Navigating communities of culture

Mixed Feelings

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One of my top priorities early in college was to find a community that I was so comfortable in that it felt like family. I scouted every group I might have some kind of cultural connection to, and I wanted to be a part of them all. But soon after talking to members and going to first general meetings, I realized many of these groups weren’t great fits. I didn’t exactly feel welcome in the Nikkei Student Union because I wasn’t an expert on Japanese culture, or Le cercle français because I didn’t know French, or the Muslim Student Association because I don’t practice Islam.

I made it a priority to find an identity-based community because I wanted to be on the inside of one of those groups, feeling accepted by something larger than myself. I thought it would bring me closer to my roots and reveal more about my ethnic background than before. I wanted to be able to feel my ethnic identity represented, acknowledged and cultivated. For once I just wanted to feel like someone, or some group, understood my experience on a deeper level because it resonated with their own.

Student identity groups are such an essential part of the UC Berkeley student body and they’re often the first place people gravitate toward when looking for social sanctuaries. I wanted to join and take part in the culture of pride in diversity here. Everyone else seemed to have found their place on campus, and I wanted the same for myself.

From the recruitment and retention centers to the identity-specific professional development groups, there is no shortage of student identity organizations tabling on Sproul or advertising on social media. There is a place for everyone, in theory.

For many, single-ethnicity organizations celebrate identity unapologetically, spread cultural awareness and are welcoming hubs for individuals who want a close-knit social environment among others with similar experiences. They foster community and shape the character of our campus and make it the diverse place it is. But they’re not for everyone.

Members often advertise their groups as open to anyone, yet they’re tailored to specific people. When I tried to be a part of those groups, I felt like I was disrupting the majority, and on occasion, I would feel isolated. Groups that have something culturally unifying may technically be welcoming to all students, but are not necessarily always comfortable for everyone who wants to join as a self-identifying member. The main purpose of identity groups is to connect those with similar backgrounds, and that is inherently restricting.

Over time, I realized I wouldn’t be happy in a group that was based on a single ethnicity, nationality or identity. They’re formed with the best intentions and they’re integral to so many students’ college experiences. But speaking from my experience as a mixed student on campus, I feel like I am always outside of those social spaces. For those who feel close enough to a culture to join a cultural student organization and feel like they’re at home, I envy you. I envy your connections over family quirks, native language, cultural practices and similar interests. Because yes, I can tell anyone about my background, but no matter how thoroughly I describe it, I will never meet anyone who knows my exact experience firsthand.

After realizing my place was outside of these various cultural organizations, I became increasingly interested in the experiences of students in the Mixed Student Union, an organization I hadn’t really considered joining. I decided to interview a few members for an article in a campus magazine, and I ended up learning more about being mixed from them than from my own self-reflection and rumination. When I pored over their quotes and drafted the piece, I was simultaneously telling their stories and learning about my own.

In my sophomore year, as I came to terms with my mixed identity, I became increasingly content with being the person on the outside looking in. I wrote about a range of student experiences, went to various cultural organization events, and tried to learn about the heritages of my peers whenever I had the chance. I was always happy seeing people find their place and rooting for the success of every identity organization with a purpose.

I ended up finding my community in other ways. And however frustrating it was to always be on the outside of cultural spaces, I appreciated the perspective I gained on the exterior. It might mean my place is on the periphery, but I can’t imagine feeling at home anywhere else.

Jasmine Tatah writes the Thursday column on having multiple cultural backgrounds in America.

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