal biases and give space for people to have agency in their identity formation.

Ask questions and be open to a response that does not align with the pre-determined answer we had in our mind. Be curious.

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2) Authenticity

The pressure to fit neatly into Either/Or boxes can eliminate authenticity and breed conformity and assimilation. I grew up in a small town without one other person who looked like me except my younger brother. I hated being different, and I worked hard to fit in with my peers. From hair relaxers to listening to country singers like Billy Gilman and Faith Hill, I went to great lengths to convince people that I was White like them.

With maturity, I started to gain the confidence to be more authentic. College was a time for me to learn to embrace all parts of my racial identity, explore my heritage, and love who I was beyond my race. Our students are trying to do this on our campuses right now regardless of their background or identity.

Now more than ever, as people in power push polarizing ideologies on us, we have to create a space in higher education for folks to live authentically and love themselves with radical and unashamed fervor. Don’t get me wrong, 12-year-old Billy Gilman singing about heartbreak is still my jam, but it feels great to rock my natural curls while I belt out his songs.

3) Identity is Alive

Our identities are alive because they live within each of us. This means that our identities can evolve, grow, and shift over any length of time. Living in Either/Or boxes, the expectation is that this change happens over a lifespan. As a biracial/multiracial/mixed person living Both/And, the reality is that you experience shifts in your identity as frequently as in a few hours depending on the situation.

So why should this be an important consideration for student affairs? We may see a student show up in a variety of ways depending on the context. Rather than immediately questioning their authenticity, we should ask them and ourselves what may be contributing to the shift. Again, be curious, and you will find yourself in the Both/And space more often.

4) Asymmetrical

Living Both/And does not mean living a symmetrical, balanced, half this and half that life. Identity is messy and fluid, and it will likely be imbalanced for biracial/multiracial/mixed folks. I am not sure I have ever felt exactly half-and-half. People ask me with surprising frequency to quantify my Blackness or Whiteness. It took a long time to be able to say that I am both and leave it at that.

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The lesson here is that there is work to do even after we are willing to let Both/And spaces exist. We cannot force those spaces to be clean, tidy, and reinforce the polarizing Either/Or construct.

To truly allow Both/And to exist is to let go of most stereotypes, systems, and other structures we have in place. It is hard and takes work—even for people who live it.

The biracial/multiracial/mixed population is rising. Before we know it, our institutions will be flooded with young adults who have been wrestling with their identity long before they arrived on our campuses. To be frank, I do not believe we are ready for them. We are not ready to deal with Both/And because we are so dependent on Either/Or to guide us and determine our truths.

As promised, I do not have clear answers about what it is we should do. I know that before we can truly embrace the next generation, we have to consider the four factors outlined above. We have to give folks agency to determine their identities in an authentic way that leaves space for evolution and imbalanced outcomes. We have to get comfortable stepping outside of our boxes and embracing the dynamic and complicated world around us. I believe that higher education can lead the charge.

As always, if you have thoughts, feedback, questions or just want to chat, I encourage you to reach out to me @jessicamarie299 on Twitter or gjer9938@stthomas.edu.