The multicultural whirl of racial identity


THE OTHER night, an MCI operator called from New Mexico. In the course of haranguing me about the value of switching long-distance calling plans, the topic turned to race, as it frequently does in my conversations.

The operator thought I -- an African American -- was white, I thought he was Jewish. When I discovered that he was born of a Mexican/Anglo union, I asked him how he identified racially.

"I don't believe in racial classifications," he swiftly replied in a defensive tone, suggesting that I wasn't progressive. He admitted to being a racial chameleon whose identity and ethnic affiliation shifts according to the circumstances. For example, if he is applying for a scholarship for minorities, he identifies himself as a Mexican. On a job interview, where he fears discrimination, he does not note his Mexican heritage. His Spanish surname is the only hint of his heritage, the blond, blue-eyed man said.

This mixed-race individual wants to do away with racial labels. "It's just a regular melting pot out here [the West coast]," he said, noting that many school and government forms no longer require racial identification.

Unbeknown to him, there is a growing movement to get the label "other" changed to "multiracial" on many official forms. This movement is spurred by people of multiracial backgrounds, and their allies, who feel current racial classifications -- black, white, Hispanic and Asian -- aren't inclusive enough for their multitude of heritages. Such classifications cause confusion among children and may result in low self-esteem, they say.

Project RACE (Record All Children Equally) and the Association of Multi-ethnic Americans (AMEA) are lobbying Congress to change Census forms and other federal forms to include the term "multiracial."

The movement has already scored some victories, probably the biggest was getting the state of Georgia to change racial categories on all state forms.

I'm ambivalent about this whole multiracial movement. Some African Americans view it as little more than a resurgence of the passing phenomenon of the early 20th century; when light-skinned blacks pretended to be white to circumvent discrimination.

Many blacks dismiss the movement's adherents as tragic mulattoes seeking to gain social and economic benefits of the white community. My MCI operator subscribes to this view. He seeks to erase racial labels, yet he benefits both economically and socially from having two races at his disposal, a privilege his identifiably Mexican brothers and sisters cannot claim. On the other hand, if this mixed-race operator has a child by a woman whose father is Asian and whose mother is Native-American, what race will that child be? And if this child, and others like him, can embrace a variety of heritages but claim no race, are they preparing us for a race-less society?

Aside from social complexities, if the term multiracial is adopted by the Census, the political ramifications could be far-reaching. For one, regulatory programs concerning housing, employment and education would have to be revamped.

According to author Lisa Jones, daughter of Jewish intellectual Hettie Jones, and black nationalist poet Amiri Baraka: "If you're lobbying, that's all well and good, but put it in some kind of historical and contemporary context. We still collect statistics on race because racism still exists and all the statistics that we collect on race serve to monitor that, to protect against housing discrimination, employment discrimination."

Observing that many of the leaders lobbying for the change on the Census forms are white parents of mixed-race children, Ms. Jones said: "They don't even know whether they're arguing that this new category is supposed to be some disadvantaged category, which chances are, the people who fall into the group are."

These parents of mixed-race children seem to think they are being denied a place in their children's lives because of the "one drop rule"; that's the long-held, American idea that just one drop of African-American blood makes you black, even if you look white.

Susan Graham, executive director of Project RACE, and a white parent of mixed-race children, believes that when children have accurate racial labels at their disposal, they can better function in society. Ms. Graham said, "when a child has to pick the race of one of their parents, they are, in essence, being forced to deny the other parent."

Ms. Jones, who identifies as African American though her mother is white, offers this metaphor for interracial relations in light of Ms. Graham's position: "If you're a woman . . . your father is a man, he's different than you. You don't have to be a man to have a relationship with your father that's warm and loving . . . Just like I don't have to be white, or mixed-race or proclaim myself some kind of in-between to have a relationship with my mother. I can stand tall as an African-American and still have that relationship."

One who shares Ms. Jones' view is actress Halle Berry, who was raised by her mother, a white woman. In a recent issue of Essence magazine, Ms. Berry said, "I honestly wouldn't be anyone but a black woman in America right now." The mothers of the two women were largely responsible for their daughters sense of pride as African-American women.

The movement for changing racial classifications on government forms is a growing one that may lead to changes in other aspects of our society.

Exactly how such a movement will effect race relations is yet to be seen. Certainly, interracial relations already are affected with some blacks considering mixed-race people with some black ancestry as "sellouts" for not want to be identified as black.

The MCI operator mentioned above notes that socially he has been hurt by efforts to not identify with his Mexican heritage. For example, he was sitting in a bar with some white friends, when one of them started expounding about how most Mexican men are violent gang members. This blond, blue-eyed, half-Mexican was left pondering how this could be happening.

If we don't classify ourselves racially, it doesn't mean racism will go away. Lisa Jones insists we should learn to celebrate our differences.

To paraphrase Rodney King: we all can get along.

Nicole D. Sconiers writes from Randallstown.

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