Shanea Turner-Smith. Photo by Mike Ekern '02.

Giving Voice to the Multiracial Experience: A Conversation With Shanea Turner-Smith

Shanea Turner-Smith, a junior social work major at St. Thomas, is "a really big deal," according to Cynthia Fraction, assistant director of St. Thomas' McNair Scholars program. Turner-Smith led a 90-minute workshop on her McNair Scholars research project, "The Multiracial Experience," Friday at the 2012 Overcoming Racism conference held at Metro State University in St. Paul.

When you consider her fellow presenters: the vice president of racial justice and public policy for the YWCA of Minneapolis, professionals working for human rights and social justice, and a slew of Ph.D.s, well, you might start to think Fraction is onto something.

"It’s very intense what St. Thomas and the national McNair program does for these kids. It’s a whole lot bigger than just learning about research. It's presenting their research, building an academic portfolio, giving definitive shape to where they want to take their academic careers. What Shanea is doing at this conference is huge. She just started with the program in June and she already has proven herself capable of presenting her research to her peers. I'm so proud of her," Fraction said.

Turner-Smith, took some time before the conference to talk about her project, "The Multiracial Experience: Identity Formation and the Perception of Racial Prejudice and Discrimination at Predominantly White Universities," (on which Dr. Buffy Smith, Sociology and Criminal Justice Department, College of Arts and Sciences, served as her adviser) as well as her own experience.

Do you consider yourself multiracial, and what has been your personal experience with prejudice and discrimination? 

I do. My mom is Nigerian, African American, Creole, Scottish, French and Native American (Sioux, Choctaw). My father is African American, German, Irish, Puerto Rican and Native American (Blackfoot, Cherokee).

My personal experience with prejudice and discrimination is few and far between. I didn't experience a lot of prejudice or discrimination because I have always lived in racially diverse communities. My elementary school, in particular, was very diverse, so my ethnicity was never questioned, nor was I ever attacked because I was a minority. I will say that by going to a predominantly white high school I never felt like I could connect with my white classmates, and I always felt “less than." I also always knew that there was racial tension between races because my parents would come home and vent about their shared experiences with racial prejudice and discrimination. I can say that my race has been questioned quite frequently. I've had people think I was white, and when I told them I was mixed with African American, they treated me differently or made an alarming face that seemed to show they were uncomfortable to learn that. I even have had people call me “momma cita” because they thought me Hispanic, and I also have had Hispanic individuals assume I am also Hispanic, based on my physical characteristics, and speak Spanish to me! So to answer the question I have not had too many direct encounters with prejudice and discrimination, they've just been more subtle or based on my perception of what I believe people are thinking about me judging from the things they say or do.

The research question your project seeks to answer is: How do multiracial and minority “mono-racial” students perceive and experience racial prejudice and discrimination at predominantly white universities? Now that you’ve completed your research, how would you answer that question? Are there significant differences between their perceptions and their experiences?

I would say that multiracial and minority mono-racial students perceive racial prejudice and discrimination the same, meaning that while they know that both happen on their campuses, they experience racial prejudice and discrimination differently to an extent. My research showed that multiracial and minority mono-racial students both felt like a minority at their predominantly white campuses. They felt alienated in the classroom when called upon to give their “minority perspective,” or they felt uncomfortable getting into groups for projects and class discussion because they felt “out of place," and as if their opinions were not valued. The students who participated in my study (all from St. Thomas) felt that there was prejudice and discrimination taking place on campus, but the multiracial and Hispanic participants faced this differently than the minority mono-racial African students. The multiracial and Hispanic students' racial identities were always in question, which made them feel that they were the odd one out or that they could not identify fully with either of their ethnicities (for the multiracial students). The Hispanic students were mistaken for other Hispanic groups. For example, one participant was Puerto Rican and people perceived him as Mexican or made statements to him like, “Aren't Mexican and Puerto Ricans pretty much the same thing?” This was very frustrating for that particular participant because his ethnic identity wasn't valued or respected for its rich heritage and traditions. Instead it was put into a generic category of “Hispanics.” That said, my multiracial and Hispanic students felt that their ethnicities were not being recognized and appreciated in a sense. The African participants felt like they were always being asked, “Why are you acting white?” because they did not fit the stereotype of their perceived race. Instead of the African students being congratulated on their individualized success and merit they were seen as exceptions to their “lazy and uneducated” race, which in return sends the message that valuing education is a white attribute, and any person of a minority race who values his or her education is “acting white.” This was very hurtful for my African participants to have all of their hard work be boiled down to their race instead of who they are as a person. All of my participants stated that as “minorities” their merit was always questioned by their peers who believed they received scholarships based on race instead of merit. It would be great if everyone just received a scholarship due to their race without having to work hard in school, but that is not the case at all and it is insulting when people make statements like that. If that was true then school systems would be flooded with students if merit was not a criteria when applying to college and being awarded scholarships.

