Multiracial America: Progress?

There’s an interesting piece in today’s New York Times by Mireya Navarro that takes the multiracial identity that Barack Obama claims as a jumping off point to assess the rising trend of people who identify as multiracial within the U.S. The article quotes Jenifer Bratter, assistant professor in sociology at Rice University, describing the pressures of trying to fit into one “authentic” racial identity:

“There’s this notion that there’s an authentic race and you must fit it. We’re confronted with the lack of fit.”

The article goes on to mention the last census data which reveal a steady rise in the number of interracial marriages.

The 2000 Census counted 3.1 million interracial couples, or about 6 percent of married couples. For the first time, the Census that year allowed respondents to identify themselves as being two or more races, a category that now includes 7.3 million Americans, or about 3 percent of the population.

James McBride, author of the compelling memoir, The Color of Water, about growing up in a Brooklyn housing project with his white mother says:

“When you’re mixed, you see how absurd this business of race is.”

Absurd indeed, yet a tenaciously powerful frame. My personal perspective and experience is shaped by the fact that my family includes multiracial kids who are beloved nieces and their equally beloved black dad and white mom. I hope that an increasingly multiracial America means a better place for my nieces to grow up.

Yet, lots of people still oppose interracial unions, and by extension, the multiracial people created from them. Opposition comes from a range of constituencies, such as the sort of white supremacists I study who are vehemently opposed to such “race mixing” and see this as the “mongrelization” to black nationalists who see this as genocide. Anti-miscegenation laws have been eliminated, but effectively controlling informal sanctions against interracial relationships remain entrenched in the culture.

I wonder, then, if a “multiracial America” is a sign of progress in 2008 as we come upon the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s death. What do you think? Drop a comment before you go.


  1. Joe

    One sad fact in today’s US is that multiracial people are still mostly seen by outsiders, especially powerful whites, as members of just one racial group–an identity imposed by (white) outsiders. One of the saddest aspects of contemporary racism is the way in which imposed identities often trump attempts at, and realities of, self-identities different from those imposed.

    After all, a majority of African Americans — and many white Americans — have mixed-race ancestries. They are thus multiracials too.

  2. Joe M.

    I certainly agree that race is still a “tenaciously powerful frame” as Jesse said. Furthermore, a lot can be said about how the experience of interracial couples, the racial composition of interracial couples, and multiracial persons experiences illuminates the power and pervasiveness of race as a social structure. On the other hand, while these developments illuminate the contours of contemporary racial oppression, I also think that they show progress. (Hundreds of years of oppression leave a lot of room for improvement). By progress I mean the loosening of the racial structure and diminishing the power of white privilege. Race is less powerful than before to shape domestic partnership and the structure of race itself is loosened when people challenge its rigidity regarding their personal identity and resist its imposition. Multi-racial identities push the structure away from racial identities being defined in exclusive terms. This exclusive frame (that pretends to be inclusive in color blind racism) is key to the reproduction and maintenance of white privilege. Challenging the exclusiveness of whiteness weakens white privilege. It remains to be seen how the racial structure will adapt to these changes, how whiteness may be redefined, and the new forms of oppression this frame may allow for; but, in my mind, it is preferable to a rigid racial frame where the “one drop rule” is used. I optimistically think that that this loosening of the structure will create more room for resistance to oppression.

  3. Pam

    I think interracial marriage and their multiracial children are an indicator, a consequence, of progress. When two groups are relatively equal in status they will tend to intermarry unless there is some kind of active hostility or legal barrier trying to keep them apart. Whether you like it or not, if you move toward greater racial equality and lower racial hostility, you will get intermarriage. (I am, by the way, for greater racial equality and against racial hostility, just in case one might misunderstand my point.)

  4. Mmmmm, interesting post and on a topic near and dear to me – as the mom of your two multiracial nieces…. I was recently reflecting on what an interesting place I now occupy in terms of identity politics. I clearly benefit from white privilege in a profound way and leverage my access on behalf of my kids and husband; friends; colleagues; clients – its all part of my identity as ally, wife, mom, friend, activist…. And while firmly entrenched in the white world, I have a ringside seat, to another world or two – those occupied by my kids and my husband. I am keenly aware of the splits between white and black America as its part of my daily life. I also feel like there are many tender, hidden moments of unity and forging alliances across vast differences in privilege.

    My acts being an ally in the fight against racial hatred moved from theory and elective practice to daily praxis when I fell in love with and married an African American man.

