Princeton is rightfully proud of the diversity of its student body, with 51 percent of its undergraduates identifying as people of color. Among these students are those who identify as Asian or Asian American, Black or African American, Native American, Latin American, or of multiple backgrounds. This last category is perhaps the most ambiguous — to the extent that racial identification matters, the concept of “multiple backgrounds” allows students to choose a label that encompasses at least a few different aspects of who they are.
Yet, despite this “multiple backgrounds” option, there are still pressures on students to choose just one category. Some students may feel forced to put themselves half in one category and half in another. But attempts to divide someone’s identity like this is to strip them of both cultures.
Rules such as the “one-drop rule” that were prevalent over the last century meant that if a person with multiple racial identities had even one distant Black ancestor, they were defined as Black and subjected to whatever treatment a community or a state had deemed appropriate for all Black people. We now rightfully acknowledge the injustice of such a system that, by law, subjected people of color to systematic racist practices based on ancestry and stripped them of their complex family history without concern for their own perspective.
But this practice is not just a matter of history. Even now, we face a system that does not always give people of multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds agency when defining themselves or developing and expressing their sense of identity.
Saying that half of your ancestors come from one community and half of your ancestors come from another should not alienate you in either, yet it often does. Within a community defined by a joint background, calling yourself something different can become an unnecessary barrier. Identifying as “half-Indian” can provide unnecessary distance between members of a community, when a shared background should unite rather than divide. If someone asked me if I was Black, I would say yes. If someone asked me if I was Indian American, I would also say yes. If someone asked me if I was a Princeton student, I would still say yes. One aspect of identity need not preclude the others.
Perhaps the most famous current focal point of this discussion is the identity of Senator Kamala Harris, who has been in the national limelight for several years as a senator, then a Presidential candidate, and now as the Democratic Party’s Vice Presidential nominee. Harris is the U.S.-born daughter of parents who immigrated to the United States to continue their education and research: Her father is a Jamaican American economist, while her mother was an Indian American biomedical scientist.
Harris has not shied away from calling herself both Black and Indian American, which has led to some pushback from online communities claiming that some part of her self-defined heritage is false or misleading. Some people suggest that she does not fully identify with the American Black experience because her father immigrated from Jamaica; others suggest she is not really Indian because she often identifies as a Black woman.
Let’s start with the fact that Harris is perfectly warranted in identifying herself as Black, Indian, or both based on her heritage and whatever choices she would like to make as far as self-identification. Beyond that, her lived experience as both a Black and Indian American person offers some insight as to why and how she identifies with both aspects of her heritage. She often discusses how her Indian mother raised her as a Black girl because that is how Harris would be perceived by the world; Harris was bused as a kindergartener to a predominantly white school in Berkeley, Calif. as a part of desegregation efforts in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She also went on trips to visit extended family in south India with her mother as she grew up.
These aspects of her life do not define her. We should acknowledge, however, that she has been a member of both Black and Indian communities throughout her life. Therefore, it should not be surprising that she proudly announced in 2017 that she was the second Black woman to serve as a U.S. senator and the first Indian American senator. Whether she lists herself on a form as Black, Asian, or of mixed background, she has articulated how she identifies and why, and has done so in a way that sets a good example for the rest of us.
As the United States continues on its trajectory of increasing racial diversity, the number of people of color and biracial and particularly multi-racial citizens will continue to increase.
Right now, the vast majority of people of color identify with only one of these traditionally underrepresented groups, but as a society, we need to move toward allowing people like Senator Harris to identify in whatever way is most comfortable for them, according to their heritage and lived experience. We need to eliminate the pushback and second-guessing caused by sorting people into just one racial category because it is what is expected or more common.
Encouraging biracial or multiracial Princetonians to identify as they see fit in the community would foster a sense of belonging and inclusion, as it would enable students to feel comfortable with who they are and to find multiple affinity groups with people who share part of their backgrounds and history. At a time when most Princetonians cannot gather together on campus, we should take the opportunity to encourage building and sustaining community however we can, including encouraging our fellow students, regardless of their backgrounds, to stay true to every part of who they are.
Mohan Setty-Charity is a first-year student from Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.