I would argue that there aren't significant differences between my participants’ perceptions and their experiences because their perceptions are based on their experiences. I think that it is possible to know that racism exists even if you haven't experienced racism firsthand, but my participants disclosed their personal accounts with prejudice and discrimination so their personal experiences impact their perceptions of racial prejudice and discrimination on their campus and in society. Since my participants did have personal experiences with prejudice and discrimination I think it validated for them that racism is a real issue of concern and oppression that still exists today.

How has the McNair Scholars program transformed your approach to your career path?

From a young age I knew I would go on to graduate school. My parents never had to force me to do my homework! So the focus the program places on intensive, graduate-level research was a great fit for me. I now know that I need a Ph.D. The degree will give me the credentials I will need to make a change. I'm a social work major now, which is important to me because social workers are the people working in the field with the families we want to help. We're hands on, which is so important. But I also know that I want public policy and sociology to be a part of my graduate education because those fields provide the intellectual and political tools necessary to change the system. You have to play the game in order to change the game; you have to know the system in order to change the system.

Some race scholars contend that “race is an experience, not a fact − so if a person is treated as black, he or she is black, regardless of the number of ‘drops’ (regardless of whether he or she has parents of multiple races but may have, for example, a grandparent or great-grandparent of a minority race).” (I borrowed that from Microtrends by Mark Penn.) What is your take on that statement?

I would agree that race is an experience and not a fact. Race is a social construct that consists of ambiguous labels that can change over time. For example, African Americans were called the N-word, colored, negro, Black, and then finally African American. If race were a fact, the labels wouldn't have changed over time, and we would not categorize people differently. The “one-drop rule” placed anyone with African American lineage in the racial category "African American," but today we classify people who may have both African American and Caucasian lineage as biracial or multiracial. I agree that race is an experience not only because the concept has no biological basis, but also because people will perceive and interact with you differently depending on how you self-identify racially or how they perceive you racially. As you encounter people you immediately place them into one socially constructed box based on "race." You have already made assumptions about that person. Speaking for myself, today we had a Dakota speaker who talked about past wrongs to her indigenous people, and it affected me personally. Even though people may not look at me and classify me as Native American, I know that that blood runs in me. It's a spiritual connection. Those were my ancestors and the great hurt I feel knowing what happened to them is undeniable.

Tell us more about the “unique standpoint” of multiracial people compared to those who are minority mono-racial.

