Identifying as Mixed-Class: Or; Why Does ‘Diversity’ Tend to Leave Out Economics?

Who does it benefit to ignore critical conversations about class identity?

My parents met in their freshman year of college.

My white mother had arrived from a wealthy Chicago suburb, was the daughter of a professor, and from a long line of academics. My Black father had grown up on welfare in rural Massachusetts, was the son of a construction contractor, and of the first generation in his family to attend college.

Their story is not unlike many others of their generation. Attending school in the late 70s and early 80s, they were arriving to the world of academia on the tail ends of countless movements for racial access and equality, both inside and outside of the academy. People from a range of racial and economic backgrounds were meeting and interacting with each other on college campuses, many of them for the first time. That some of them fell in love, and that many of those who did saw their relationships as continuations of the movements for justice which had preceded them, is not surprising.

My father went on to become a college professor himself, and ended up taking a position at a small college in Western Massachusetts. As a result, I grew up in a multi-racial, mixed-income, college town community only an hour away from the town where my father had been raised, and where most of his–and my family–still resided. I went to school in our well-funded public district, lived in a large house in a middle-class neighborhood, and received all the privileges and benefits of having college- and university-educated parents. At the same time, I lived with close and constant contact with my family in the next part of the state, spending holidays in the same house in which my father had been raised, and growing up side by side with my cousins as they battled with drug addiction, juvenile detention centers, young pregnancy, joining the military, and all the stigmas connected with each of these institutions. As a result, I experienced many important coming-of-age moments and lived large parts of my childhood in spheres outside those of my own immediate class.

Many multiethnic and multiracial people gravitate towards the identifier “mixed” because choosing one of their multiple identities over another is impossible, or gives an incomplete picture of who they are. While “mixed” is a category which sometimes bothers me, it is relevant to the discussion I would like to have here. For myself, identifying as white is illogical, as I navigate and am seen by the world as a brown man. Identifying as black, however, is still tricky, because it glosses over the multiple sources from which my ethnicity is derived, and denies the privileges and powers that come with being light-skinned and having a white parent. For these reasons, calling myself multiethnic is an important means for me to acknowledge the complex histories that I am always in the process embodying, and the multiple communities which those histories connect me to. By that same logic, mixed-class is an equally important identifier for me. It acknowledges the facts of my comfortable and opportunity-filled class position, while refusing to deny the economic history from which I come, the multiple lenses through which I grew up seeing, the varied child-rearing techniques that both of my parents used, the communities with which I was raised to see myself as aligned with, and so on. But there is another crucial reason why this identifier is fast becoming one of the most important ones for my person.

The primary reason why I choose to identify as mixed-class is because it brings economics back into the discussion of who I am and where I come from. The topic of diversity as it tends to be addressed in learning communities usually focuses on the most visible identities of those in the conversation, only occasionally unearthing the factors and forces in our lives which are not immediately tied to our names, our skin color, our clothes or our nation of origin. And even when these still highly significant characteristics are brought up, they are done so on an individual basis, imagining each one of our collectives as a series of colorful anecdotes and exciting attributes. It does little if nothing to get to the deeper questions of how so many different identities came to exist in one place, how they are each connected, how the prevalence of one identity may have to do with the lacking of another, and so on. The goal of these conversations to admire difference without asking critical questions about it is one of the reasons why I think class is perennially left out or glossed over. Identifying as mixed-class forces myself and others to use a discussion of economics, resources and power to examine who I am, how I got to be where I am, and how larger systems of disparity might have something to do with it. It rejects the idea that I am an exceptional individual, untethered to legacies of inequity and oppression, and links me back to collectives, to histories, sparking a more critical conversation about the factors which bring all of us to our current social positions.

I, as a multiethnic and mixed-class individual, do not represent the smoothing over of painful histories of violence and disparity, finally made right by my coming into existence. By identifying in complex ways, I refuse not only this simplification of my history, but also the hijacking of my identity to fulfill the myth of a post-racial society. We live in a world of competition, of gross inequity, of racist segregation and of class warfare. This remains the case no matter how much my father loves my mother, or how much my mother loves me. It is true no matter where my family lives, which school I attend, or how much money my father makes as a black man. My identifying as mixed-class in particular is not about expressing to the world how multifaceted and diverse my community is. Rather, it is to remind myself and others that despite the real love that exists in my family, we continue to live in a society which sets different expectations for us all, and where the boundless opportunities for some of us are dependent on the limiting of opportunities for others. It is not about pretending all members of my family are equal, when they are not. Instead, it is about acknowledging disparities, maintaining solidarity, and making a commitment to struggle for a world in which there is justice for all, not just for the few who make it out.

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