New Dialogue on Mixed Race

Mireya Navarro, New York Times, 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.

‘What are you?’

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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.

Sticking to one-race label

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.

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“But what difference does it make?” he added. “When you’re mixed, you see how absurd this business of race is.”

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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.”

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Increasingly visible

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.

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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.

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“Ultimately,” she said, the goal is “to not have to check a box.”

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