Multiracial Identity Points to Racial Struggle in U.S.

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By:  Kimberly Davis  
News21 UMD Staff
Posted: Aug. 7, 2009

Atlanta skyline
(Photo by Andrew Smith)


ATLANTA – Here, in the cradle of the civil rights movement, black is still beautiful. With its rich history as a place of struggle for rights, justice and equality for African Americans, Atlanta came to be known as the "Black Mecca" -- a place where black singles, families and professionals could--if they chose--be surrounded by people who looked like them.

In this jewel of the South, with its incredibly strong collective and individual black identity, declaring that you’re multiracial-- the fastest-growing demographic in the country last year -- can be fraught with tension. Nearly 60 percent of the roughly 440,000 residents of Georgia’s capital identify as black, yet just 1.1 percent identify as more than one race. That is about half the national average.

Choosing to identify as multiracial in Atlanta inevitably leads to a kind of racial cross-examination that personifies America’s continuing struggle with race. In cities and towns across America, as more people begin to identify as multiracial, the leaders of a new civil rights movement—the multiracial movement—are attempting to help people who choose to stand apart by identifying themselves as something other than how people see them.

Jen Bhagia Lewis
Jen Bhagia Lewis
(Photo by Kimberly Davis)

For most of her middle-school years in Georgia, Jen Bhagia-Lewis was "just a black girl." Bhagia-Lewis, 28, was born to a Puerto Rican mother and a father from Mumbai. But in Atlanta, with its history of racial disharmony, anything beyond black and white isn’t always OK. People assume that Bhagia-Lewis is mixed with black and white, and back then, she often didn’t correct them.

"I’m brown, I have curly to coarse hair, and I don’t identify as black," says Bhagia-Lewis during an interview from her Atlanta home. "It confuses people. So, for a long time, I had to kind of navigate in and out of [those social politics]."

It was only when she went to high school on a military base that she began to name her identity as multiracial. There were a number of mixed race and bicultural families on the base, and they thought nothing of how Bhagia-Lewis looked.

"For the first time, I was not unusual," says Bhagia-Lewis, who has a 3-year-old son, Cameron, with husband Christopher, who is also biracial. "For the first time in my life, I was part of the norm."

Today, Bhagia-Lewis is working to change attitudes in Atlanta. As co-leader of SwirlAtlanta, the local chapter of Swirl Inc., a national multiethnic advocacy organization, she is among the emerging voices in a network of mixed-race communities across the country.

"Most of [what we do] is surrounding the acceptance of identity and the acceptance of self-identification without being discounted," Bhagia-Lewis says. "We’re only just now being allowed to self-identify as mixed race without being criticized and without having to explain, for the most part. We’re still in the early stages of that."

Bhagia-Lewis’ story as a leader in this burgeoning multiracial movement is mirrored in communities across the United States, as people who identify as mixed race seek more recognition, access and representation. Groups like Swirl Inc., I-Pride, the Association of MultiEthnic Americans, Project Race and Mavin Foundation have been forming since the late 1970s, all seeking to change the way America views racial and ethnic identity.

Maria Velazquez, who co-leads SwirlDC, says her group seeks to create space for a multiracial identity by providing resources and a support network.

"One of the things that’s really interesting about a mixed-race identity is that it’s so new and in some ways it’s such an abstract departure from former racializations," says Velazquez, 27, whose father is Venezuelan and mother is black. "In some ways it’s a conscious self-transformation."

Standing in the way of that self-transformation are centuries of law, history, policy and culture that often relegated race and ethnicity into separate categories. Throughout American history, law and policy have dictated racial identity, including longstanding bans on interracial marriage and the "one-drop" rule, which stated that if you had any black blood, you were black. It’s this legacy that those who identify as mixed race are confronting every day.

Historical Legacy: Binary Boxes

Juan Williams, author of "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965," says that the mixed-race community in America has been largely invisible in some ways, forced into one box for scores of years, particularly when it comes to the "black or white" racial identity.

"In this social, or societal, dynamic, mixed-race people have not been allowed a place," says Williams during an interview at his Washington, D. C., home. "They have fallen into the black category or passed into the white category."

Though they may have identified or been seen as black, people with mixed heritage, including Frederick Douglass and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., have had a significant impact on American history. Mixed-race individuals with black heritage may identify more closely with blacks because of a shared history and experience, says Andra Gillespie, assistant professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.

"You look at many of the people who have been at the forefront of getting civil rights for African Americans," Gillespie says. "Many of them clearly had white ancestry and often had it very close to them in terms of their genealogical line."

Calinda Lee, assistant director for research and development at Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute, says that because of the legacy of the one-drop rule, those leaders were considered black. Now, a new tension comes into play as people begin to step beyond that legacy.

