Campus & Community

Student-Organized Conference To Focus on ‘Mixed-Race Experience’

5 min read

For many of us, food can be a powerful reminder of who we are and where we come from.

But the foods that Rebecca Weisinger ’02 remembers from her family dinner table were a little different from most.

“Sometimes my mom would make Chinese dishes and then add potatoes to them, or she would serve sauerkraut on the side,” Weisinger said

This combination of cuisines seemed natural in Weisinger’s family because her mother is a Chinese-American from Hawaii and her father a German-American from Wisconsin. The two met when they were students at M.I.T.

This makes Weisinger a mixed-race American, one of a rapidly expanding group that has been receiving considerable attention of late. According to one estimate, mixed-race births are increasing at a rate 260 times as fast as all births combined. In some urban centers, one in every six babies is multiracial. Census experts estimate that by 2050, there will be over 27 million biracial and multiracial Americans.

Harvard’s Office of Admissions began recognizing the growing number of mixed race students when it instituted a policy of allowing applicants to check off more than one ethnicity on application forms. The 2000 U.S. Census has made similar changes. The media has been paying attention as well, with feature articles that take a comprehensive look at this demographic trend and which highlight the multiple ethnicities of celebrities like Mariah Carey, Keanu Reeves, and Tiger Woods.

This weekend, mixed-race students (and anyone else who wants to attend) can explore what it means to straddle two or more racial groups at the Harvard-Wellesley Conference on the Mixed Race Experience, April 14-16. The conference is open to all, with admission free for all Harvard and Wellesley students. The conference has been planned and organized by two mixed-race and mixed-heritage student organizations, HAPA Harvard and Wellesley’s Fusion.

According to the organizers of the conference, the phrase “mixed race experience” is an umbrella term used to define the diverse experiences of biracial, multiracial, and multiethnic people, transracial adoptees, and interracial families.

Harvard HAPA has a somewhat complicated history. Founded some years ago, the group takes its name from a Hawaiian word meaning “half.” But it is also an acronym for “Half Asian Persons Association.” The group became inactive some time after its founding, but was resurrected last September by Weisinger and Min Lieskovsky ’03.

At present, most of the 20 or so active members do have one Asian parent, but the consensus is that the group would like to become more inclusive.

“We encourage anyone to come to meetings of HAPA, whether they’re mixed race or even if they’re just interested in the issues,” said Adrian Wall ’03.

Like Weisinger, Wall’s background is half Chinese and half German, but because his mother’s Chinese relatives greatly outnumber his father’s German ones, he found himself identifying more with his Asian heritage. Summer visits to Taiwan helped him learn fluent Chinese, an accomplishment that strangers sometimes find disconcerting.

“I don’t look very Asian, so when I begin to speak Mandarin, people can sometimes be very surprised.”

Wall said that he enjoys participating in HAPA because it provides a forum for discussing issues of interest to mixed race people.

“The town where I grew up [Voorhees, N.J.] wasn’t very racially diverse, so coming to Harvard has been a huge change for me. And participating in HAPA has given me a forum for discussion where I can talk about my experiences in a very honest and open way.”

The rise of campus mixed-race clubs like Harvard HAPA and Wellesley’s Fusion and the organization of conferences on the mixed race experience attest to a heightened awareness of mixed-race people as a distinct group. Many of Harvard’s mixed-race students welcome this development but have ambivalent feelings about it.

“The recognition by the media makes people more aware of mixed-race people. It puts a face on the phenomenon and allows you to define yourself as a mixed-race person,” said Weisinger. “On the one hand, that helps us, but on the other hand, it can lead to a kind of fetishism where we’re seen as exotic.”

Jennifer Nelson ’03 agrees. “I really dislike the idea of idealizing us. I’m not a symbol of racial homogenization. I find that offensive. It’s another way of misreading someone.”

Nelson, whose father is a white American from Rhode Island and whose mother is from the Philippines, hopes that the conference will not become caught up in what she calls “aggressive agendas” bent on “changing the world,” but instead focus on creating a congenial, welcoming atmosphere.

“I hope that people will have fun. I want it to be something that puts people at ease. The ideas don’t sink in if it’s not something you enjoy.”

The conference will feature several keynote speakers, including Lise Funderburg, author of Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity, (William Morrow, 1994); Rainier Spencer, author of Spurious Issues: Race and Multiracial Identity Politics in the United States (Westview, 1999); and Pearl Fuyo Gaskins, author of What Are You? Voices of Mixed-Race Young People (Henry Holt, 1999).

The conference will also feature numerous workshops, a photo exhibition, and a film festival. For registration and schedule information, visit