PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"Catagories Count,"

by Libero Della Piana January/February 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

In the summer of 1993, several groups, spearheaded by the American Multi-Ethnic Association(AMFA) and Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally), urged the House Subcommittee on Census and Statistics to add "multiracial" as acategory to the U.S. Census. These groups and others have won multiracial identification in school districts in Georgia and Illinois. In Ohio, there is now state-wide legislation making "multiracial" an official racial category on all school forms.

Advocates for a multiracial category cite a number of statistics to back their case. In 1992, there were an estimated 1.2 million interracial marriages, which constitutes a 365% increase over 310,000 in 1970. In 1989 alone, 110 schoochildren were born into interracial families. Given the dramatic increase in inter-racial marriage, estimates of the number of people with multiracial backgrounds range between 600,000 and 5 million. However, this does not mean that all of these people self-identify as multiracial. Maria P.P. Root writes in Racially Mixed People in America that 30-70% of all African Americans, virtually all Latinos and Filipinos, and the majority of Native Americans are multiracial. The point is clear: while multiracial individuals have existed as long as the concept of race, there is today a new awareness of large numbers of multi-racial people. Multiracial advocates want to have this reality reflected in the U.S. Census.

A box for the racial designation of mixed race people threatens federal funds earmarked for specific racial groups, according to some monoracial organizations. Henry Der, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), argued before the Congressional Subcommittee that it is difficult to ascertain which benefits people of multiracial backgrounds are entitled to, given the fact that federal civil rights legislation and programs are premised on exclusive membership in one racial group. Although MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil de Chicanos en Aztlan, a Chicano student organization), the National Urban League and CAA, to name a few, all oppose the new multiracial census category in the interests of protecting political apportionment for their constituents, there are dimensions of the demand for a "multiracial" category that have implications beyond the political sphere.

Issues raised in the racial categorization debate are not new. For at least two centuries, "one drop of Black blood" made one Black in the United States. A 1930s court case in California found a Filipino exempt from a state miscegenation law because he was defined as a "Malay" (not covered under the law at the time) and not a "Mongolian." Three weeks after the decision, the California State Legislature modified the law to include the racial category "Malay." Twelve other states soon followed suit. From overtly racist notions of mongrelization by "mud people," to liberal concerns about "how difficult life is for children of mixed heritage," to increased ethnocentricity in communities of color, whose advocates argue that "outmarriage" weakens the race, racial categorization is about power.

The question is: do multiracial people have the power to force recognition? New magazines like Interrace, New People and Interracial Classified have all been founded to increase the positive images of multiracial people in society. As the editor of Interrace noted in the November 1993 issue: "We created Interrace not to challenge a racist society. . . but to bring balance to the negative depictions of our families and children in the mass media." New People addresses the politics of multiracial identity. The October issue ran articles addressing the effects of Afrocentric ideology on multiracial people.

Two main trends flow through these publications: the naively uncritical celebration of all dimensions of multiracial identity, and challenges to the existing notions of race. These trends also flourish in organizations of multiracial people at more than a dozen liberal arts colleges. These include MISC (the Multiethnic/Interracial Students' Coalition) at UC-Berkeley. the Union of Multiracial Students at UC-Santa Cruz, and Brown University's Brown Organization of Multiracial & Bi-racial Students (BOMBS). These groups have influenced the universities to recognize multiracial identity on application forms, in transition programs and in other ways. These identity-based organizations function to aid young multiracial people's personal development and to educate other people about multiracial identity. In addition, multiracial campus groups often pressure monoracial (Black, Latino, etc.) student groups to hold forums with them on multiracial issues, get multiracial people into counseling positions or organize their own awareness week. Multiracial advocacy is primarily identity-based organizing. The groups are not necessarily working for social justice, but for recognition.

Multiracial people confront the difference between racial categorization and self-identification every day. I know this experience personally. My mother is African-American and my father is Italian-American. I identify as both Black and Italian, not "half-and-half" and not one or the other. However, on a regular basis I am faced with forms, applications and check-boxes that do not allow me to identify as both. They don't allow me to identify as multiracial either. If you're lucky, they provide an "other" and maybe a space to fill in the blank. The most wrenching choices that have to be made, however, are not on paper. I, like most biracial and multiracial people, must choose to identify with my mother or my father.

Even though I know that identity has more to do with history and consciousness than appearance, I also know that in order for me to survive in a racially polarized society, I have to react to how others perceive me, as well as how I perceive myself For instance, I have never been treated as an Italian by someone who wasn't family. I know that as long as I look Black, I am Black to the world. Therefore, I experience racist verbal attacks and discriminatory treatment.

For many multiracial people, there is tension between how one identifies oneself and how one is labeled by both the dominant and subordinate cultures. Because of this, we are often called confused. The classical representation of our existence is the "tragic mulatto," condemned to be torn between two worlds, psychologically and morally perverse. The fact is, multiracial people are literally forced by this society to choose one reality over the other.

Although for the majority of society, racial categories are static and racial identity is a "done deal," the questions raised by multiracial people challenge these assumptions.

Unquestionably, there are problems with the tendency in the multiracial movement to confuse issues related to multiracial identity with the desire to pursue relations with members of a different race and to glamorize the "multicultural melting pot" and multiracial existence. On the other hand, it is clear that conflict over racial categorization in the Census articulated by this new multicultural movement is one way to expand the boundaries of how we think about race.

Libero Della Piana is the editor of RaceFile, a bimonthly publication of the Applied Research Center (25 Embarcadero Cove, Oakland, CA 94606; annual rates: $48 for individuals and nonprofits, $180 for institutions), which offers "a critical assessment of reporting on racial issues in the established and community press." This article first appeared in VoL 2, No. 2, March-April/1994.

Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List