Don’t You Dare List Us as Others: Multi-racial Americans’ Quest for Identity

Don’t You Dare List Us as Others: Multi-racial Americans’ Quest for Identity

Wendi Ruky

Class of 1998

Audio files available here.

Script: Thirty-six-year-old Cheryl Landrith is a black woman married to a white man.

Cheryl: “Unfortunately, in this society they’re not going to allow us not to count. They’re always wanting to count, how many whites, how many blacks, how many Hispanics. So if they’re going to count, let’s count it correctly.”

Ambience sound: Cheryl plays with baby Charles

Script: The couple have two children; eight-month-old Charles and his older brother Ryan, who’s thirteen. The family lives in Alexandria, Virginia, right across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital. Cheryl’s husband, James, is the Washington DC representative of Project Race Ð an Atlanta-based organization that has lobbied hard for a separate multiracial category.

Script: Project Race has testified before Congress and convinced seven states to add the multiracial category to their state and school forms. Three other states are currently debating whether to make the change.

Script: The group’s main goal is to get a multiracial box put on federal forms, starting with the Census 2000. But the group’s efforts fell short when the Office of Management and Budget, or the OMB, which oversees the use of demographic data, decided not to comply with their request. OMB’s Chief Statistician, Katherine Wallman, says a multiracial category is too vague because it lumps together people with too many different backgrounds. Wallman speaks on the OMB’s recent decision to allow people to check more than one box.

Wallman:”…that the people are concerned or most interested in reporting that they were of multiple heritages and they didn’t want to be forced to choose a single heritage which has been the case in the past…It’s our view, that the recommendation we’ve made, the decision that we’ve now taken is one that will serve both kind of purposes the best.”

Script: Many civil rights organizations are happy with that decision. For example, the NAACP argues that a multiracial box may result in undercounting minority groups and could lead to further discrimination. NAACP Washington bureau chief, Hilary Shelton.

Shelton: “It is necessary to be as careful as we can be about collecting the data and not fudging it. You see that we’re looking at things like how the Justice Department is to enforce the Voting Rights Act, you look at providing information on whether there is employment discrimination, things of that nature.”

Script: Some, like Cheryl, disagree with the NAACP.

Cheryl: “Most people who have been identified themselves as ‘other’ or multiracial to begin with are gonna continue to do so. Anyone who is multiracial and have been calling themselves black and they want to do that, they’re gonna continue to do so. It’s not gonna change any number, it’s not gonna move one side to the other. But it just allows people who have been calling themselves ‘other’ for all these years to say this is who I am, this is my unique mixture exactly as it is.”

Script: James also disagrees. He says that the category is important to foster self-identity for children from mixed race couples.

James: “Well, it’s a self-esteem thing and comfortability for the children. It is really demeaning to tell a child, hey, you have to pick one over the other, and to have a child grow up knowing that. We want to go ahead and nip that thing in the bud now so that our children can grow up knowing that it’s alright to say that I’m multiracial. I don’t have to say I’m only white, I’m only black, this, that, or the other.”

Script: Some may wonder why Cheryl and James and others in Project Race are pushing so strongly for a multiracial category. If we look at the number of Americans who declared themselves as ‘other’ in the last census, the need for a multiracial box seems minuscule. In that 1990 Census, less than one percent of the population said that they were from mixed race background.

Script: But national statistics show that the number is growing fast. And since the Supreme Court struck down the last state laws forbidding interracial marriages in 1967, such unions have more than tripled.

Script: Now 1 in 39 marriages in American is interracial. Births to such couples have skyrocketed. 1970’s Census recorded 500,000 children from racially mixed couples. That figure quadrupled to nearly two million in 1990. And in California, the current estimates are that one in four births are children of mixed race.

Script: Some of these children have become celebrities, like singer Mariah Carey and golf prodigy, Tiger Woods. Woods sparked an uproar when he called himself a ‘Cablinasian’ on the popular Oprah Winfrey Show. He said the self-coined term embraced his white, black, Asian, and Native American heritages.

Script: Some in the black community felt let down that Woods doesn’t consider himself strictly a ‘black man’. But an accountant from Jersey City, 24-year-old Jenai Threatte, herself a child of a mixed marriage, rallies to Woods’ defense.

Jenai: “Look at Tiger Woods. He looks mixed. I don’t understand why people say he’s turning his back on the black community. When I have a dog that’s mixed, I don’t say that it’s a poodle. It’s a mutt. And I’m proud to be a mutt. I don’t understand why I have to choose one over the other.”

Script: Jenai’s mother is white and her father is black. She inherited her father’s dark curly hair, but has a much lighter skin tone which makes her appear more white than black.

Script: Jenai says she’s now comfortable with her biracial identity…..something that wasn’t the case as a teenager growing up in Gary, Indiana, when she was attending an all-white high school.

Jenai: “That was probably the worst year of my life. I was called everything, you know, from the n word to people writing in my books, in my locker. But that was true racism, KKK type stuff. On the flip side, after that I was sent to an all black high school which wasn’t too much better because I don’t have black accent, I don’t act black…if there’s a way to act black. The problem I’ve had in both cultures is that they wanted me to choose.”

Michele: “It made me embarrassed to be biracial. I was mad. I remember thinking “Why did my mommy and daddy do this to me? They knew when they had me that I’d come out different so why did they do this to me?”

