Not Black or White
Multiracial Identities Gaining Favor
By Amy Collins
May 4 — It’s the dilemma of the race box. Storm Henry, a 19-year-old junior at Purdue University, says she’s never sure which one to check.
Sometimes it’s African-American, sometimes Hispanic, sometimes white, and sometimes “other.” “But not Caucasian, I hate being called Caucasian.”
If you ask her, she’ll tell you she’s “Puerto Rican, black and white.” In that order.
“I’ve accepted my skin color, but it took me 20 years,” Henry says.
Henry is on a growing list of people who are increasingly identifying themselves by more than one race and shying away from the “check one box only” mentality of racial identification.
Among the high-profile celebrities moving the debate along is golfer Tiger Woods. The links sensation has coined the term “Cablinasian” to describe his mixed lineage of Caucasian, American Indian, African-American and Asian-American.
“I used to look at myself how other people looked at me. Now, I’m Storm,” says Henry, whose mother is Puerto Rican but whose father’s ancestors came from Scotland, England and Scandinavia. “I’m extremely militant. My mother was a [Black] Panther. I’m extremely like my mother. But I look like my dad.”
Many of the changes are being forged by members of the generation who are under 30 years old and was born after the U.S. Supreme Court shot down laws banning interracial marriages, says G. Reginald Daniel, a sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies race and ethnic relations.
“It’s a powerful moment in our history, ” he says. “We’ve thought of ourselves as a melting pot and we’ve never really been one. But now that it looks like we are doing that, everyone’s getting uncomfortable.”
Stuck in the Middle
Henry witnessed that firsthand when she was in high school in Texas.
“I just tried to stop explaining that I was mixed,” Henry says. She says she felt trapped in the middle, with attacks coming from both sides, and was afraid to talk to her parents about her problems at school.
The worst of the slurs — “wigger” — came as mean-spirited taunts from the black girls who said she wanted to be white.
Henry says she has close friends who are white, but she identifies most closely with Hispanic and black cultures, possibly, she said, because she was raised by her black mother and her black stepfather after her biological father died young. Henry still visits her father’s side of the family, but the differences are clear, she says.
While people of multiracial backgrounds are becoming more inclined to identify themselves as a member of several races, it’s the other people who still need to become comfortable with the concept, says Carlos Cortes, professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Riverside. He has just written the book The Children are
Watching: How the Media Teach About Diversity.
“The mindset has to change,” he says. “That takes a number of years.”
But, however slowly, the changes are emerging. “The whole pressure in America was to be one thing, one or the other. But as you get enough people who say, ‘Hey, wait, I’m not one or the other,’ it sort of bolsters the stance,” says Cortes.
Census Makes Change
The U.S. Census this year made the dilemma of racial identification a little harder, or possibly easier, for some people. The forms, due a month ago, allowed people to identify themselves by a combination of racial categories selected from 12 boxes and three write-in spaces. The options resulted in 63 possible racial identities for non-Hispanics, plus a separate category for Hispanics, bringing the total of officially acknowledged racial categories in America to 126.
The administration estimated that about 2 percent of the population would check off that they are of more than one race. But there are many people who still don’t want to check any box at all, says James Landrith of Alexandria, Va., who runs Multiracial Activist, a Web site dealing with multiracial issues.
“They’re tired of being asked the question,” says Landrith, who is white, married to a black woman and has two multiracial sons.
He calls the question divisive, ridiculous and offensive and said societal changes have led fewer people to look to race as a defining characteristic. “They don’t want to be defined in that matter,” he says.
1967 Turning Point
Interracial marriages have increased sharply since the 1960s, boosted by the 1967 Supreme Court ruling on Loving vs. Virginia that overturned bans on interracial marriage. Census data shows an 88 percent increase in interracial marriages between 1960 and 1998. In 1960, there were only 149,000, but that number increased by 52 percent during the decade. In the 1970s, the numbers rose an additional 67 percent. In the 1980s, the numbers continued to rise, but not as quickly, with a growth rate of 34 percent.
In the 1990 Census, there were 1.4 million interracial couples. Of those, 213,000 were a black and white combination while 1.17 million were white with another race. Of the black and white couplings, three times as many of the couples had a black husband and white wife pairing.
The numbers do not always rise in individual years, such as in 1998, according to the Census current population reports. For 1998, the latest data available, it shows 1.35 million interracial couples, down from 1.46 million reported in the 1990 Census.
Daniel says that while the numbers of interracial couples have been increasing, it does not amount to a major trend. He points to the informal segregation that still takes place in people’s choices in churches, sports, friends and in social groups at work and school.
“But we’re also in a world where we collide a whole lot more,” Daniel says. “Things are more fluid. Fluidity means identities become less static.
“I think it will lead to a lot more ambiguity and a lot more uncertainty,” he says.
As for Henry, she says college has been easier than high school, but her skin color is still a consideration.
“I’m accepted, but I don’t think I’m accepted enough to get into a black sorority. But I’m looking into a Hispanic one,” she says. “I’m complicated.”
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