    And now, despite Benetton and Old Navy Ads, white America identifies my kids as black- my black friends and family and a few progressive white friends and family see the kids as multiracial. I often find myself aligning with parents of color and in some ways reinforcing the bifurcation of racial politics and identity that exist. But the reality racial hatred is not particularly nuanced when encountered by a child. There is often greater acceptance of our family within communities of color and a far greater level of comfort for the family as an entity. That said, we don’t really fit in White America or Black America.

    Recently we have connected with parents — men and women marrying and loving each other (same sex and hets) across racial differences – and it in those circles there is an interesting shift away from bipolar racial identity and a real sense of living with and owning multiple identities.

  5. Jessie Author

    Hey everybody ~ good to read your thoughts here about the “multiracial America” thread.

    Zombie Mom ~ thanks for your thoughtful comment. I added a link to your blog, and one of the the aforementioned beloved nieces, above. It’s interesting that it’s in interracial couples – across sexual orientations – that you find community. I think that’s why we find MCCNY such a beloved community for us, because it is interracial, across orientations.

    Joe M. and Pam ~ yes, I think I’d have to agree, that in some preliminary fashion, interracial relationships represent a *kind* of progress. But, as you both suggest, what kind we don’t yet fully know.

    Joe F. ~ yes, there’s certainly something to the powerful white racial frame even in the NYTimes piece, as in the the Asian woman who says she gets treated as the “nanny” when at the playground with her two kids who “look like their dad.”

    So, here’s my Swiftian ‘modest proposal,’ if as several of us seem to agree, “multiracial” America is some sort of progress on the racial front. What if, in the name of racial progress, white women simply refused to have more white children. It might be a good beginning.

  6. sk

    I think we see this story every eight to ten years or so, and I wonder about the conditions under which it comes up. That’s not to say that I think insisting upon one’s multiple identities is a bad thing; it’s not, but I wonder about what it really takes to make it real progress (whatever that means).

    I’m a teacher, and my students have sometimes claimed that racism would end if people would stop self-segregating. So though I think multi-racial identities are potentially progressive, I think that more would have to be done to ensure that people have the right to be different, if that makes any sense.

  7. mgs

    I think that interracial marriage is not as much an indicator of progress as a catalyst for long term progress. I don’t see interracial couples and think of how far we’ve come, but where we are headed.

  8. Jessie Author

    Sk ~ what you say makes a lot of sense. I think it interesting the times and conditions in which discussions of multiracial identities come up. And, I think you’re spot on with the idea of recognizing and valuing difference. That seems to be particularly challenging here in the U.S., and not one we’ve met collectively.

    mgs ~ so, where are we headed?

  9. Joe M.

    Jesse, . . . your “modest proposal” is an interesting thought experiment. But I think it needs to be tweaked. Given that race privilege differs by gender (as in wage discrimination and wealth accumulated by inheritance in a patriarchal society). Would a “modest-er proposal” be for white women and men to quit having children who were only white? In this satire, white men and women would have children who are white AND something else.

  10. Jessie Author

    Joe M. ~ Thanks for the tweak. That’s certainly a clearer articulation of what I intended with my “modest proposal,” that if white women and men would simply quit reproducing white-only-identified children, we’d begin to see some progress. Satire, it’s like science-fiction, fun but often with a point.

  11. MrMarques

    While I respect a person’s right to define themselves as multiracial, I think a multiracial category is an attempt to escape the continued priviledge and supremacy of a white identity.

    I have long argued this point in several ways.

    1. Unless a multiracial person can pass as white they still face discrimination based on their non-white ancestry.

    2. A multiracial identity does not destroy or challenge the “prized” identity of whiteness.

    3. The terms “mixed race” and “black” can be the same if an individual’s race is based on black and white ancestry.

    There are many individuals born of “mixed” black/white relationships who are would be “just black” unless they tell people that they have one white parent.

    There are “blacks” who look “mixed” but have two “black” parents. By this I mean, “black” Americans are “mixed” by default regardless of having a white parent.

    Two examples: Actor Boris Kodjoe is “mixed” but, looking at him, it would not have been surprising if he had had two “black” parents. Actress Jada Pinkett has two “black” parents but it would not have been surprising had she said she had one “white” parent. “Mixed” and “black” can be the same but rarely is either accepted as “white”.

    4. Many “whites” are also multiracial but choose to accept a “white” identity. Many prominent whites like Dan Rather, Elvis Presley, Cher and Victoria Principal are also “mixed” race but it is the white identity that is prized thus their non-white ancestry is glossed over in favor of whiteness.

