MULTI Week Transcends Identity Barriers

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Photos of familiar faces of Swatties hung on posters across Shane lounge today, as part of “MULTIFACETed”, the first event of MULTI’s reinstated MULTI week. Swarthmore’s open MULTI organization is dedicated to create a community for people of multiple heritages, including cultural, ethnic, class or religious backgrounds. The series of events will focus on transcending and negotiating the boundaries of identities.

Wednesday’s event will be a Ring Discussion called, “Trapped in a Box,” that will be held in Alice Paul. On Thursday, Dr. Ronald Fernandez will give a lecture based on his book “America Beyond Black and White, which argues for a broader understanding of ethnic dichotomies in America. A workshop entitled “Not Just Fetishists and Race Traitors: Challenging the Ways we View Interracial Relationships” will be hosted on Friday by Carmen Van Kerckhove, a co-founder of a consulting firm that educates on issues of race. The week will end with party at the WRC and MULTea, a McCabe exhibit on Sunday.

Co-president Tamara DeMoor ’10 hopes that Multi Week will bring awareness of the campus group and the issues faced by the larger Multi community. Discussions will focus on the problems with “being categorized under identity…being forced to choose a single identity,” she said. However, the MULTIFACEted exhibit displayed photos of students who were not necessarily multi-ethnic. The organizers chose to leave it open to show that “people of multi-races are not the only ones who have identities imposed on them,” said co-president Robert Manduca ’10.

The exhibit was modeled after a photographic book created by artist Kip Fullbeck, called Part Asian, 100% Hapa. The word Hapa originated as a derogatory term in Hawaii for people who had East-Asian heritage; Hapa literally translates into part-White in Hawaiian. The book reclaims the term, as being of mixed racial heritage including Asian/Pacific Islander descent, by focusing on the other identities of people who also identify as Hapa. Similarly, the MULTIFACEted exhibit sought to allow Swatties to “define ourselves in our own terms,” said organizers Eric Loui ‘09. “MULTI ends in a wild card, like multiethnic, faith. There is a widespread perception that everyone is a little bit multi even if they don’t identify as multicultural.”


Below each picture is a quarter-page response to the question “What I am is…” The question is a play on the question “What are you…?” that is asked to a person of multi-heritage when their ethnic background is not clearly discernible from their physical appearance. Like the word “Hapa,” the display is another reclamation of a demeaning attitude. Each students’ response varied in color and content from descriptions of different identities or characteristics, one-lined poetry or even pictures.

“I just hope that MULTi week reminds people not to judge so quickly and to rethink the questions they think are innocent, much like “What are you?” “No, I mean what’s your background?”” said organizer Estella Baker ’11 in an email.

For James Mendez Hodes ‘08, a member of MULTI, the best part of the group is its openness. Although he identifies as multi-racial, “the atmosphere of MULTI and the experience when I bring other people [to meetings] is the feeling of inclusion. Ultimately, the purpose of the group is to find similarities in the identities of people. The phrase “Everyone can relate to the “What are you” experience in one way or another,” on the exhibit’s flier captured the essence of the group and the week.

Corrections have been appended.


  1. What’s wrong with asking about someone’s ethnic background? I think it’s really interesting to hear about where a person’s ancestors came from. I have a very unique surname, and I’m almost always asked where it originates, and I have no problem sharing no matter how many times I’m asked. I know that’s not exactly the same, and I’m sure sometimes people can be insensitive, but if you don’t want to talk about it can’t you just say, “that’s personal”?

  2. Well you could say that but saying ‘that’s personal” doesn’t address the problematic isseus surrounding constantly having to justify and define onself against the perceptions of one as outside the normal and as outside the accepted; basically as “other.” And you’re right. Being asked about the origins of a unique last name is not the same as having to continually face the questions “What are you?” “Where are you actually from?” or “Are you mixed?” For those not accostumed to being treated as other in this society those questions may seem benign, and often there exists no malintent behind them. But intent does not necessarily equal presence. What is often present in and conveyed by questions like these is “You don’t seem to fit or belong so I’m going to disregard your strengths as a person and concentrate on your appearance, which many times I’m only interested in because of my perception of you as strange and wierd and my fascination by such oddities.” Oftentimes too(especially in considering people who are both white and Non-White) there is an element of racism, especially when the reason one is asking such questions is because one feels one has identified (in American society at least) a beautiful, “exotic” non-white person whose beauty can be explained by them being mixed (ie – not fully non-white).
    That being said I don’t think asking about someone’s background is wrong in and of itself, so long as the question is tactfully and considerately asked, and the feelings of the person being asked, not just hose of the person asking, are taken into account.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading