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UP’s Black Student Union discusses multiculturalism and food

Photo by Kate Stringer
Communications professor Jeff Kerssen-Griep discusses multiculturalism and self-identity at UP’s Diversity Dialogues week

Reported by Josie Lilly and Kate Stringer

Last Tuesday a panel of seven University of Portland students from the Black Student Union came together to discuss race and the experience of being a multicultural student at a predominately white school in a session dubbed “Shades of Black.”

The panel session was a part of Diversity Dialogues Week here at UP, one of many presentation and discussion gatherings aimed at diversity and its growth here on campus. “Shades of Black” was centered on a presentation by communications professor Jeff Kerssen-Griep and a question and answer session with the multicultural students who participated to facilitate not only understanding but also create a community in which communication is key. Not only was the panel answering questions, but the event gave them a stage in which to voice their concerns and trials as multicultural students.

Kerssen-Griep said that people, regardless of race, are constantly searching for self-identity, whether that be personal or social identities.

“Are we always negotiating who we are? We are indeed,” Kerssen-Griep said. “When we’re doing mundane, everyday communication, talking about what we had for lunch, we’re negotiating identities with each other.”

Amid the various questions and discussions there was a strong sense of the tension that being a multicultural student can bring; the push and pull in various directions to support of part of their self or another.The unsung hero of the evening was surprisingly food in its ability to sit so far outside of the cultural and racial lines that still exist in our world despite its progressive and racially equal nature in this day and age. While food is one of the leading pieces of culture, the panel found that food has more to do with where you were born than what color your skin is. As Baldwin specified breaking the age old stereotype, just because she is black does not mean she knows how to make fried chicken.

While no one on the panel said stereotypical southern dishes such as fried chicken and collard greens were part of their identity, audience member and recent graduate from Portland State University Keara Rodela found identity in this stereotype.

“I think it’s interesting no one did say fried chicken because, like [Kate Stringer] said, food’s a way to identify culture,” Rodela said. “Being in Portland it’s ‘You’re not black are you white? Are you mixed? And I’m ‘No I am black: I can make fried chicken, I can make collard greens, I’m proud of that.’ It’s a stereotype but it is part of our culture.”

Panel member Kahlil Dumas agrees that for people of mixed heritage, food is important for claiming an identity. Dumas’s mother, who is half black and half German, would send him to school with German chocolate cake. However his mother also felt the need to validate her black heritage by pointing out things she could do that were significant to the black culture.

“[My mother] is really light skinned so whenever people would be like ‘Well are you [black]?’ she’d be like ‘Ya I’m black I can do this I can do that’ as a way of validating,” Dumas said.

Dumas, on the other hand, doesn’t feel any need to validate his cultural heritage because his skin is darker than his mother’s, causing people to question his cultural heritage less.

Baldwin says that people shouldn’t expect her to know certain cultural stereotypes based on her appearances.

 “Because I’m this color does not mean I know how [to make fried chicken],” Baldwin said. “I was raised in the north, in Seattle, so I don’t know how to make southern food.”

The differences in opinion between both members of the panel and the audience proved Kerssen-Griep’s earlier point.

“Some people have many cultural voices in their head telling them who they’re supposed to be,” Kerssen-Griep said.

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