    5. The vast majority of “black” Americans could actually identify as “mixed” race if they so chose. Would they be accepted by multiracial individuals or parents in mixed race marriages who seem to want to elevate their “mixed” children above a denigrated black classification?

    6. If you have two people who look EXACTLY alike but one has two “black” parents and one has a “white” parent and “black” parent, what makes them different?

    If biological race does not exist, what is the difference in how the world will see these two physically identical individuals?

    7. Continuing with number 6, it is assumed that whites and blacks are culturally different. Yet there exists whites and blacks who fit better in opposite social worlds. Blacks who don’t fit the black stereotype are often told they are not thought of as black regardless of their phenotype. If a black person does not speak with overt slang, does not listen to a lot of Hip Hop and doesn’t address racial issues in social interaction, they are told “you don’t seem/act/talk black” or “I don’t see you as black”.

    I have also met many whites, usually women, who are culturally “blacker” than “black” people I know. These types of people are often times classified as “wiggers”.

    8. Continuing number 7, if race is not biological, what makes a “mixed” race person mixed? If “race” is assumed to be cultural, what would happen if a black/white couple adopted an Asian child. Is that child “mixed” because their parents constitute a “mixed” marriage?

    9. Whiteness remains the priviledged classification. If whiteness is not abolished as “supreme”, a “mixed race” classification does not change the racial hierarchy.

    10. In order for a child to have a “mixed” race classification, the “mixed” racial ancestry of their parents must , in essence, be denied or glossed over. If a socially defined “black” mother carries 25% European DNA and a socially defined “white” father carries 25% Native American DNA, both parents are already mixed so why is it that only the child is given a “mixed race” classification?

    If “race” itself is an illusion, then “mixed” race must also be an illusion. In Brazil, for example, “blacks” and “mixed race” blacks are in the same lower socioeconomic position in respect to “mixed” individuals who look “white”. Brazilian elites are those who look closer to the “white” phenotype. Thus, in Brazil, as in the US, whiteness is the dominant racial category. Brazil is perhaps the best example that “mixed” race classifications do not disturb racial hierarchies that are based on white supremacy.

    Race is based on social priviledge. Adding a “mixed” race category is in essence a parallel movement rather a upward vertical movement. Race was established upon the perceived supremacy of whiteness and “mixed” race does not challenge this hierarchy but it gives individuals the illusion that it does.

    In this country, one is either white or they are not and no amount of “mixed race” will challenge that unless a mixed race person can effectively “pass” as white. And if a person is “passing” as white they too do not challenge the hierarchy because they are attempting to be, or pass, as a person who is a part of the highest racial category.

    Questions? Comments?

  12. anonymous

    8. Continuing number 7, if race is not biological, what makes a “mixed” race person mixed? If “race” is assumed to be cultural, what would happen if a black/white couple adopted an Asian child. Is that child “mixed” because their parents constitute a “mixed” marriage?

    I’ve heard sociologists refer to such relations that way. It’s a beneficial term in that it implies the rich heritage of the individual and the potential to interact in various echelons and outside of systemic expectations.

    However, it is sometimes a double-edged sword, in that a person can carry this identity and have it disregarded as well as use this identity to potentially assert power.

    On the other hand, as someone who likes referring to themselves as multiracial, I don’t think of it in terms of projecting an acceptability mainly because the U.S. has hardly had the same history with creolization as apartheid South Africa. Since ours is a nation of ‘one drop’ it benefits us to challenge the notions of essentialism.

    No one person is anything the paradigm promotes, and the paradigm does promote us in terms of generalization, tokenism, fetishism, etc.

    While it might be an unskilled argument to claim that all societies do this with leaders and high profile figures it is especially imflammatory in the U.S. due to its continued racial stratification that encompasses class and educational dynamics, affecting every facet of daily life.

    You may ‘look white’ or ‘look black’ or appear to be any ethnicity or national affiliation under the sun but you have the inherent choice to defy the system’s intentional and continuous assertion of categorized race. Particularly by claiming something else, you reclaim the right to yourself rather than a biological farm standard propagated as respected social science. You are what your parents made you rather than a class defined by the government.

  13. Dear anon,

    thankyou for this interesting post. I had Wole Soyinka, the writer and poet on my mind when I was reading it. He famously said in the sixties, a tiger does not have to proclaim his tigritude. Not exact words and he wasn’t talking about tigers!

