Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Will new age of mixed-race identities loosen the hold of race or tie it up in tighter knots?

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By JONATHAN TILOVE

April 20, 2000

c.2000 Newhouse News Service

(UNDATED) Ward Connerly, who describes himself as a roughly equal mix of French Canadian, Choctaw, African and Irish ancestry and who is married to a white woman, spent much of the last decade campaigning to end race-based affirmative action. Susan Graham, a white woman married to a black man, has spent that same decade working tirelessly as the founder of Project RACE _ Reclassify All Children Equally _ so that her two children and others like them could be counted in official statistics as “multiracial.”
For the first time in American history, respondents to the decennial census are able to identify themselves by as many races as they see fit. The tabulated results will yield 63 different categories and combinations _ or 126 considering that each of those 63 could also be either Hispanic or non-Hispanic. And that does not take into account the limitless possibilities for writing in some race of one’s own devising.
But when the 2000 census is completed, all the folks at both the Connerly and Graham households will be assigned the race of their nearest neighbors. Why? Because both Connerly and Graham, for their own very different reasons, refused to check any of the boxes on the race question.
As America embarks on a new, more complicated era of racial counting, a look at how some of those close to the issue chose to answer the census race question presents a puzzle: Is this dawning age of mixed-race identities likely to loosen the hold of race on the American mind, or merely tie it up in tighter knots?
“It is progress,” said B. Reginald Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “Whether people understand it or not, we’re undoing 300 years of racial formation. We have yet to see the after-effect, but it will be radical.”
Daniel, who grew up black in Kentucky, said he has been thinking about his racial identity since Dec. 2, 1955, when his first-grade teacher reported that Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to let a white passenger have her seat on the bus. “It’s time we colored people stood up for our rights,” the teacher told her students.
Daniel was puzzled. He raised his hand and asked the teacher who “colored” people were. “Everyone in this school,” the teacher, startled, replied. But, Daniel persisted, what color are they? “We’re brown! We’re Negroes!” the teacher replied.
But Daniel’s skin was tan, a blend of white and brown, and when he asked his mother about it she explained that while they were a mix of African, Irish, English, French, American Indian, Asian Indian and maybe even German-Jewish, they were still members of the “Negro race.”
Over time, Daniel came to identify himself as multiracial. He became a leading intellectual adviser, at one point to Project RACE and on a continuing basis to the Association for MultiEthnic Americans (AMEA) _ the largest of the organizations that pressed for a multiracial category on the census. The federal Office of Management and Budget rejected that possibility but in 1997, after four years of deliberation, announced that on the 2000 census respondents would be able to check as many races as apply.
For Daniel, at least, filling out this year’s form was thrilling. He checked “white,” “Indian” and “black.”
“For me, for the first time in my life to go to a form and have the chance of reflecting myself in an authentic way is an incredibly liberating moment. And to know that I was part of that process,” Daniel said. “We all need to start re-examining some of the taken-for-grantedness of all of our identities. Letting people check these multiple boxes is a very small step in some of the re-evaluation.”
But to Susan Graham, the form felt like one step forward and two steps back. Graham had wanted a separate multiracial category so that children like hers would not have to choose between their parents’ racial identities, or end up some unclassifiable “other.”
Graham was also upset with new rules issued by OMB just before the census forms went out, indicating how the race results would be tabulated for the federal government’s monitoring and enforcement of civil rights laws. Mixed-race individuals would be allocated back to the minority race or, if there were two or more races, back to the race that makes sense in the particular enforcement context.
The intention was to make sure that people’s right to identify themselves in all their racial complexity did not erode the civil rights protections afforded them because of their membership, in whole or in part, in one of these historically discriminated-against groups. (It should be noted that no individual’s racial identity as recorded on the census is ever reported to anyone. It only contributes, anonymously, to aggregate statistics.)
Graham saw it as the revenge of the one-drop rule, that vestige of slavery and white supremacy that defined anybody with a drop of black blood as black, period.
On the 1990 census, Graham listed her children as white. She had been told erroneously by a census official in Atlanta, where she was living, that the race of the mother was determinative. But this year, had she checked both the black and white boxes for her children, the children would for many government purposes simply be counted as black.
“I’m not about to have my children check more than one box only to be relegated back to the black category,” said Graham, who now lives in Tallahassee, Fla. She left the race question blank.
But the census cannot permit blanks, so, by a statistical method known as “hot deck imputation,” Graham’s family will be assigned races that blend best with their closest neighbors _ the assumption being that most people live in neighborhoods that match them racially. And, in Graham’s case that is true, with immediate neighbors black, white and interracial.
Rainier Spencer, a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, has studied the multiracial movement in his book, “Spurious Issues: Race and Multiracial Identity Politics in the United States.” He faults Graham’s logic.
In Spencer’s view, Graham and others in the multiracial movement deploy their distaste with the one-drop rule selectively. If they truly want its repeal, they must recognize that virtually all African-Americans are multiracial.
To him, the whole notion of a multiracial identity depends on an assumption that racial identity is real. And as Spencer told some 100 students at the Pan-Collegiate Conference on the Mixed-Race Experience, held recently at Harvard University and Wellesley College, “All racial identity is bogus, no matter whether the prefix is mono, multi or bi.”