Multiracial people have the ability to be chameleons in a sense. Although they may or may not be perceived as minorities based on their physical features, they have the ability to understand and connect with multiple races. And although they may be drawn to one of their ethnic identities over the other(s), they still are able to see both a minority perspective to a situation as well as the dominant perspective. When you are multiracial, the world truly isn’t white and black to you. By being the "gray" area, so to speak, you are a part of both worlds and can feel accepted by both races (white and black). When you are multiracial, people cannot always pigeon-hole you, which makes you feel unique in a sense, but it also can make you feel alienated if your racial identity is questioned in an offensive way. My research showed that the biggest difference between the multiracial and the minority mono-racial experience is the sense of culture and belonging. Minority mono-racial people can have a stronger sense of culture because they only have one racial/ethnic identity. Not only do they identify with just one racial category, but their physical features may categorize them with the racial category as well they may not get asked "What are you?" Multiracial students, on the other hand, may find it challenging to identify with all of their ethnic identities at once. Not knowing where you fit in in society it can make you feel alienated racially and can weaken your sense of belonging to a racial culture. I feel that being mono-racial and having family members who identify with you will create a strong connection to your ethnic background.

The phrase “self-identify” has popped up in academic and popular culture often in recent years, especially in terms of race and gender. In your paper, you often use the term “self-identify” to describe how your interviewees classify themselves by race – most having chosen two races. How important is this concept of self-identity when discussing the multiracial experience?

A person disclosing how they “self-identify” is important to both the multi- and mono-racial experiences. Before I interviewed my participants I asked them to fill out a nine-item demographic survey. Some of the questions I asked were: What are all of your ethnicities? What exactly are your parent ethnicities? Who was your primary guardian growing up and what was their ethnicity? How did they self-identify racially? And how did they think society racially identified them? These questions came to be very important when I analyzed the audio-recorded interview during the transcription process because it allowed me to identify the primary influences on their racial identities. It allowed me to see why they chose to self-identify racially the way they did when they may have had other ethnicities that they did not choose to identify with. One of my major findings did show that the family environment of my participants did play a major role in the way they chose to identify. The positive and negative messages in which they received from their family members about their ethnic identities would impact how they viewed themselves racially positively or negatively. Another point is that even if you are multiracial you may have only polarized to one race due to your “experience” and may for example consider yourself mono-racial such as African American although you have Caucasian lineage. This self-identity also shows how translucent race is and you can put yourself in to the box you feel most comfortable with and are not forced to disclose your other ethnicities if you do not want to, but society may still want to put you in a certain box even if you do not want to be put in that box. I know that my father, for example, who is also multiracial sometimes checks only White/Caucasian on job applications and employers are puzzled when he comes in for an interview. He has a European first and last name so it seems standard on paper that he could be White/Caucasian. He does this because he identifies with his German ancestry, his grandmother (my great-grandmother) was a prominent figure in his life and mine, so in essence is it really misleading or being untruthful for a multiracial person to identify with the dominant culture? I think this honestly proves that race is a social construct, but also shows how even if you choose to self-identify a certain way that doesn’t mean society will want you to identify that way if they've come to the consensus that your physical features don't match their perception of your race..

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges multiracial students face in forming their racial identities?

To me, it's not knowing where or how they fit in society. A multiracial person may identify with multiple ethnic identities but may only hang out with peers from one racial group or they may feel accepted only by peers who identify with one of their ethnic identities. I think being multiracial means you are perceived as a minority so you will have a minority status regardless, for instance, if you grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and only had white friends. Though the truth of the matter is that society will resist a person like that choosing to identify with the dominant culture. On the other hand multi-racial students who solely identify with their minority ethnic identities society is more supportive of that decision dating back to the historical context of the “one-drop rule.” So multiracial people's biggest challenges are not knowing where they fit in and having society constantly question their racial identities. They can feel like outcasts, not gaining acceptance into any racial group.

What has been your personal experience as a multiracial student at St. Thomas?

