The Mixed-Race Student Experience
Sol Kochi Carballo on finding roots as a mixed-race student.
I often find tales of my parents’ relationship quite entertaining. At age 30, my mum, a strong, friendly and charismatic Latina woman, was the first ‘foreigner’ to marry into my dad’s reserved Japanese family. One of my favourite stories is about one of the first family meals they spent together at my grandmother’s house.
‘We arrived after a day out and his whole family was already there,’ my mum recalls, as I picture my grandmother’s pristine dining room. ‘When we sat down to eat, nobody said a word!’ she laughs, and I laugh with her imagining my aunts and uncles seated awkwardly around the dinner table. ‘I thought it was my fault, but then your dad reassured me it was always like this. I thought it was completely crazy! Nobody spoke the whole time!’
I smile, imagining the completely opposite world of my mum’s family. I remember my childhood holidays with them, having loud, huge, Argentinian barbeques at crazy hours of the night. I recall the boisterous discussions that would last hours as my cousins and I ran around the backyard. Sometimes, the adults would get so lost in conversation that they would forget to cook until midnight, or later.
For years, I was pulled between these two worlds, never being quite sure of where I belonged. And then, at age 10, my family moved to Australia.
Even as a young child growing up in Argentina, I didn’t fit in. I never saw people that looked like me at my predominantly white school. However, I was both young enough to not know enough about race to care and ‘Latina enough’ to get by comfortably. Spanish was my first language, and, as far as I was concerned, I was just like all the other kids. When I moved to Australia, all of that changed.
Suddenly, I was thrown into a country with a new language, new customs and different people. My thick, black hair, olive skin and Asiatic features stood out amongst those of my Australian peers. The celebrities that I saw on TV, movies and magazines never resembled me. Additionally, when either of my cultures were portrayed, it was always in a stereotypical manner. Asian characters in mainstream media were constructed as intelligent, nerdy and never more than a sidekick. Alternatively, Latino women were sexualised, fetishised and made to seem dumb. In many ways, this made it hard for me to find my identity and be proud of it. At school, my looks, limited English and my accent immediately identified me as a foreigner. Everyone always asked me where I was from, and while they didn’t mean any harm by it, at the time it simply reinforced the idea that I was not like them. To a large extent, this trend continues today; the question ‘Where are you from?’ is not uncommon when meeting someone new at university, as if I haven’t lived here for the past 10 years.
My thick, black hair, olive skin and Asiatic features stood out amongst those of my Australian peers.
One of the greatest things about leaving high school and entering university is the much more culturally diverse environment. In fact, most campuses have societies dedicated to people from different cultures, such as A.S.I.A (Asian Students In Australia) and ASU (African Students Union). However, despite the premise of diversity and inclusivity, tertiary institutions can also become a heavily segregated environment. Students from the same country, to a large extent, tend to form inner groups and stick together. Coming from a mixed-race background, I found it hard to relate to my peers’ newfound inclusivity.
Growing up in Argentina and then Australia, I definitely didn’t ‘feel’ Japanese. I knew many of the customs, traditions and dishes of Japanese culture and I was proud of my heritage, yet I couldn’t speak the language and I had never even been to Japan. It wasn’t surprising to me, or even concerning, when I couldn’t relate to other Japanese students. However, I quickly found that I didn’t quite fit in with the Latino or Hispanic community either. Moving to Australia at such a young age meant I didn’t know any South American pop culture, they used slang I had never learnt and my Spanish had become rusty over the years. Of course, regardless of how long I had spent in Australia and how much I had assimilated, I wasn’t and could never be white. I couldn’t fully relate to my white peers either, especially when some felt comfortable cracking slightly racist jokes in my presence.
Likewise, there are many other challenges that come with being mixed-race at such a crucial time in your life. Throughout high school and university, the lack of representation of mixed actors and characters in the media can sometimes feel discouraging. It can also have negative effects on young adults’ perception of themselves and their body image. Dating can be a challenge, with race fetishism being a significant problem. Even finding people to form relationships with (whether romantic or platonic) can be a struggle. Universities by and large suffer from a lack of representation of mixed-race student physical spaces to talk about our experiences and meet like-minded people. While essentially every university has cultural clubs, very few have a ‘Mixed-race Student Society’ or anything of the like.
Indeed, these feelings and experiences seem to be somewhat universal for mixed-race students. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that young people who identify as mixed-race are more at risk of mental health issues stemming from stress. Likewise, in her book ‘Mixed-Race Students in College’, author Kristen A. Renn details the experiences of many mixed-race university students, including their feelings of erasure and identity crises. A small survey I conducted while writing this article had similar findings. Many students listed not fitting into specific cultural clubs and not having friends of the same ethnicity as one of the main struggles of being mixed-race in university. One student in particular explained how they were often excluded from Asian social circles due to being ‘white-passing’, with the exclusion going as far as being denied leadership in a cultural club.
Universities by and large suffer from a lack of representation of mixed-race student physical spaces
Fortunately, things are looking up for mixed-race students. Mixed-race societies and student unions are becoming more popular in American universities, which will hopefully influence Australian institutions in the near future. Australia is a melting pot of cultures, and while it can be difficult to find people to relate to at the moment, ‘mixed-race’ is the largest growing ethnic group. At the same time, it is worth noting that change is needed on a large scale level. Universities need to adapt and provide mixed-race students with safe spaces where they can meet people and make friends without having to explain their identities. While we can’t expect the ‘where are you from?’ question to go away any time soon, we can take solace by embracing our identities and making our voices heard in tertiary education and beyond.
Sol is currently studying a Bachelor of Philosophy majoring in Economics at the University of Western Australia.