Script: Jenai and Michele’s experiences unfortunately show an all too common problem for mixed race children. The Center for the Study of Biracial Children in Denver, Colorado, refers to these children’s experiences as the ‘tragic mulatto’ stereotype.

Script: But a 1993 study by University of Washington Sociologist, Maria Root, concluded that if these children are raised with pride and taught to openly accept their entire heritages, they won’t have trouble facing society, relatives, or peers who might pressure them with a racial ultimatum.

Script: Jenai is living proof of this approach. Though growing up for her was by no means easy, her father’s guidance helped her through tough times. Jenai recalls when she was about five, her father began teaching her and her three bother and sisters about black culture.

Jenai: “That was during Martin Luther King’s birthday. His pictures were on the screen and we were like teasing. Oh my God, look at his lips, they were so big. And my dad realized that we didn’t realize about black history. That’s when he started to teach us about black history.”

Script: Her mother also wanted Jenai to understand and appreciate her biracial roots. She made sure Jenai played with the polynesian-looking barbie dolls, rather than the all-american, blond hair, blue-eyed ones. For her, the dolls were more than mere toys, they taught her children about their racial mixtures.

Jenai: “I can’t remember how many times my mom got into a fight with the teachers. Because in all those standardized tests, we always had to pick one. Never pick one, always pick both or the other. They’d call my mother to the office. My mom, you wouldn’t believe it if you see her, but she’s a little spitfire hellion. We were never allowed to choose.”

Script: Michele, however, says she had a different upbringing. Her mother is from France and her father is a native of the Virgin Islands. She says her parents talked about her different ethnic backgrounds but serious discussions in the home about race and bigotry were taboo. Since her parents never brought up the topic, Michele says she had nowhere to turn while being teased at school. As a child, the only way she knew how to deal with the taunting was to retaliate and trade insults, by calling her tormentors ‘orangutans’.

Michele: “I just figured, let me sting them harder than they stung me.”

Script: The teasing stopped when Michele went away to college. She attended the University of Virginia at Charlottesville where it is common for students of the same race to hang out with each other. There Michele started to identify herself as a young black woman. Her black roommate, who later was to become her best friend, helped shape her feelings of identity.

Michele: “We hung out together and she pulled me into the black community which is all she was going to socialize with and there’s where I ended up. I didn’t venture out on my own, you know, to make my own friends outside of that clique so that’s where I stayed.”

Script: But Michele never really felt comfortable ‘inside the group’, thinking of herself more as an outsider than someone who belongs.

Michele: “I think if anything, the black community pushed me out a little bit. I like to eat sushi. I remember one day, a black woman told meÉ don’t eat sushi, you ain’t black. And I laughed about it and then I realized it was funny but it hurt. She was saying that you can’t be a part of the black community because you exhibit behavior that isn’t black. Well, I don’t believe behavior has a color. You know, there’s a conflict inside of me because of that.”

Script: Michele didn’t really come to terms with her biracial identity until after she graduated and moved to Washington DC. That’s when she met another woman with a similar background. She also began to get involved with the Interracial Family Circle, a support group for mixed families and children in the DC area.

Michele: “And just by meeting other people, seeing other families that were biracial – that made me feel better. So much better.”

Script: More than 50 such organizations have sprung up across the country. Not all are active in politics, but each serves as a support group, providing emotional and social comfort for mixed race children and families. One of these is the Interracial Life group in East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Ambience sound: Interracial Life group meeting

Script: About ten to fifteen families meet monthly in this suburb of New York City melting pot, it’s a tossed salad. But we don’t have is the lettuce wanting to celebrate the tomato for being tomato; or the tomato wanting to celebrate the lettuce for being the lettuce. Let the lettuce keeps its flavor, why does that hurt? So here, that’s the whole thing with multiracial Americans.”

Script: Most multiracial Americans agree that being allowed to check more than one racial box will give them an opportunity to describe themselves better. But as far as having a separate category goes, their opinions differ.

Script: Jenai says a multiracial box doesn’t tell people anything about the racial makeup of the population.

Jenai: “Where does it stop? Is it just when your parents are mixed? Is it when your grandparents are mixed? If people want to identify themselves, let them check more than one box. I would not check a box called multiracial. It sounds kinda stupid.”

Script: Michele disagrees and thinks a multiracial box is a good idea.

Michele: “I’m tired of having to choose and I’m tired of there not being someway for me to identify myself. If society is going to continue to categorize people by race, they’re gonna have to wake up and smell the coffee. We’re becoming more mixed than we were before. And if people are concerned about voting rights or affirmative action or whether organizations will get funding, it’s going to be a race until the end of time. We need to make strides that we can.”

Script: Race has always been a sensitive and highly charged issue in America. The social, political, and economic aspects of race relations have never been cut and dry. From the days of the founding fathers, through slavery and the many waves of immigration, racial identification has always been a thorny topic.

Script: The Clinton Administration is currently working on a plan to record and interpret all the information collected from the Census 2000. For now, if the category black is one of several checked off, the person will only be counted as black. Yet ultimately, the Census Bureau promises that it will publish every possible combination.

Script: Project Race continues to lobby for a multiracial category. The group has lost the battle for the Census 2000, but it still has hopes for 2010. It says that as long as mixed race Americans can’t have their own category, their true identity is being denied, and for them that’s enough reason to keep on fighting.

Reporting for Columbia News, I’m Wendi Ruky.

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