There have been some moments that I felt alienated as a student of color, but my experience has been positive overall. I am glad I am came to a predominantly white university because it allowed me to communicate with the dominant population in a way that I was afraid to during my high school education. Also, I was able to come into my racial identity through college courses and by having my core group of friends as a support system. College has given me the opportunity to become friends with individuals who racially identify with as multiracial or biracial, and it has allowed us to have open dialogue about our experiences. The only time I've felt alienated is when the term "mulatto," which means "mule offspring of a horse or donkey" in Latin, is used to describe mixed-race people. I've also overheard racist jokes about ethnic groups that are part of my lineage. It doesn't happen often, but when it does it's hurtful. One wish I share with my friends, who are also students of color, is that I'd like to  have college friends who are of the dominant culture. I know it's a two-way street and that I need to make an effort and extend my hand as much as I want them to reach out to me. I do have many Caucasian peers whom I consider associates, but I have never been able to make that connection with them to talk about issues that go beyond the surface. As a multiracial person who sees myself as white as much as a person of color, I would like to leave St. Thomas with a diverse group of close friends because I enjoy learning from people of all backgrounds. I know I am growing into my racial identity as I still find it challenging to connect with my peers from the dominant culture in environments and subjects that are not related to academics.

You use "standpoint theory" in your research. Can you describe this for the layperson and also tell us a bit about how this theory is a good fit for analyzing the multiracial experience?

By definition standpoint theory is utilized to suggest that “subordinate positions in society generate “privileged” perspectives relative to those who occupy advantaged positions.” For example, if you are a White male in the United States you sit at the top of the hierarchy, so a woman or person of color may have a privileged perspective when it comes to how they view injustices amongst women and people of color because they have experiences that the White male does not readily have. I would argue that standpoint theory really is just lending voice to a group of people so White males also have their own standpoint and experiences. The theory fits perfectly for analyzing the multiracial experience because it is, by nature, qualitative, so it gives a "voice" to the multiracial experience. This method allowed me to incorporate personal testimonies and accounts, which enriched my research. This isn't to say that the quantitative method is a bad approach, but to really understand the multiracial experience I had to give the participants freedom to express themselves and describe their standpoint on how they feel they fit in society. Their personal accounts allowed me to show how their experience is unique compared to other racial groups and that their experience had legitimate concerns, but I also wanted to simply shed light on the beauty of being multiracial and what that truly means. Using standpoint theory was perfect because it allowed multiracial people to speak on their own behalf versus having society speak for them.

Can you think of one multiracial public figure, living or dead, whom you think has made great strides in the way multiracial people are perceived? 

I think American singer Alicia Keys is an exceptional individual and multiracial advocate. Keys self-identifies as Irish, Scottish, African American and Italian. In an interview she said she grew up in New York – a place where she never had to experience feeling “not Black enough” or “not White enough” but that she became comfortable with her biracial heritage because it allows her to relate to different cultures. This is true testimony from a public figure who embraces being multiracial and sees it as an asset. On top of that, at 31, she's 14-time Grammy-award-winning singer, songwriter, music producer, activist and entrepreneur! She helped start an organization – Keep a Child Alive – which benefits children affected by AIDS in Africa and India. She also started an interactive learning app for children that was inspired by her multiracial son (her husband is African American and Puerto Rican). Keys has always carried herself in a classy way (both speech and dress), given back to others, and has always been comfortable in her skin and vocal about being multiracial. I respect her outer and inner beauty and she has touched lives around the world with her beautiful voice and through her caring ways.

Why do you think society, generally speaking, persists in pigeon-holing multiracial people into classifying themselves by only one race?

I understand demographics are useful to employers and universities, but I wish they would get rid of those race boxes. Society, however, is used to its system of race and identifying people based on one racial group. Race is a social construct, and being multiracial goes against the grain. Multiracial people do not fit into one racial category and they're becoming less tolerant of being placed in one box. I think society recognizes the terms biracial and multiracial more often, or at least they recognize the term when it used, but it's still frustrating to not be able to pin-point someone’s ethnicity. As humans we make assumptions about people all the time based on how they look so when you do not know what a person’s race is you cannot put them into a stereotypical category or make connections between them and to other people you may know from a particular racial group. I think racial categories simplify people’s ethnicities. For those who identify as multiracial, this limits them from truly expressing who they are. I would like to think that as more people start to identify as multiracial, society will change the way it views race.