Can a new race surmount old prejudices?
Americans are accustomed to infinite shades of ebony, but the South African journalist Mzimkulu Malunga found the notion hilarious. So he named one celebrity after another--Tina Turner, Vanessa Williams, Mariah Carey--tickled at the thought that anyone might consider them all black. The impromptu racial-identity game soon had the small group in Soweto in stitches. It seemed an appropriately absurd end to an evening spent, for the most part, in more serious conversation in a country whose governing principle once had been: "Tell me your race, and I'll tell you your place." As his guests finished a dinner of beer, beans, beef, and a grits-like delicacy called pap, Malunga, business editor of The Sowetan, finally shrugged as if to say: Race is a strange and flexible concept, with an endless capacity to confound.
That evening took me back to an encounter, some years earlier, on a bus several miles outside Caracas, Venezuela. Upon learning I was from the United States, the dark-skinned woman beside me had peppered me with questions. Did I find Venezuelans to be prejudiced? Was there racism in the United States? Were Canadians less biased than their neighbors to the south? Finally, she focused on her son, seated directly in front of us. He was the color of caramel and about seven years old. His father, she told me, was "white," and the son, despite his dusky appearance and faintly African features, had decided that he was white, too. At first, the idea struck me as ridiculous, but, by and by, I found myself thinking, "Why the hell not?" By any logical calculus, he was probably more "white" than "black" (not that, in most of Latin America, he would be considered either). And from the perspective of a child who was old enough to know that whiteness means status but too young to realize how whiteness is defined, wanting to be white was just as natural as wanting to be a quarterback instead of a cheerleader. I wondered, however, if the boy had been American, whether he would have thought he had the option to choose his color. For most of us, race is simply accepted as a given and on faith, no more subject to questioning than the reality of our existence.
Even before the civil rights movement erupted and Jim Crow died, racial definitions in the United States were somewhat different from those in South Africa (and Latin America), and specific policies varied as well. But these countries shared the conceit that the concept of race was reasonably precise and that it told us something important. In fact, those assumptions never really made sense.
Earlier in this century, for instance, Italians, Jews, and Rumanians were widely considered to be of different (and inferior) racial stock compared to the English, Germans, and Swedes. Just a few decades later, those groups were fully accepted into the community of whites. In an essay entitled, "How Did Jews Become White Folks?" Karen Brodkin Sacks asked, "Did Jews and other Euroethnics become white because they became middle class? That is, did money whiten? Or did being incorporated in an expanded version of whiteness open up the economic doors to middle-class status?" The answer, she concluded, is both. The question, nonetheless, illustrates the absurdity of the premise that racial classifications are fixed.
That supposition, at long last, is under serious challenge--from intellectuals who doubt that the concept of race has much meaning; from immigrants who have a different and more elastic view of racial classifications; and, perhaps most interestingly, from those who refuse to consider themselves members of any currently accepted racial category but refer to themselves as multiracial and demand the recognition of a new melded race.
Success in that endeavor, some advocates believe, would be a huge step in the direction of a color-blind society, for by embracing those who are multiracial, the United States would be recognizing, if only implicitly, that the ugly racial lines etched in the nation's soul will, sooner or later, disappear. Alternatively, goes the argument, the nation's failure to recognize formally the existence of multiracial Americans would be a tragedy, not only for mixed-race people but for American society, and would perhaps be a fatal blow to the dream of racial harmony and egalitarianism.
In 1992, in Bethesda, Maryland, several hundred multiracialists came together for the "first national gathering of the multiracial community," as described by Bijan Gilanshah, in the December 1993 issue of the journal Law and Inequality. The "Loving Conference" was named in honor of the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Loving v. Virginia, which outlawed antimiscegenation statutes in 1967. But the meeting was not simply a celebration of the right to reproduce across racial lines; it would mark--or so its organizers hoped--the public launching of a new and potent political movement.
At stake, in Gilanshah's eyes, was nothing less than the prevention of "cultural genocide." Instead of leaving mixed-race people in a vulnerable and nebulous state of official nowhereness, the government, he thought, was obliged to give them full recognition "as a distinct, powerful social unit with idiosyncratic cultural, social and legal interests." Much the same point was made by Charles Byrd, who organized a rally at the Washington Mall in July 1996 to allow mixed-raced Americans, like himself, an opportunity to collectively and "proudly affirm a self-determined identity" while attempting to persuade the federal government to sanction the multiracial category.
Multiracial people with a heritage that is, to some degree, black have a special interest in how mixed-race people are to be defined. "In physical as well as cultural terms every Negro is a little bit colored and a little bit white," observed Martin Luther King, Jr. in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Yet it is only the "colored" part that has generally been acknowledged. Unlike Americans of other races, blacks have largely been defined by the so-called one-drop rule: the presumption that even a small percentage of black ancestry effectively cancels out any other racial stock. It is a rule that some biracial people believe compels them either to deny a big part of who they are or to explain constantly to a rigid, "monoracial" world why they reject a patently illogical designation. Why, they ask, should they renounce the ancestry of a nonblack parent or grandparent? What's the point, they ask, in forcing people into narrow boxes that cannot possibly accommodate America's growing racial diversity?--particularly when the black box is fundamentally different from the others, carries the full baggage of slavery, and defies all common sense. As Lawrence Hirschfeld, author of Race in the Making, observed: "The absurdity of the biological reading of the one-drop rule is obvious. . . . How reasonable is it to say that a white woman can give birth to a Black baby, but a Black woman can't give birth to a white baby?"
Lise Funderburg, author of Black, White, Other, which profiles several children of black-white interracial unions, extracted the following comment from one of the persons she interviewed: "A lot of Blacks get upset if they ask you exactly what you are and you come back and say, 'Biracial.' One response is, 'What? Are you too good to identify with Blacks?' I say, 'It's not that I'm too good at all, but I'm composed of two different races and I choose to value each of those.' It's not as though I'm going to write off my mother's race for the convenience of pleasing somebody else's view of what I should or should not be doing." The one-drop rule, however, demands that biracial children do just that. As novelist Gish Jen noted in an essay in the New York Times Magazine, "a mulatto is not a kind of white person, but a kind of black person." Yet there is nothing in biology--indeed, nothing in science at all--that says "black" should trump "white" when it comes to assigning racial categories.
The argument against such an illogical racial-classification scheme ultimately takes you down one of two roads: rejection of the idea of race altogether or acceptance of the possibility of an endless proliferation of new races. In recent years, the debate has focused on the census for the year 2000--specifically on an edict known as "Statistical Policy Directive Number 15." That directive, conjured up by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the late 1970s, sets out the minimum categories that governmental agencies can use when collecting racial and ethnic data. It provides for four racial clusters (white, black, Asian and Pacific Islander, and American Indian and Alaska Native) and one distinct ethnic group (Hispanic). If someone doesn't quite fit, they are squeezed into the pigeonhole that "most closely reflects the individual's recognition in his community." If that doesn't work, they can always be lumped into "other."