I often find myself standing between 295 and 301 Crown St., looking upon two quintessentially New England row houses, both clothed in weathered red brick facades and guarded by white columns. These next-door neighbors are the Asian American Cultural Center and La Casa Cultural, two of Yale’s four cultural centers.
At first glance, being biracial at Yale seems like it should be double the fun, with twice the social gatherings and free food. However, there are gaps in our monoracial cultural house system — gaps so wide that some students fall through.
This spring, I interviewed for job positions at the AACC, La Casa and the Chaplain’s Office. The interviews felt like a game of identity poker: playing the multiracial card as an asset, all while holding my true insecurities close to my chest. When it came time to choose where to work, I felt sick to my stomach at the thought of picking a side. “Working in a cultural center might be fun,” I deliberated in my journal, “but at a cost to my biracial identity.”
Why the steep price?
More than anything else, being multiracial proves over and over again just how much race is a social construct. In the summer, when the sun bakes my skin into a darker brown, strangers come up to me and speak Spanish. Other times, they assume that I’m Filipina. Or Brazilian. You get the idea — it is each person’s own experiences and assumptions that determine how they decipher my appearance. I am a walking Rorschach test — but instead of an inkblot, it’s my facial features and build that are up for interpretation.
Ultimately, I chose to work for the Chaplain’s Office. For me, faith invites wholeness in a way that race never has. When everything about my identity felt hyphenated in that decision — half-Chinese, half-Mexican, Chinese-American, Mexican-American — faith assured me that I was whole, reconciled, made in the image of God. And short of pitching a tent between the AACC and La Casa, it felt impossible to engage in one house without compromising my relationship to the other.
Yale, for all its cultural resources, has no center, dedicated staff or support system specifically for multiracial students. We take our monoracial cultural house system for granted. But in fact, most colleges — even peer universities — have only a single overarching center for all students of color. Amherst has a Multicultural Resource Center; Brown has a Center for Students of Color. The list goes on.
I am not arguing against our cultural house system. I think there is real beauty in specificity. Too often, umbrella groups with the broad label “students of color” focus on the lowest common denominator; namely, the ways we are marginalized as “minorities” — a quick-and-dirty label that reminds us only of the oppression we face rather than our complex ethnic heritage rooted in unique, resilient histories. We would shortchange ourselves if we only saw oppression in color. Four separate cultural centers, in contrast, can more easily celebrate culture in its particularity, in its intricate stories and nuances, as well as fight for a more inclusive Yale.
The four cultural centers at Yale are a testament to successful student activism. But design is never neutral. This system comes with its own baggage, its own ideology of belonging. I urge us to see the profound challenges as well as the opportunities in stewarding such a system. At the end of the day, when we draw more circles, we usher in more expectations for what it means to be “in” or “out.” It is our responsibility to discern what it means for our campus to adapt to a time in which there are many more multiracial students than in the 1970s and 1980s, when cultural centers were first established at Yale. This is a crucial time to consider this question — the Census Bureau projects that the multiracial population in the United States will triple in the next 40 years. While stand-alone cultural houses may have sufficed for the last 40 years, we would be remiss to let others — including multiracial, transracially adopted, Middle Eastern and North African students — wander for the next 40.
I am fully aware that there is no gatekeeper inside 295 or 301 Crown St., nor any cultural center. But I am also fully aware of the gatekeeper inside of me, the one who told me as a first year that “Chan” doesn’t belong on a La Casa retreat roster, or that I didn’t understand enough inside jokes at the AACC.
At the very least, Yale could establish a multiracial peer liaison cohort, a group of upper-level students equipped to understand and approach the internal gatekeeper in so many first years. More regular cross-center programming, a dedicated Yale staff member or even our own space could be next. But let’s start at the beginning. We can provide direct support to first years at a pivotal moment when they decide which spaces are theirs to enter.
Multiracial students long to be known in the wholeness of who they are, and yet that can be terrifying, too. My Chexican identity may not fit neatly into traditionally defined buckets, but I refuse to reduce myself into an algebraic expression where I’m half-X and half-Y, never whole.
James Baldwin wrote that “people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” We are also trapped in our systems of race, and our systems of race are trapped in us. For students who feel caught within or without, my hope is for freedom — freedom from our internal gatekeepers, freedom to make houses into homes, freedom to be whole.
Lauren Chan is a sophomore in Hopper College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .