A highly anticipated event for mixed-race people takes place this year. Although it may seem officious and routine for most, the upcoming U.S. Census is actually an exciting undertaking for those considering themselves multiethnic. That’s because for only the second time in history, there will be an opportunity to select more than one race on Census forms. Those who don’t claim a multiracial identity may not get why that’s so important. But for anyone who’s ever been forced to pick only one parent’s ethnic heritage as her own, it’s a major feat.
Ralina L. Joseph’s interest in multiethnic identity began with her undergraduate studies at Brown University. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Departments of American Ethnic Studies and Women Studies at the University of Washington. Discovering that her own personal mixed race experience was what others were discussing as a collective experience, she began exploring the subject.
“I think that the first generation of scholarship, of literary and cultural production of activism on mixed race and trying to articulate a mixed race identity, is very much about a coming out moment; the naming and claiming of being mixed,” says Joseph.
But by the time she was ready to graduate, Joseph was “suspicious” of the way multiracial activism was pushing multiracial categories in the Census, and longed to produce work that looked at the multiracial experience in regard to other groups of color.
Some of the harshest criticism of the 2000 Census came from African American groups concerned that the amount of money mandated to their community by the federal government would fall significantly as multiracial people declared dual heritages and diverted potential funding from them.
“The (multiracial) category was added because of the pressure from multiracial advocacy groups,” explains Joseph, “but when the change was made it wasn’t clear as to how the data would be analyzed. It wasn’t clear how the ‘check one box’ was going to be aggregated or disaggregated or how we could count people in multiple ways in which multiracial African Americans could count all parts of their multiracial identity.”
Besides creating division over the Census, claiming a multiracial heritage is sometimes seen as a defection from the ethnic groups that a mixed race person belongs to. When Tiger Woods declared that he was not black, but Cablinasian, many in the African American community felt abandoned and snubbed.
Further, what constitutes a mixed race heritage is debatable. Recently, a group called Multi Generation Multiracials (MGM’s) challenged First Generation Multiracials (FGM’s). Although both groups have mixed ancestry, FGM’s have one white and one black parent while MGM’s may have two parents, or even grandparents, that are mixed. MGM’s, who aren’t able to ‘officially’ claim a biracial heritage, argue that they are often more mixed looking than FGM’s who, because of their parents’ visibility, can automatically declare a dual ethnicity.
“I am for building community,” argues Joseph, “and to say that you don’t have an authentic multiracial identity is ridiculous for a group of people who are complaining about not being accepted. Anytime that anyone is throwing up markers of authenticity and trying to let certain people in and keep certain people out, it makes me nervous.”
Joseph adds that she’s now more interested in what she calls “racialized power and power dynamics”.
“Now that we’ve identified what it means to be multiracial and we have a space to articulate that, what happens now?” she asks. “What’s the stake in claiming that identity? What does that look like politically, collectively, and personally?”
Of course, everyone knows that President Obama had a white American mother and black Kenyan father. But what’s notable is that he’s rarely referred to as being other than “black”. Is that for political reasons, personal reasons, or because America still operates by the One Drop Rule system whereby anyone with a single drop of black blood is considered black? It wasn’t until 1967, and the Loving v. The State of Virginia Supreme Court case, that anti-miscegenation laws were repealed. Up until then, two years after the Civil Rights bill was enacted, it was still illegal in 16 states for whites to marry anyone of another race.
According to Joseph, births of monoracial babies have increased 15 percent in the past 25 years while multiracial births have increased 260 percent. Clearly, multiethnic topics deserve more discussion. To learn more, attend Joseph’s series, “Mixed Race in the United States”, sponsored by Seattle Arts and Lectures, and University of Washington Simpson Center for Humanities. Courses are on 1/20, 2/3, 2/17, and 3/3 at 7:30 p.m., Room 220 at Kane Hall.
Ralina L. Joseph recently completed a book manuscript, “Beyond the Binaries?: Reading Mixed-Race Blackness in the New Millennium”, and is working on “Speaking Back: How Black Women Resist Post-Identity Culture”. Joseph is a 2009 recipient of a Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellowship and a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship.