Diversity and Self-Identity: Growing Up Biracial
This article was contributed by Jeanette Volkow, a member of the Fall 2017 Move This World intern class. Jeanette is currently a senior at Rutgers University Business School.
Almost everyone can agree that the process of growing up is difficult. Experiences, especially in school and during extracurricular activities, help shape the adults children will become. One of the principle ways that children learn is through mimicry. The adults in their lives serve as models for them and, usually, children imitate what they see adults say and do into adulthood.
Children often choose role models who look like them and are of the same race, as they have greater relatability and commonality. Traditionally, most individuals were one ethnicity but as times change, being multiracial, multiethnic or both is becoming more common. As a biracial, multiethnic individual, I wanted to share some of the experiences that shaped me and the importance of encouraging diversity within classrooms that can help lead to better self-identification.
Elementary School (2001-2007)
Not only did elementary school provide the foundation for all of my education, but it also introduced me to how diverse individuals truly are. I remember feeling both excited and nervous walking into the classroom on my very first day of school. My older sister constantly talked about her positive experiences and she clearly loved school, so my expectations were high.
Being from a fairly large suburb in northern New Jersey, my town and public school were very diverse. Yet, one thing was immediately clear to me: no one looked like me, not any of the students or teachers. It is not unusual for children to feel more comfortable with people of the same race, and to develop their own self-identity by mimicking the adults they think they resemble. Being African American and Russian, I represented an anomaly. No distinct familiarity existed for me. This made me feel like I was different, which is very discomforting to children at this age. At recess, everyone fell into this familiarity and went off to play. Feeling like an outcast, I decided to color by myself, until my teacher noticed and forced me to socialize with other little girls coloring in another part of the classroom. However, at this age, I did not dig deeper into the fact that people looked different from me. Although I did not recognize it at the time, this was the age that I began to divide myself to align with the stereotypes that were often affiliated my ethnicities.
Middle School (2007-2010)
Middle school presented a new set of challenges. While transitioning from childhood to adolescence, many adolescents begin developing their own style and personalized look. This includes experimenting with different types of clothes and hair-styles, oftentimes trying to imitate celebrities as well as adults around us. One particular trend that stood out to me during this time was straight hair. Everyone from my peers to my teachers straightened their hair. My large, bushy, curly hair was the complete opposite. However, to look like everyone else, I chose to conceal my differences rather than embrace them and, just like my peers and teachers, straightened my hair. Middle school is a difficult time for most, and helping adolescents develop their self-identities is critical at this age. Strong self-identity is closely related to high self-esteem, which is crucial in helping adolescents not give into peer pressure and staying true to themselves. Something that may seem insignificant, like straightening my hair, had a much larger impact. Not only did my appearance make me feel like an outcast, but this made it seem as if my appearance was not good enough. If teachers with curly hair had embraced their hair and showed me that looking different was acceptable, I may have be more inclined to embrace my own.
High School (2010-2014)
High school was much of a continuation of middle school in terms of physically trying to fit in. A new set of challenges came from within the classroom, specifically the types of classes I took. I took mostly honors and AP classes, which brought with them the stereotype that you were “nerdy”. Most of my classmates were of Caucasian or Asian descent, I was the only person who was biracial, which immediately made me feel like I did not belong. I sat in the back of most classes, trying to not bring attention to myself and hiding my big hair. Though my academic performance proved that I did belong there, my peers had lower expectations strictly based on my appearance. When academic class rankings came out senior year, I ranked 19th out of 722 students. Even after being in the same classes for four years, my peers were still shocked at this outcome. To them it seemed as if intelligence was related to one’s ethnicity. One thing that could have changed my mind would have been if a teacher had explicitly pointed out that race and ethnicity have nothing to do with intelligence. I felt as if I had to be a different version of myself when in the classroom than I was when talking with my friends or teammates, creating divisions that I would not bring together until later on in college.
A common theme lacking throughout my school experiences were teachers failing to actively embrace diversity and representation for all. Most attempts at promoting diversity included simply putting a flyer of children from different ethnicities as opposed to showing that multi-ethnic individuals exist. I wish my teachers had taught diversity, in the real world sense- not just how posters depict it should be. Students should know that their ethnicities are a part of their self-identity, but are not the only part.
By helping students develop proper social emotional skills, children can better develop their self-identities. Social emotional learning bolsters self-awareness, which we need to have an accurate self-perception when we are developing our self-identities. Little things we do today have a big impact on our children tomorrow.