Being Multiracial in a Country that Sees Black and White

Fall 2009
Final Research Essays

Article 10 of 12

In America mixed race individuals are becoming more prominent in the media, politics and sports throughout the country. Some of the most popular mixed race individuals that we see everyday include Tiger Woods, Vin Diesel, Mariah Carey, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, Derek Jeter, Halley Berry, Alicia Keys and of course President Obama. The fact that this population of mixed race individuals is growing at an astounding rate is the reason behind the current discussion on the racial classification of such individuals.  Before the 1960s many researchers considered “biracial identity [to be] equivalent to black identity…or a subset of blacks” (Rockquemore 21).  This thought continued to exist in the United States by researchers until the 1990s [sic] when “biracial people were [considered] a separate [racial] group” (21). The multiracial movement that has arisen during the 1990s believes that “every person, especially every child, who is multi-ethnic/interracial has the same right as any other person to assert an identity that embraces the fullness and  integrity of their actual ancestry” (Tessman 1). Although there are overall positive effects for these individuals from the movement, there are also negative affects that could potentially cause more problems for America’s current racial system. However, despite the negative effects of the movement, there is evidence that shows that this potential transition to a multiracial system in the US has beneficial aspects to it

Mixed race individuals have been recorded to exist “as far back as the 1630s and 1640s [in] colonial records” (Morning 41). How we have come to understand these individuals and their racial identity in the US has changed over time since then. Historically, “children of black/white interracial marriages have been considered part of the African American community” (Rockquemore 35).  However, within the past decade, there has been a shift by “multiracial advocates [who] proposed an alternative racial identification by seeking to have ‘multiracial’ added as a legitimate and distinct racial category” (35).  By adding such a category, the advocates claimed that it would allow mixed race individuals to “accurately reflect the way that mixed race people self-identify” (35). 

One of the main issues to why this change would be necessary can be explained in the Robert Park’s Marginal Man Theory (36).  In this theory, “the Marginal Man is poised outside of the two races to which he belongs, never fully accepted by either but instead a stranger in both worlds” (36). These psychological issues of rejection, isolation and other negative experiences from both racial groups, to which one could identify with, has been seen to be a tremendous issue for mixed race individuals. One of the most public individuals that have had to deal with these psychological problems mentioned is the American president. A black congressman of Missouri, Emanuel Cleaver, “claimed that Barack doesn’t speak like black people… [implying] that he was too polished or too white” (Hendon 22).  Mixed race individuals are constantly in “conflict between social and personal definitions of self, justifying identity choice, forced choice dilemmas, lack of role models, conflicting messages and double rejections” (Rockquemore 37).  We are constantly analyzed by racial groups around us to whether we are black enough, white enough, Asian enough, etc. These issues are the foundation behind the movement beginning in the 1990s, however though out the movement there have been pros and cons.

France Twine, a cultural anthropologist who did a case-study on biracial females, explains in her article that race is culturally determined and how someone classifies themselves can depend on tradition, history, or personal experiences (Twine 1).   A positive effect of the multiracial movement is that by having this racial category, it would allow a person to be able to classify themselves as multiracial based on such factors mentioned by Twine. Another positive effect of the movement is that by allowing this new classification, the government could better provide for this population. Alfredo J. Padilla, who is an education manager at the Marvin Foundation, states that “under the old guidelines multiracial people were rendered invisible, which makes it impossible for institutions of higher education to address their unique needs" (Kean 1).  The final and most important positive effect that the movement has are the overall psychological benefits, by enforcing a multiracial category, for mixed race individuals. Lisa Tessman, who is the writer of the article Racial Politics of Mixed Race, has observed through her readings that if an individual is pressured into choosing one race over another it could have “detrimental affects on self concept, self esteem, and development…particularly [in] children” (Tessman 1). It is acknowledged by many researchers, who study mixed raced individuals, that “in order to develop competence and move towards psychological well-being, it is necessary for [mixed race] individuals to identify as biracial or multiracial rather than monoracial” (Carter & Coleman 2).  For these reasons, many advocates believe that this movement is beneficial, however, despite the good in the movement there are obvious and detrimental negative affects that it has on society as well.

The negative aspects that surround this movement are unintentionally strengthening the ideology of hypodescent, which reverses the strides made by the civil rights movement, and can potentially cause the development of a pigmentrocratic system in the US.  These obvious negative effects should be considered when deciding whether or not the movement is actually beneficial to society. Enforcing hypodescent, which is the first negative effect, means to enforce the concept behind the “display [of] the positive valuation of whiteness and the corresponding negative valuation of blackness” (Sundstrom 288).  By trying to create this additional racial category, many of those who study race believe it will give off the message that mixed race individuals don’t want to associate with minority groups.   This additional category will actually enforce the ideology that we currently have in the US and “encourages white privilege” (288). These “conscious or subconscious [attempts] to escape blackness” (286) is not only causing “self hate, internalized racism and psychological damage [to the] nature of America’s racial [polity]” (288-289), but it is also “undermining the civil rights efforts” made just a few decades ago in the US (289).