    All racial identity is about power. And because it is about power – some are in and some are out. It doesn’t matter how nice a person you are. But as you suggest there is another way which resists and defies these categories. You call it an inherent choice, I might call it exploring who you really are from moment to moment. A poet might call it the road less travelled.

    I wrote a small piece recently called Racial Identity, to have or to be which you might be interested in.



  14. The Racial and Ethnic classification of Americans is nothing more than institutionalized racism and must be ended. The United States of America has been known as a country of rugged individualism based on individual freedom and liberty. Why has America become a country obsessed with classifying its citizens into different racial and ethnic sub-groups?

    The only groups that actively support the continued collection of racial and ethnic data are big government bureaucrats and “racial and ethnic special interest groups” that also happen to receive significant funding from the federal government. These organizations argue that identifying people by race and ethnicity is necessary in order to redress some past injustice and that the federal government must continue to collect and use this information in order to set up special racial and ethnic programs, affirmative action quotas and other set-asides for these groups, some of whom consist of new immigrants, illegal aliens and non-citizens. Nothing can be further from the truth. In a country where we can no longer ask people what religion they are, what their party affiliation is or what their sexual orientation is, why are we still asking them about their racial and ethnic background?

    Americans are beginning to realize that racial and ethnic identification is more a matter of personal choice than anything else. In the 2000 Census, seven million American citizens refused to place themselves into a single category by refusing to describe themselves as only white, black, Asian, Latino or any one of the other specific categories listed, because they were of mixed race. Attempts by the government to create a “mixed race” box for the 2000 Census was met with resistance by racial and ethnic special interest groups like the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, because they feared that a mixed-race box could pose a danger to the justification for their existence. The fuzzier such racial and ethnic categories become, the harder it will be for these racial and ethnic special interest groups and the government to traffic in them. If a mixed-race category were to be added, every brown-skinned person of mixed race registered in this category would shrink the government’s official count of Blacks, Latinos, Asians or American Indians, eventually reducing their political influence and ultimately the amount of money these groups receive from the federal government, which amounts to approximately $185 billion a year.

    Through the mandated collection and use of racial and ethnic specific information, more and more of American taxpayers’ hard earned money is being routinely distributed to these racial and ethnic special interest groups at the expense of all other Americans who may or may not be members of these groups. Through executive orders, congressional legislation, affirmative action programs, racial set-asides, quotas and other programs based solely on race and ethnicity, our federal government is playing the key role that pits one racial and ethnic group against another, which could eventually lead to our destruction as a country.

    Rather than helping a diverse population become assimilated and united as one nation, the Federal government is doing what the Nazi government of Germany did in the 1930’s and 40’s; creating government supported institutionalized racism by the intentional classification of it’s citizens by race and ethnicity.

    With the support of racial and ethnic special interest groups, our federal government seems to view our citizens not just as Americans, but rather as “pawns” in some social science experiment to be classified and separated into different racial or ethnic sub-groups for some unknown purpose. By mandating the classification of Americans into specific racial and ethnic sub-groups, the federal government and the advocates of “diversity” are actually perpetuating institutionalized racism and keeping Americans divided. Maybe the real purpose of collecting this data is to justify the continuing flow of government money to these racial and ethnic special interest groups.

    If we want to help poor Americans escape poverty, get better health care, find a job or get a good education, why should it matter what their race or ethnic background is? The answer is: It should not! Americans need to come together as members of one country and remember that we are all individual Americans, regardless of race or ethnic background. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired a nation when he voiced his dream for a color-blind nation, a nation in which people would be judged by the content of their characters, “not the color of their skin.” The answer to this government encouraged racism is the concept of Liberty with a limited, constitutional government that is devoted to the protection of individual rights rather than the claims of different racial and ethnic special interest groups. Where Liberty is present, individual achievement and competence are rewarded, not people’s skin color or ethnicity.

    I will support legislation barring the federal government from the collection of racial and ethnic information about the American people and/or the classification of American citizens by race and ethnicity, including the collection of census information. Exceptions should be made for law enforcement, hospitals and medical research purposes.

    I will also support legislation that bans affirmative action programs, racial set-asides, quotas and any other programs that give special preferences based on race and ethnicity.

    Candidate for Congress
    New York’s 20th Congressional District

  15. Joe

    Do you plan to make whites give back the trillions in land and aid they got under the Homestead Act, the VA, the FHA, and federal oil and mineral leases –from which affirmative action and giveaways people of color were excluded by racial oppression?

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