For a long time, being black in this country meant you were a second-class citizen, and many people sought a way out by "passing" as white, explains Lee, who holds a doctorate in American Studies from Emory. "The motivation for that was very clear," she says. "You wanted out of this universal second-class citizenship."

Counting Americans

For some minority groups, particularly African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, the concern today is that "wanting out" will mean that more people check more than one box when the federal government counts the population next year. The 2010 Census will be just the second time that people are allowed to mark more than one race.

Leading up to the 2000 Census, some advocacy groups had argued unsuccessfully for a "multiracial" or "mixed race" category. But traditional civil rights organizations contended that would dilute the count of traditional minority populations and lessen their political and social power. Moreover, Census officials believed that the standalone category wasn’t specific enough and would "paper over differences" within mixed-race groups, says Kim M. Williams, who wrote "Mark One or More: Civil Rights in Multiracial America." The ability to "mark one or more" was a compromise.

"The movement behind the multiracial category as a standalone is the idea that people of more than one race were being dissed," says Williams, associate professor for public policy at Harvard University. "It came from a place of empowerment. … The more people you can get to identify as multiracial, per se, the more influence multiracial people can exert."

Since 2000, more than 5 million U.S. residents have identified themselves as more than one race. The U.S. census estimates that the mixed-race population grew 3.4 percent since 2007. In addition to birth rates and immigration, the traditional fuels for population growth, their swelling ranks reflect the willingness of more people to self-identify as multiracial.

The change in how race is categorized has also spread to other parts of the federal government and to state governments. California is considering new education guidelines that would allow students to select two or more races, "if you consider yourself biracial or multiracial."

"It takes a while to marinate on this idea of multiraciality," says Louie Gong, 35, president of Seattle-based Mavin Foundation, which works to raise awareness of the experience of people and families with mixed heritage. "It’s not about birth rate; it’s about identity. And so I think that will see the mixed-race population growing at a greater percent than people assume."

Gong and other leaders in the multiracial community can only speculate as to what that growth may mean for the United States. That speculation is still fanning a measure of uncertainty among traditional minority groups. "This is all about the size of your minority group and how large your claim can be when you’re saying that we need attention, we need federal dollars and help for our community," says Williams, the author who is also an NPR correspondent.

But the federal government chose not to settle on a "mixed race" or "multiracial" box, in part, because of this question of community impact.

For the purposes of civil rights enforcement, the federal government reclassifies those who mark more than one race into the population that is least represented in the American population. (See OMB BULLETIN NO. 00-02.) And for census purposes, those who mark more than one race are counted once for each race that they mark.

Looking Ahead

Ten years into this new way of measuring race, longtime NAACP Chairman Julian Bond says mixed-race identity heightens the civil rights group’s mission, which is to ensure equal rights of all people and to eliminate racial hatred and discrimination. "If somebody comes to us and says something happened to them because of their race, as a result of them being seen as black, we’re not going to say to them, ‘You’re not black,’ " Bond says. "We’re going to help them."

Perhaps, then, it’s more about perception—the perception of a loss of power and status as a minority group. "When you have, as we have experienced in the last few years, a transition, with blacks going from being the largest minority in the country to now the second-largest group," Williams says, "there’s a shift in terms of who it is that starts to dictate the cultural norms, who’s starting to get the attention because they are seen as helping to shape the identity of the ‘other’ in American life."

That shift could have far-reaching political and social impact, if the multiracial population begins to organize around political issues that resonate along political party lines. Now, with the multiracial movement in its early stages, that seems unlikely.

Besides, there are dozens of combinations possible in the "mark one or more" census category, says Gong of Seattle, who identifies as American Indian, Asian and white. It’s difficult to pin down a particular politics or cause that would link them all, beyond identity.

"The mixed-race population is not going to be something that people will be able to define as a market or as a voter bloc," Gong says. "Beyond the way our communities and institutions and sometimes our families respond to us, a lot of times mixed race people don’t have a whole lot in common. And we enjoy connecting with and bonding over the mixed race experience."

What the new multiracial movement has done is reveal the nuance of race in America, says Kim Williams, who was on the Census Advisory Committee for the African-American population. She says that the Census Bureau may have to rethink how it counts people as the country becomes more diverse.

"Race is real and constructed at the same time," she says. "The challenge is trying to make sense of that complexity or at least entertain the idea of that complexity. One of the things the multiracial movement did is that it at least made us think of that idea."

For now, Bhagia-Lewis says, that’s all she’s trying to do. In Atlanta and other cities, as they work to develop a political agenda, leaders of the multiracial movement are seeking a foothold in the national conversation about race.

"Beyond self-identification and acceptance in communities and the ability to move past traditional categories of race, I think the political agenda is still developing," Bhagia-Lewis says. "We’re still very much in the first-generation kind of movement."






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