For Associate Professor of Theology Brian Bantum, growing up as a “mixed black person” had a large effect on his childhood.
“Because I was black and grew up with my [white] family in a white neighborhood, I took on presuppositions about the world, and I saw myself as more white,” Bantum said.
In grade school, he remembered being told by parents of girls he liked that he was not allowed to date their daughters, because he was not white.
“This came as a shock to me, because I didn’t really view myself as black,” he said.
This clash of narratives was confusing for Bantum and an experience that many biracial students at SPU can relate to as well.
Bantum defines his experience with race as a story of how he perceives his body and how others have chosen to define who he is.
According to Bantum, “[Race] is how people have tried to navigate what others have said about their bodies. It is the way that people have tried to organize the world in ways that centered white legacy.”
Despite this, it also carries “a rich history of ways that people of color have managed to create a culture in the midst of their attempts to order the world.”
But making order of the world is difficult when that world seems to further confusion regarding identity.
First-year Joccelynn Vincent struggled with defining her identity for just this reason.
Vincent’s mother is white, while her biological father is Hispanic.
Although her biological father did not raise her, Vincent and her mother still spent a lot of time with her Hispanic step-father’s side of the family.
“I felt disconnected from my white family,” Vincent said. “I didn’t feel like I belonged with my Hispanic family either, because I was ‘whitewashed.’”
Vincent said that because she did not know Spanish, she would miss out on conversations with her Spanish-speaking friends, unable to understand the words that they were saying.
Senior Tory White said that being an “American-Asian” person has yielded value despite difficulties.
“My mom is fully Korean, so she has that collective perspective, while my dad has the American individualistic perspective.”
White defined a “collective perspective” as “placing more importance on your family or group as a whole over the individuals in the group.”
She talked about how these contrasts in her parents’ cultural behaviors caused tension in her house.
For example, it came out in little things, like communication styles.
“My mom, coming from a collective background, expects people to be helping out around the house, without her having to say anything,” she said. “My dad was oblivious when my mom wanted him to help out because she didn’t say anything and, to him, jumping in would have been rude.”
White said that this experience of clashing cultural values has led to her better understanding the communication styles of others.
“It’s made me aware of not just what people are saying, but what they really need,” White said. “I am definitely individualistic, but I understand the collective. I expect people to tell me what they want.”
But for Vincent, being biracial is often liminalizing: “[Hispanics] don’t see me in the same culture as them, because I have more of the white culture intermixed with me. I feel like I am in the middle and I don’t fit with either side.”
She described that she empathized with the pain that is felt within the American Hispanic community, but she also recognizes her own privileges that come with being white in the middle class.
“A lot of the Hispanics back home work in orchards, and they put in so many hours,” Vincent said. “I am privileged because I don’t have to do that.”
Vincent has chosen to reconcile her two heritages by accepting “the best and worst of both cultures” and letting them be a part of her.
Vincent said, “In college, now, I am really proud of me being white and Hispanic, because I feel like that adds more to who I am today.”
Like Vincent, Bantum found himself engaging more in the race conversation when he first went off to study in college. He found himself asking, “Who are going to be my people?”
“I started learning more about black history,” Bantum said. “My differences became even more distinct. I wasn’t fitting in with the white kids anymore.”
“Thirty or 40 years ago, I wouldn’t have had the option to choose to be mixed,” he said. “I would have been black. To say that I am mixed is not to say that I am not black. I had to make decisions as to who I was going to live into.”
He found that his home was within the university’s Latino, African-American and Asian communities.
Similarly, White observed that people of color tend to mingle together at Seattle Pacific University.
“Where we look, people clump up together with people who look similar to them,” White said. “The groups that hang out together are the white kids, and then you have the Asian kids. The black kids hang out together, eat dinner together. It’s really apparent at SPU.”
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing; I think it’s a natural thing that we do,” White said. “I think we need more opportunities for people to work together outside of class.”
Bantum noticed that SPU students are making a bigger effort to make race prevalent on campus, compared to when he first started teaching eight years ago.
“Today … I see white students and students of color being courageous enough to speak about race and share their experiences … in ways that are really public,” he said. “I see boldness in students.”
But Bantum also sees backlash when students speak up about race.
“Whenever you get students that are bold, who are kind of expressing their reality, we have a backlash,” he said. “I see that other students minimize or ignore those who speak up by claiming that it’s just a part of the ‘Left agenda’ or saying that it is just a fad.”
For Bantum, the uniqueness of being biracial does not mean that his story is more important than other stories of the race.
“[My story] is not unique because it occupies various spaces in this conversation … For every single racial story or position, there are unique experiences,” Bantum said.
White had a similar approach to Bantum, saying, “You can always visit the race conversation, but it is going to be different depending on who you talk to. You can be well versed and know the lingo, but the biggest thing is to listen to the different stories.”