Monday, March 31, 2008
After Obama's Speech: Who Are We?
Picture Credit: G. Paul Burnett
for The New York Times
Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.
Phillip Handy and Dana Sacks, mixed-race students.
Mr. Handy said Senator Barack Obama, by giving equal weight to both parents, was not “bailing out on any of us.”
Who Are We? New Dialogue on Mixed Race
By MIREYA NAVARRO
NY Times: Published: March 31, 2008
Jenifer Bratter once wore a T-shirt in college that read “100 percent black woman.” Her African-American friends would not have it.
“I remember getting a lot of flak because of the fact I wasn’t 100 percent black,” said Ms. Bratter, 34, recalling her years at Penn State.
“I was very hurt by that,” said Ms. Bratter, whose mother is black and whose father is white. “I remember feeling like, Isn’t this what everybody expects me to think?”
Being accepted. Proving loyalty. Navigating the tight space between racial divides. Americans of mixed race say these are issues they have long confronted, and when Senator Barack Obama recently delivered a speech about race in Philadelphia, it rang with a special significance in their ears. They saw parallels between the path trod by Mr. Obama and their own.
They recalled the friends, as in Ms. Bratter’s case, who thought they were not black enough. Or the people who challenged them to label themselves by innocently asking, “What are you?” Or the relatives of different races who can sometimes be insensitive to one another.
“I think Barack Obama is going to bring these deeply American stories to the forefront,” said Esther John, 56, an administrator at Northwest Indian College in Washington, who identifies herself as African-American, American Indian and white.
“Maybe we’ll get a little bit further in the dialogue on race,” Ms. John said. “The guilt factor may be lowered a little bit because Obama made it right to be white and still love your black relatives, and to be black and still love your white relatives: to love despite another person’s racial appearance.”
Americans of mixed race say that questions about whether Mr. Obama, with a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, is “too black” or “not black enough,” as the candidate himself brought up in his speech on March 18, show the extent to which the nation is still fixated on old categories.
“There’s this notion that there’s an authentic race and you must fit it,” said Ms. Bratter, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston who researches interracial families. “We’re confronted with the lack of fit.”
The old categories are weakening, however, as immigration and the advancing age of marriage in the United States fuel 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.
Many people still stick to a one-race label, even if they are of mixed descent, researchers say, sometimes because of strong identification with one racial group, and occasionally because of a conscious effort not to dilute the numbers of the group they most identify with.
In interviews, people of mixed race said their decision about how to identify themselves was deeply personal, not political; it is influenced by how and where they were reared, how others perceive them, what they look like and how they themselves come to embrace their identity.
James McBride, 50, who described growing up in a Brooklyn housing project with his white mother in a memoir, “The Color of Water,” said that, like Mr. Obama, he identified himself primarily as a black man of mixed race. As a child whose father was black, he said: “I really wanted to be like all the other black kids. It was the larger group around me.” And through life, because of his brown skin, society has imposed its own label. “If cops see me, they see a black man sitting in a car,” he said.
But being proud to call himself African-American, Mr. McBride said, does not negate his connection to his “Jewish part,” his mother’s heritage. Asked which part of him was dominant, he said, “It’s like grabbing Jell-O.”
“But what difference does it make?” he added. “When you’re mixed, you see how absurd this business of race is.”
Mr. McBride and other mixed-race Americans said they took pride that Mr. Obama was presenting his biracial identity as an asset for the presidency. Even if he calls himself black, and has made a central element of his campaign biography the quest to claim that identity after his father left him, Mr. Obama is seen as giving equal weight in his story to his white mother and grandparents.
“He’s really having to play the field and know his audience really well,” said Phillip Handy, 21, a junior at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., whose mother is white and father is black. “In the end, when I hear his message, I don’t think he’s bailing out on any of us.”
While many mixed-race people say they see their heritage as a plus, they also say they often face pressure from others who want to pigeonhole them. Mr. McBride said his books invariably were shelved in the African-American sections of bookstores. “Why can’t I be a white author?” he said. “I’m half white.”
Shafia Zaloom, 36, a teacher in San Francisco who is Asian and white, said she was often asked if her two children, who look like her white husband, were adopted. “Sometimes, when I’m at the playground, people think I’m the nanny,” she said.
Ms. Zaloom, who gets her looks from her Chinese mother, said she had been on the receiving end of insensitive racial remarks and gestures about Asians. But she fully identifies as mixed race.
“It’s really unfair to expect people to choose,” she said. “It’s like asking to be loyal to one parent or the other.”
Although still small, the mixed-race population is increasingly visible among the young. The 2000 Census found that 41 percent of the mixed-race population was under 18. Multiracial advocacy groups like the Mavin Foundation in Seattle say that mixed race people now find themselves better reflected in books, in college courses, in school brochures and in teacher’s training in public schools than they did in the past. Carmen Van Kerckhove, a diversity consultant who runs a blog on race and popular culture, racialicious.com, said she doubted that the uproar that greeted Tiger Woods when he described himself as “Cablinasian” (for heritage that includes Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian) in 1997 would be as strong today.
“When you’re multiracial, you can be several things at the same time,” said Ms. Van Kerckhove, 30, who is white and Asian and has endorsed Mr. Obama on her blog for moving the race debate away from “who’s black and who’s white, or who’s a victim and who’s an oppressor.”
Unfortunately, Ms. Van Kerckhove added, suspicions persist about the motivation of people who identify themselves as mixed race. Many people, she said, wonder, “Are multiracial people trying to be multiracial as a way to escape racism?”
The mixed-race terrain is full of such bumps and tricky balances. But at least, many multiracial Americans say, they are no longer seen as oddities. Ms. Zaloom expects that her 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son will experience a different journey to self-identity than she did. At times while growing up, Ms. Zaloom recalled, she struggled with questions about whether she was white enough or attractive. She rebelled against Chinese language lessons, her mother’s Chinese food and eating with chopsticks.
But when her daughter was born, she named her Mei Lan, like her maternal grandmother, to honor her Chinese roots. Then she named her son Kyle in deference to her paternal Irish side. Her wish for her children, she said, is that they realize that the benefits of a mixed identity outweigh any challenges.
“Ultimately,” she said, the goal is “to not have to check a box.”