The Civil Rights Movement, which began in order to gain equality for African Americans in the US, has been undermined by the multiracial movement because it “provides a personal solution, the mulatto escape hatch, to racism” (289). Instead of claiming a minority identity, the supporters and individuals involved in the movement claim a “mixed race identity [which uplifts an individual on the racial ladder] by emphasizing their identification and familial relation to whites” (289).  This personal solution to the racism problem has its obvious negative effects.  Individuals who are of a minority status may begin to encourage others in their racial category to “marry up the hierarchy of color” (289).  The idea of “passing” becomes an issue where minorities will begin to in a way “sell out or accept the racial status quo…conducting a conspiracy of silence that seeks to beat oppression at its own game” (Daniel, 49).  The fact that some individuals would feel that they need to marry white individuals in order for their kids to be better off in the world leads many to believe that a pigmentrocratic system may be in order for the US.  This type of racial system has already found its way in some countries, such as Brazil, and threatens to soon find its way in the US. 

In Brazil there is this “color caste system, or pigmentocracy” that exists that has caused many to believe that if the multiracial movement isn’t stopped the US will soon develop such a system. This caste system not only relates to the color of your skin but it also ties into the amount of privileges, the amount of money or your overall social class that you may have. A study conducted by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M, supports this claim.  He suggests in his study that the new racial order that could potentially develop would include a “racial strata (white, honorary white and the collective black)…where being nonwhite meant having restricted access to the multiple ‘wages of whiteness’ such as good housing, descent jobs and a good education” (Bonilla-Silva, 932). He further supported his prognosis of the future of the US racial system by looking into the income of his racial stratus.  It was found, in his study, that there were already signs of a difference in income for these particular groups, which demonstrates that this transgression into a multiracial state may already be occurring in the US (936).

Despite all of the negative affects that could come from the multiracial movement I do still believe that it is necessary. Unless you are mixed race yourself you may not understand how difficult it is for someone like me to belong in certain racial groups. Personally, I have a mixed ancestry including German, African American, Native American and European.  Although there are four categories to which I could belong to I never once felt like I truly belonged to either. It was either because I didn’t act the way people in that group acted, talked the right way or even dress the right way; which all are primarily stereotypes we have on one another.  Depending on who I was around I would try to change myself in order to feel like I belonged more with them but really I never felt accepted. It wasn’t until I met other mixed raced individuals at the university when I felt like I really belonged to a racial group; multiracial. For these reasons, this movement is beneficial. It could potentially help mixed race people feel like they belong somewhere and with a certain group. There is also evidence to why this movement would not have such a negative affect on society if it were to continue.

As mentioned in the study conducted by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, if the US became a tri-racial system, due to the multiracial movement, there are some beneficial aspects from that for society. One of the beneficial aspects, that he hypothesizes, is that the racial conflicts that we currently have will be buffered by this intermediate group, the multiracial group; as seen with the middle class with the social economic classes of the US (Bonilla-Silva 933).  Another beneficial aspect of the movement is that “Americans, like people in complex racial stratification orders, will begin making nationalists’ appeals (‘We are all Americans’), decry their racial past, and claim they are ‘beyond race’” (933).  This is obviously beneficial because then there wouldn’t really be an issue of discrimination or racism in the country.  Everyone would look to one another as Americans and not as Asian Americans, African American, or even Caucasian. There would be no race to divide the county under Bonilla-Silva’s perspective. From this study, although some may believe a pigmentrocratic system is a bad thing, there are beneficial aspects of it.  Because of that, I do believe that this movement will be an overall good for the country despite some of its downfalls.

Race is never an easy issue to discuss, let alone the possibility of mixed race.  There will always be someone who believes there should not be any race because it is not biologically determined. There will always be someone who believes having a multiracial category is unnecessary because to be pure white or black is not possible. Race is undeniably a social construct that the world has and although we are in a post racist society we are not in a post race society. With that being said having a multiracial category is something that is needed in order to understand those around us; the purpose of having racial classification in the first place. We no longer can have a black and white racial system because the world is not black and white.  There are various shades in between and we need to change our racial system in order to reflect that. By keeping the multiracial movement going one day I hope to be able to do just that.

In reflection, this topic truly was at times a difficult one to take on. There are so many issues revolving around race that to bring in the question of a new racial category is difficult. Each person has their own opinions and in the course of writing this paper their opinions did have an influence on my own views on this topic that I held in the beginning. After looking at both sides of the argument I have come full circle and am now able, in the forth paper, to say why this movement is beneficial. It is beneficial because when you have a mixed ancestry like mine it is hard to feel like you truly belong to any racial group without proving your space there. By having this racial category I wouldn’t have to worry about proving myself because I belong solely based on my mixed ancestry and that’s it. I think writing about this topic really has opened my eyes as to the bigger issues that this country faces dealing with race and I hope to continue to discover why it is we have such issues. Will we ever be able to see past someone’s skin color or will this always be the way it is in America? I hope one day that we are so that my kids won’t have to grow up feeling unwelcomed by the racial groups around them.

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