Photo of Vanessa Johnson

Holding a Mirror to Our Racial Realities

naspa diamond

Vanessa Johnson

April 3, 2017

Lessons learned from attending the 4th Annual Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference

The weekend of February 24th 2017, I had the opportunity to present and attend the 4th Annual Critical Mixed Race Studies (CMRS) Conference at the University of Southern California hosted by the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture. This was my first time attending the CMRS Conference and the experience left me with thought provoking and challenging questions -- questions around what it means to be and identify as a multiracial being, what it means to apply a critical lens into my work daily, and questioning my own presumptions about identity and who has the right to dictate how one identifies. Overall, I left the conference with the challenging question that many of us leave conferences with, “How can I apply everything I have learned to my personal and professional life” i.e. “Now what?” The following are some personal thoughts and experiences for this month’s MultiRacial Knowledge Community blog and I hope that through reading my words I may provoke dialogue or thoughts on how we can all work towards recognizing our role within and outside our Multiracial communities and how we can begin taking the next steps to move from critical awareness to change agents.

This years conference theme was “Explorings in Trans -Gender, -Gressions, -Migrations, -Racial, Fifty Years After Loving v. Virginia.” The conference examined mixed race issues within a transpacific context and conference sessions explored trans and interracial encounters, transnational migration, transracial/ethnic identity, and the intersections between transgender and mixed race identity. Since I work within higher education, many of the sessions I attended had either a research focus or an education-specific focus. So, I can only speak from my personal perspectives and experiences of the sessions I attended. However, a few things I took away were the following: the importance of intersectionality; the importance of recognizing our own racial realities and not opting out of racial politics, and overall how can we create a world free from boundaries and a society in which we all recognize the humanity among us all. Dr. Rudy P. Guevarra Jr.’s Keynote, “Borderlands of Multiplicity: Reflections on Intimacies and Fluidity in Critical Mixed Race Studies” specifically touched on the importance of radical love and hope and creating a loving future. We live in a world that wants to build walls instead of bridges and that is threatened by our very existence. His words spoke to the very fact that our identities challenge the norm and have instead transcended borders/arbitrary lines. This idea of borderlands, taken from scholar Gloria Anzaldua’s work, reminds me of my and many other mixed-race folks’ experiences of border crossing.

My siblings and I are alive today because my mother had the courage to cross the borders between Peru and the United States. Growing up, I lived in the “inbetween” --living with the richness of my Latinx culture, but also living (and struggling) with my White identity from my father. As an adult, I now realize that I do not have to pick one over the other, but as a child growing up in a very White middle-class and Mormon community, one feels as though both feet have to be on one side of your racial/ethnic border. As an adult, I have the opportunity to hold a mirror to my racial reality. I am able to hold my ethnic identities without choosing between one or the other, while also realizing I hold the oppressed and the oppressor within my veins. My racial reality is one that lives with privileges as a mixed-race/ethnic individual whose white-binary narrative is often the focus within mixed race studies research.

As I listened to Dr. Guevarra talk about how our multiple identities shape our view of the world and how we must work together to organize ourselves and resist effectively while acknowledging the intersection of causes, I am left with the question, “What are my next steps?” “What is my role within and outside my multiracial community?” “How do I live each day striving to be a change agent?” The following is a short list of some personal thoughts and how I hope to incorporate the lessons learned from attending the CMRS Conference.

  1. Ask hard and challenging questions. These are not always easy questions to answer, but asking hard and challenging questions that pushes us out of our boundaries is a start. For example my question of “now what?” is not very easy to answer. It took over a month and writing this blog to really organize my thoughts about my role and how I intentionally move forward in our world as a multiracial being. Maybe you are a reader, a writer, a blogger, or enjoy the arts. Take whatever medium you like, but make time to reflect on these hard question.  

  2. Read. Educate. Challenge. If we are to re-write our history to see the humanity among us all, as Dr. Guevarra challenges, then we must know our past. We must educate ourselves on the historic racist practices and policies which affect our students, our work, and our communities. Only when we learn of the causes of our societal inequalities can we work towards dismantling them.

  3. Find Community. We all need individuals in our lives who we can lean on after a long day of microaggressions and straight-up racist political and societal noise. These folks may be hard to find if we do not work in racially/ethnically diverse environments, however as you can see from NASPA’s MultiRacial Knowledge Community, this can be a start.

