Haleigh Larson ’18 spent her North Dakotan childhood in a community she characterizes as “almost completely Scandinavian.” She and her two siblings, the adopted children of white parents, are some of the few residents of color in the entire town.
When she came to Yale in the fall of 2014, Larson was, like all other students of color, assigned a peer liaison and invited to attend events at one of the campus’s cultural houses — in her case, the Afro-American Cultural Center. Never having socialized regularly with people of a similar racial background, Larson was initially eager to explore an aspect of her identity with which she was unfamiliar. But she found it difficult to fully engage with many of the other students and began to feel as if she were not a member of the African-American community at Yale.
“Many of the students there had come to the Af-Am House looking for a space to engage with others who had been raised in similar environments, while I came there trying to learn more about a side of my identity I wasn’t as immersed in,” Larson said. “As a result, there was a huge barrier between me and many of the other students. Besides the occasional email, I certainly didn’t feel like a member.”
Though Larson acknowledges the importance of Yale’s cultural houses for many students of color, she was disappointed with her experience trying to explore her identity within the campus’s existing cultural spaces.
Jessica Nelson ’18, a half-black, half-white student “tangibly involved but not extremely active” in the Af-Am House, experienced similar feelings of alienation upon visiting the center during her freshman year.
In an interview this week, Nelson echoed many of Larson’s sentiments. Both felt that many black and biracial students raised in majority-white environments feel othered by those environments but lack the cultural experience to feel completely comfortable in African-American spaces.
“I think most [biracial students] feel uncomfortable in minority spaces because a lot of us were raised in all-white environments. On the other hand, most students who flock to the cultural houses were raised in majority-minority environments. There are vast differences, even within the cultural space,” Nelson said.
Nelson grew up in a town that was 96 percent white, and said she was initially intimidated when she began to attend meetings at the center.
Since then, she has more active in the cultural house and has come to see it as a supportive social space. However, she said that she still feels that the multiracial experience is vastly different from the experience of being white or black.
“A lot of race is how other people perceive you,” she said. “A lot of [the] time I’m mostly just read as black, so I think in that case I’m black at face value. But internally you’re navigating a different space, because you’re so often put in either a white space or a black space. You’re never really in a majority-mixed room.”
There are similar stories at the rest of the campus’s cultural houses. Diego Espitia ’17 is of mixed-race heritage — half-white and half-Latino — but looks, in his own words, “totally Caucasian.” As a result, he said, he has always felt out of place in La Casa Cultural.
Espitia said that he has felt pressured to prove his Latino heritage all his life, especially to other Hispanic people. That has made him feel like an impostor when he attempts to navigate majority-Latino spaces. But he hesitates to ascribe his feelings of detachment to La Casa or Yale in general.
“It’s something I’ve felt everywhere, including in my hometown,” he said. “I just felt from the beginning that I didn’t really belong [in the cultural center] and so I didn’t make much of an effort to fit in.”
Like Larson, Nelson and Espitia, many multiracial students feel adrift both in a university that views them as racial others and in cultural houses designed primarily for students of one particular race. This sense of racial disorientation has sparked a movement to establish communities on campus specifically for multiracial students.
Chandler Gregoire ’17, who is half white, one-quarter black and one-quarter Asian, was assigned two peer liaisons upon entering Yale. However, as she began to grow more involved with cultural houses, Gregoire said that she found it difficult to navigate her multiracial identity.
“I would see the group and see the space and feel as if it were for an entirely black or entirely Korean community,” she said. “I felt that I lacked the authority to speak to what life was like as an Asian-American or an African-American.”
In 2014, four Pierson freshmen — Gregoire, Tony Scott ’17, Madison Masters ’17 and Jared Fellows ’17 — founded the Racial and Ethnic Openness Club, with the encouragement of Pierson Head of College Stephen Davis. REO, which has about 15 regular members, is a space for students of all different races and ethnic backgrounds, and holds weekly meetings and discussions.
Since 2008, the peer liaison program has functioned to connect students of color with designated advisors at the campus’s various cultural centers — the Asian American Cultural Center, the Af-Am House, La Casa Cultural and the Native American Cultural Center. Gregoire and REO have been working to expand the program to include multiracial students as well.
“During last year’s [campus racial debates], I didn’t feel connected to institutional support,” she said. “Even though I love REO and feel as if it’s an important part of my identity, I felt that more needed to be done.”
Gregoire currently serves as a peer liaison for specifically multiracial students as a part of what she calls a “pilot program” within the Af-Am House. Two students function as peer liaisons for Afro-Latinx students, performing joint work with the Af-Am House and La Casa. However, the NACC and AACC do not yet provide peer liaisons for multiracial students.
Patrick Peoples ’18, one of two peer liaisons currently serving as advisors to Afro-Latinx students, said that the program is still in too early a stage to be properly evaluated.
Peoples, who hails from Wilmington, North Carolina, said he was one of very few people of color in his high school academic program. He quickly found the cultural houses to be important and crucial means of support. In particular, he credits his peer liaison at the Af-Am House with inspiring him to mentor students himself. Peoples’ experience was different than that of many multiracial students interviewed, in that he found introduction to a minority space to be refreshing rather than intimidating.
Discussions between students and administrators are ongoing, and several other platforms for supporting multiracial students are currently being discussed. Gregoire said that her dream would be to establish a cultural house for multiracial students before she graduates this spring, but acknowledges that the possibility is highly unlikely.