Racial Identities Spawn New Terminology

Racial Identities Spawn New Terminology

By Mackenzie Carpenter
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

March 16, 2006

When Lamaas Bey is asked his race on a form or survey, he doesn’t check the box that says “black” or “African-American,” even though many people think that’s what he is.

Instead, the 27-year-old Pittsburgh resident writes in the word “Asiatic,” because, he says, “I’m going back to the cradle of civilization where the first people came from, which was the continent of Asia. The whole world at one time was connected, and it was called Asia.”

Bey is only one of many people who have decided that calling themselves “black,” “white” or “Asian” is no longer enough, given the kaleidoscopic possibilities of racial identity today.

James Landrith, the Virginia-based creator of the Web site Multiracial.com, says he’s of “Melungeon” descent, which he describes as a mix of black, white and American Indians from the Appalachian region. Malcolm Jones, who lives in California, considers himself white, but is frequently mistaken as Latino or American Indian; as a child his Japanese mother and Swedish-American father jokingly called him “Swedenese.”

On the Internet, to name just a few sites, Jamericanoutreach.com is a charity founded by Jamaican-American immigrants who refer to themselves as “Jamericans”; Nuyorican.org is a multicultural arts site with a focus on the “Nuyorican” community, defined by Wikipedia as “a blending of the phrases ‘New York’ and ‘Puerto Rican’ and refers to the members or culture of the Puerto Rican diaspora located in or around New York City.”

If it seems that young people, especially, are choosing the multiracial label, there’s a simple explanation why.

“Society is more diverse today than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” says Terrell Jones, vice provost for educational equity at Penn State University, noting that between 5 percent to 10 percent of students in his classes define themselves as multiracial. That, in part, is because of the jump in the number of interracial marriages from 1 percent of the population to at least 5 percent since 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.

Until 2000, the Census required people to check off only one box among several mutually exclusive racial categories — “black,” “white,” “Asian and Pacific Islander,” “American Indian” and “other.” Then, after strong lobbying by advocates for multiracial groups, that requirement was changed to allow people to check off as many boxes as they wanted.

Originally, those groups had wanted a box marked “multiracial,” but that idea was strongly opposed by a variety of civil-rights groups, fearful of a dilution of political power that could affect the allocation of federal aid dollars, as well as law and voting-rights enforcement. Gary Flowers, then-director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, compared such a box to “apartheid,” arguing that it would dilute the strength of the black community, a position backed by the Hispanic group La Raza.

So, a compromise was reached: Census respondents could fill out as many boxes as they wished. Consequently, in 2004, the U.S. Census Bureau found that nearly half of all Americans who identified themselves as being members of more than one race — about 4.4 million in all — were under age 18. There’s other evidence that this move toward self-identification is generational.

A study by Maria Root, a Seattle-based clinical psychologist and author of “The Multiracial Experience,” found that biracial people born before the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s tended to identify themselves as black, while those born during or after that period might identify as black, but also opted for the term “biracial.” Moreover, 2004 Census data shows that those between ages 18 and 65 were five times as likely to describe themselves as members of more than one race than those over age 65. Multiracial culture is all over the media — from the mixed-race cast of “Grey’s Anatomy” to MTV to the Internet, where Swirlsyndicate.com sells “interracial kids’ clothing” for “multi-culti cuties.”

In January, a new documentary film “Chasing Daybreak,” sought to highlight what it called “America’s mixed-heritage baby boom,” chronicling the “Generation MIX National Awareness Tour,” in which five young people traveled across the United States in an RV to promote interracial harmony. While there’s a decidedly celebratory tone to media depictions of multiracial life, the reality is somewhat different on the ground. Being identified as neither a member of one major racial group nor another — or being persistently asked the question “What are you?” — can take an emotional toll, according to Ann Van Dyke, educational director for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Van Dyke travels to schools all over the state for the “Spirit” program, which seeks to address racial conflict among students.

“What we often see is the biracial students have all the problems that the other students of color have, but have a whole list of other problems as well, because they are biracial,” she said.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com

Copyright 2006 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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