  4. Share Your Story. We need to share our stories with one another and recognize the humanity within ourselves and among our community in order to build trust and genuine relationships. The power of our stories is what allows us to cross perceived divides and allows us to see one another as humane individuals who also experience many of the same feelings, thoughts, and hardships.

  5. Organize. I am no expert in organizing, but in my experience even just getting folks together to eat lunch together can not only nourish the body but also the soul. After the November election, our faculty and staff of color community decided to set up a few lunch dates so that as many folks that were interested would have the opportunity to come together in community. Many folks of color on campus may be the only person in their department and may not feel safe to express themselves. After setting up some lunches and attending, it was clear that the folks needed to be in dialogue with one another and as we began to share our fears, concerns, and personal commitments, I realized in that moment that we were building a stronger community.

  6. Support intersecting causes. Stand against. Dr. Guevarra challenged those in the audience to stand against hate, inequalities, oppression, borders, and the many -isms faced within and outside our communities. I know that I alone cannot end oppression, but I know that there are things I can do. I can pick up the phone to call my local and state members of Congress to urge them to vote against policies which cut funding to life-saving organizations and programs, to raise my voice against individuals who seek or continue to seek power who are not committed to social justice, to attend rallies or protests, to get involved in local grassroots organizations and attend meetings, or send money to organizations who diligently work to defend human rights.

  7. Reach out beyond MR communities or Higher Education. For those of us in academia who actively are researching or who are interested in research, how could we reach beyond journals or areas in which we seek publishing and start conversations outside our field? For instance, could a blog such as this one exist outside of NASPA? Where else could I publish beyond critical mixed race studies? Could I perhaps combine my passion for social justice and critical mixed race studies and talk about the need for assessment and data informed decisions and therefore publish in assessment journals? Again, I’m no expert but maybe something to think about.

  8. Don’t lose radical hope and love. Referencing Junot Diaz’s piece, “Radical Hope” Dr. Guevarra urged those in the audience to not lose radical hope and love. This is not to say that we do not mourn and feel. Junot Diaz urges us to feel. He writes, “We need to connect courageously with the rejection, the fear, the vulnerability that Trump’s victory has inflicted on us, without turning away or numbing ourselves or lapsing into cynicism” (Diaz, 2016). However after we feel, we organize (Diaz, 2016). We gain strength from our ancestors who have fought to be free (Diaz, 2016) and whose blood runs through our veins. And while we fight, Diaz urges us to not lose radical hope. Diaz quotes philosopher Jonathan Leer who describes radical hope as an intentional focus towards “...a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is” (Diaz, 2016).  Diaz writes, “Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as “imaginative excellence.” Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible. Only radical hope could have imagined people like us into existence. And I believe that it will help us create a better, more loving future” (Diaz, 2016).

It is easy to feel cynical and at times hopeless. I often feel this way and wonder what can I do? What can we do? I started this blog talking about my lessons learned from attending the CMRS Conference and my question, “Now what?” I hope that some of my words resonated with some of you and perhaps sparked some ideas of how you can turn your own “Now what” into practice--into change agents.

Thank you for taking the time to read and I end this blog with sending you, the reader, much radical love and hope.

Diaz, J. (2016). Radical hope. The New Yorker.

Vanessa Johnson is an assessment analyst within the office of Assessment Evaluation & Research with Student Affairs at the University of Utah. Before joining the University of Utah, she spent two and a half years at Oregon State University (OSU) as an assessment coordinator in the office of Student Affairs Research Evaluation & Planning. Her work at OSU focused on storytelling within Student Affairs using both qualitative and quantitative data analysis and data visualization as well as leading, administering, and analyzing OSU’s Campus Inclusivity Survey. She is on the Directorate Board for ACPA’s Commission for Assessment & Evaluation (since 2015) and is leading their Communications Team this year. She is an active member of Student Affairs Assessment Leaders (SAAL) and serves on the Professional Development Committee (PDC). She holds a M.Ed. in Education, Leadership & Policy and will be entering the PhD program in Education, Leadership & Policy fall 2017. She strives to support others tell their story and supports community efforts to create more inclusive and welcoming spaces for all.

Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NASPA. If you agree or disagree with the content of this post, we encourage you to dialogue in the comment section below. NASPA reserves the right to remove any blog that is inaccurate or offensive.

To comment, you can login to your preferred social network. Comments are lightly moderated and we do provide the option for users to flag a comment as inappropriate.

Posted by

Get in Touch with NASPA