"Dumping the Melting Pot" at the Multicultural Leadership Summit

“Can race melt?”

Marc Johnston-Guerrero tackled this question in his keynote address at Saturday’s Multicultural Leadership Summit, hosted by the Center for Leadership & Social Change.

The annual two-day conference—this year with a theme of “Dumping the Melting Pot: Embracing the Mosaic”— explored the concept of cultural assimilation in the United States and offered 140 students the chance to discuss topics related to power, privilege and oppression in open workshops and small group settings.

Johnston-Guerrero, assistant professor in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at Ohio State University, is involved in research focusing on diversity and social justice issues in higher education and student affairs, with special attention to advancing and nuancing understandings of multiraciality. In his keynote, he delved into this issue of identity assimilation and the loss of unique cultures due to the melting pot.

“How do you get into this topic of who are you instead of what are you?” he asked the audience.

Driven by his self-described racial ambiguities, Johnston-Guerrero challenged the notion of race and identity as a straightforward concept. Through eugenics, a movement using the pseudo sciences, genetics, and heredity to breed better humans, and past acts implemented by government, Johnston-Guerrero explained how historical straightforward thinking toward race and identity created forms of discrimination and divisiveness. He told the audience that he has begun to see the prevalence of this straightforward concept of race and identity emerge today.

Johnston-Guerrero described the analogy of the U.S. as a melting pot as a way of stripping the identities and cultures of individuals in order to fit into a homogenous society. Other references intended to reflect less homogeneity, such as that of a salad or stew, he added, still do not provide an adequate representation of the interactions and influences between people of differing cultures, identities and races.

“Identity is much more fluid than how people think about it,” he said.

Johnston-Guerrero discussed how everyone has multiple identities that develop around a core sense of who they are as people, but still remain based on various physical and internal characteristics.

Race also illustrates this fluidity and complexity. Johnston-Guerrero used the concepts of race from various students involved in his research to illustrate this idea. His students had varying beliefs about what race is: a social construct, a power relation, a cultural entity or biologically essential. Through these various responses, Johnston-Guerrero noted that race includes action: practices that sort people into specific social groups, practices that create associations among various groups, and threats big and small that cause race to emerge for those targeted. Much like race, Johnston-Guerrero said, racism and discrimination are multifaceted.

Johnston-Guerrero expressed hope for understanding, equality, action and advocacy within society.

“Equality is the sense that everyone is equal. Equity helps everyone get what they need,” he said. “We shouldn’t just be trying for equity, we should be trying to liberate.”

—Talise Burton