The “insurgent idea” of multiraciality can undermine the racial order by “demonstrating the absurdity of fixed and exclusive racial categories,” he writes in his book. But the moment multiracial becomes an official category _ a box to be checked _ it no longer undermines the existing racial paradigm, but expands it.
Moreover, Spencer said, while race may not truly exist, racism does, and OMB acted quite appropriately in ordering the racial data collapsed back into traditional categories for civil rights purposes.
Spencer, whose mother is German and father black, reached the same conclusion on his own. When he filled in the census race question, he checked the “black” box.
“Most people call me a black man,” Ward Connerly writes early in his new book about his life, “Creating Equal.” But, Connerly writes, “In fact, I’m black in the same way that Tiger Woods and so many other Americans are black _ by the `one-drop’ rule used by yesterday’s segregationists and today’s racial ideologues.”
Those same racial ideologues, Connerly writes, opposed a mixed-race box “because they realize that so many of us would check it and thus administer a setback to the racial spoils system they have created.”
But, in an interview, Connerly said that he too opposes a separate multiracial category. It would only create “another interest group competing alongside all the others.”
Instead, Connerly wants to do away with all racial counting by government. He said he will seek to put a measure on the 2002 California ballot to prohibit collecting racial data there, except for medical purposes.
Connerly frames his efforts to extract race from public life in the context of his own multiracial family life. His book ends with the birth of his daughter’s first child (her husband is white): “When I held my new granddaughter, the tiny hand grasping my brown fingers was as white as snow, yet she was blood of my blood, life of my life _ living proof that the categories that are supposed to separate us in this world are an illusion.”
“I wondered,” he writes, “which of the silly little boxes she would be required to check.”
Unfortunately, Connerly said in an interview, “Black people are never forced to confront their own multiracial identity. As a result it’s just easier to identify yourself as `black’ or `African-American.’ When you begin to realize that some of your ancestors _ and this is probably the case for most black people _ are either Indian or white, it gives you an entirely different perspective on the issue of race.”
Levonne Gaddy of Tuscon, Ariz., president of the Association of MultiEthnic Americans, shares Connerly’s perspective, though not his conclusions.
Gaddy’s grandmother was white. But in order to marry her grandfather, a black man, in North Carolina, she had to identify as mulatto. (Interracial marriage was illegal in some states until the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1967 Loving decision.) When her grandmother died, Gaddy said, she was a “Negro.”
Gaddy was born looking as white as her grandmother _ white skin, freckles, green eyes, blond hair. “I look like a white person,” said Gaddy, and throughout her life that is how people, including most blacks, treated her. Eventually, while living in California, Gaddy came to the multiracial identity she felt more appropriately described her. On the census, she checked three boxes _ “white,” “black” and “American Indian.”
But, she said, “If we get rid of racial categories, it will open the door for white privilege.”
White privilege, of course, refers to those advantages whites benefit from _ advantages so much a part of the landscape that most whites don’t see them as privilege at all.
The census race question, after asking the respondent to “mark (x) one or more boxes,” offers a list of choices: “black,” “American Indian or Alaska Native,” 12 different “Asian” and “Pacific Islander” possibilities and “some other race.” But “white” comes first.
It is an observation that Jennifer Chau, who is Chinese, white and Jewish, made at the recent Mixed-Race Conference:
“I think it’s interesting that `white’ is up on top. I’d be really curious to see in a study how many people actually look past after they check off `white.’ It’s like, you don’t have to deal with all this mess down here, you can just check it off and be on your merry way. Meanwhile, we all have to be like, `Oh, mmm, God … we’re forced to think about it.”’
Chau, a 1999 Wellesley graduate who has started a nonprofit group, Swirl, to work with mixed-race children in New York City, said she checked both “white” and “Chinese.” But, she said, “the rest of my family thinks they’re white, including my father.” And, she noted, he’s originally from Shanghai.
Also at the conference was Matt Kelley, a student at Wesleyan University and founder of Mavin, a magazine of “the mixed-race experience.” Kelley said the students were in the process of figuring out their own identities _ and wanting the right to self-identify as they see fit. They’re only beginning to wonder whether they are part of some broader community, if they have the makings of any kind of movement.
Kelley checked “white” and “Korean” on the census form. His use of the term “mixed-race” instead of “multiracial” is intentional.
“I’m very wary of the so-called multiracial movement,” he said. “It seems to me more intent on creating a new race than people who have the wholeness of their heritage. … Aren’t we simply replicating the same kind of exclusive ideas of community we in the past had been criticizing?”
It does have the making of a riddle wrapped in a conundrum.
Naomi Zack, a philosopher of race at the State University of New York at Albany, is writing a book on the fiction of race and how to dismantle it. The idea of race, to Zack, “rests on fantasies of racial purity” that mixed-race people can help to subvert.
“Even with a small amount of racial mixture people’s appearance doesn’t fulfill any predictable expectation. It becomes socially unintelligible and that’s a good thing,” Zack said.
And yet, she noted, sometimes _ as in the case of affirmative action _ the fiction of race can help the historic victims of racism, and “the truth that race is a fiction” can be used against them.
So how did Zack, who is black and white, answer the race question on the census?
“I wrote `mixed,”’ she said, acknowledging that five minutes later she realized that she had meant to write “no racial affiliation.” But, not wanting to risk a cross-out, Zack left her original answer.
How, after a decade of thought, study and writing about the issue of mixed-race identity, could Zack choke on the decennial census? “I’m a philosopher,” she answered, cryptically.

Written by jonathantilove

July 7, 2012 at 9:42 pm

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