According to the California Department of Education, 4.7% of students identify as multicultural. Cultural minority students, according to a study conducted by a California State University, are more likely to drop out of high school compared to non-minority students. A likely reason for this drop out, according to this same study, is linked to a high school’s lack of ability to integrate diverse communities.
I am a reflection of these statistics. As part of the 4.7% of students who identify as multicultural, I can relate to the lack of cultural integration within my community. Because I am part Native American, Latino, Jewish, and European, I have faced these struggles experienced by many other multicultural students, particularly in the context of finding a community to belong to.
In an attempt to resolve my inner conflicts, in 9th grade, I signed up to join several cultural clubs at my high school. At my first meeting for the Latino cultural club, I was immediately looked down upon as I did not look “Hispanic enough.” When I attempted to join activities for the Jewish clubs, again, I was accused of not being Jewish.
I remember even having to prove my Jewish roots to club members by showing them that my last name is “Eilenberg” — the “berg” portion of my last name proved my Jewish background. Clearly, because I was the only Native American student in my high school, there was no Native American club for me to join. After receiving all these rejections, I felt like I had no community to call home, and this ushered my feelings of intense loneliness.
This isolation often felt by multicultural students can severely affect the actions of students in these positions. According to a study covered in Education Week, amongst 90,000 students, mixed race youths have a higher risk of behavior problems.
According to Francis Wardle, the co-author of “Meeting the Needs of Multiethnic and Multiracial Children in Schools,” multiracial students are commonly teased by single-race students who pressure them to choose one racial identity.
I remember when I was 8, my friends and I would pretend to be Disney Princesses. In the process of assigning princesses to one another, they would all immediately shout at me, “you’re Pocahontas!” I was the only Native American friend they had, so I was always Pocahontas. In order to fit in, I conformed myself to what society deemed me to be.
If my friends wanted me to be Pocahontas, that’s what I was. I went through the motions of society degrading my culture as at this age I was not able to understand the racial discrimination I faced. I had to pick one racial identity to side with, even though I am also Latino, Jewish, and white. This echoes the experience of many multi-cultural students: we are forced to pick one ethnic portion of ourselves in order to be accepted in society.
However, when I do pick one race to identify with, I also receive backlash from other high school students. When given an assignment to present our family backgrounds in my high school English class, I initially wanted to share more on my Native American roots.
Since my mother did not have as much knowledge of her Native American background, I chose to present on my Lithuanian side, which I get from my father. Still, a classmate shouted out at me “but you don’t even look Lithuanian!”
Another student suggested that I was not being truthful about my cultural heritage. Seeing my classmates reject my cultural presentation hurt. Even when I chose to identify with one racial identity, I still was not accepted as a result of my appearance.
Multicultural students, such as myself, encounter shame from identifying as mixed race and single race. This type of negative pressure from society to fit in a certain way causes stress and anxiety amongst many mixed race students. Dr. J. Richard Udry, a professor at UNC School of Public Health, conducted a survey on mixed-race students. He found that high school students who identified as mixed race were more susceptible to stress, which led to other behavioral issues, such as suspensions, skipping class, and repeating grades.
The stress I experience as a mixed race student has become a dominant part of my high school experience. The social rejection of my mixed race identity constantly makes me feel more and more aloof within my high school community. As a result of this lack of acceptance, I often feel a deep sense of loneliness — a type of loneliness that has tainted my self-esteem.
In order to further improve every high school student’s ability to succeed, a more diverse and inclusive environment must be created. More specifically, the high school environment should create a more sensitive environment, one that does not force students to “pick a side” to identify with. Multicultural students should no longer feel inadequate, feeling that they are not White/Latino/Asian/Black/Native American/Middle Eastern enough for society.
Instead of forcing high school students to identify with such labels, we should embrace our multicultural and diverse student backgrounds. By doing so, high schools across the country can begin to foster healthy environments for students to grow and develop themselves to their highest potential.