By Holly Edgell | May 9th, 2009
I contributed an article to the “Diversity” section of this month’s Quill. Of course the editors cut and trimmed it; still, there was some useful information I wanted to share. So, here is the entire article, with resources for more information at the end.
by Holly Edgell
Region 7 Director
NOW IS AMERICA’S BIRACIAL MOMENT
These days one sure sign that an issue has entered the zeitgeist is the production of a reality television show on said issue. Recently I received a Facebook message with this in the subject line:
“Production Company Seeking Multi-Racial, Blended Family For
Reality/Documentary Television Show”
With demographic data showing increasing number of Americans identifying as more than one race, it’s no surprise the entertainment world is taking notice. Perhaps even more influential in what I have heard called America’s “biracial moment,” is the fact that the President of the United States is biracial, not to mention bicultural.
Since the beginning the United States has been a nation of racial and ethnic blending. The difference now seems to be that people of color who are “mixed” are choosing to step out of the boxes that used to define them, such as the old “one-drop rule.”
One organization that has its finger on the pulse of this issue is MAVIN Foundation, based in Seattle. The “Our vision” blurb on the MAVIN web site reads:
“We strive to be the most comprehensive resource to expand awareness and bring mixed heritage issues to the forefront of the mainstream dialogue.”
The 2000 Census marked the first time that Americans could check multiple race boxes to describe their heritage. Seven million people did so. From a journalist’s perspective, that’s at least seven million stories waiting to be told. While we might not get around to all of them, we can and should make a start.
I recently conducted an e-interview with MAVIN board members Louie Gong (president), Kelly Jackson, and Monica Nixon to get their perspectives of biracial societal and cultural issues and how journalists can approach coverage.
HE: Can you comment on the tendency of Americans to prefer racial/ethnic categories that do not embrace mixture and intermarriage? Especially as our society is becoming more and more blended? Do you see changes now, or coming in the future?
MAVIN: We don’t necessarily view this as an “American tendency.” Rather it seems that with more and more mixed race people voicing a desire to claim an identity that acknowledges multiple heritages, we are helping to shift the paradigm of the one-drop rule. That said, it’s important to MAVIN that individuals who wish to claim a single racial identity have the space to do so. There are lots of reasons – personal, community, systemic – that impact how and why people identify the ways that they do.
HE: President Obama has advised people of mixed race to resist segregating themselves from the other racial and ethnic groups to which they belong. What are some of the challenges people face in finding acceptance from the groups that represent their roots? What are the benefits of success?
MAVIN: Research has shown that mixed race people actually do not self-segregate and often desire and attempt membership in numerous ethnic minority communities. Sadly they are often rejected and denied membership within these communities.
• The false perception that mixed heritage organizations like MAVIN promotes a “multiracial” or post-race identity. Communities of color can sometimes feel as though this outlook on racial identity undermines ongoing efforts toward cultural renewal and racial solidarity.
• Internalization of the idea of race as biological. This underlies the perception that mixed heritage people represent a dilution of bloodline and therefore a move away from authenticity.
Benefits of success:
• A common understanding and appreciation of culture and human potential
• The idea that many Americans share a common experience of ethnic and cultural mixing
HE: Some observers have remarked that the president’s biracial/bicultural background prepared him to lead this country in a way that another person of color from an “unblended” background could not do at this particular moment in history. Is this a valid observation? Why or why not?
MAVIN: In his interview on 60 Minutes, Obama described his multiracial background as the single most important factor in shaping him for his role and tasks as president. Ethnic minorities often provide examples of successful navigation in both mainstream society and their respective cultural communities. This skill acquisition can be highly valuable when attempting to communicate and collaborate effectively with different groups.
To offer another perspective, without undermining how ecstatic we are about President Obama’s leadership – and the ways that his heritage and experiences have certainly impacted the kind of leader he is – this kind of statement could run the risk of heading down a slippery slope that says mixed race people are the “answer” to solving racism in the U.S. Barack Obama is a superb organizer, relationship-builder, and consensus-seeker. It seems reductionist to say that he possesses or developed those qualities because he is biracial.
HE: How can journalists get beyond the sort of stock “biracial” stories (e.g. interracial dating, basic demographic stories about the number of people who identify with more than one race) and provide timely, sensitive coverage of issues facing people who don’t fit into a particular racial category? What stories are severely under covered?
• Intersectionality of identity and oppression – For example, how do the experiences of a working class mixed race person differ from those of someone who is wealthy? How do mixed race and *** identities intersect?
• Mixed Native experiences – Forty percent of the American Indian population identified as more than one race on Census 2000, a rate 12 times greater than the general population. As well, people who are mixed Native and another race comprise the largest part of the mixed race population. Despite these striking trends, mixed Native issues receive virtually no attention from media and, unfortunately, from mixed heritage organizations. MAVIN is working to change that by building bridges with Native communities and bringing mixed Native issues to the forefront of racial dialogues.
• Health issues impacting mixed race individuals and families
• The experiences of transracial and transnational adoptees are sometimes considered equivalent to mixed race experiences. Although there are similarities in terms of understanding identity, it’s also important to convey what makes these experiences distinct.
• The experience of multiracial persons and families whose background is comprised of two or more ethnic minority groups (i.e., Native and Mexican; Black and Mexican, etc.).
• Mixed couples raising multiracial babies
HE: What are some phrases, assumptions, and stereotypes of biracial people that journalists (and indeed all Americans) should be aware of and sensitive to?
MAVIN: It should not be assumed that all mixed race people want to identify collectively as multiracial. Some institutions that collect demographic data have moved toward adding a multiracial category but still requiring that users choose one descriptor (e.g., I’m either Asian or Black or multiracial, but I can’t choose to be Asian and Black or Asian and Black and multiracial).
• “Multiracial” isn’t a label that describes a new racial group. It’s an adjective that describes the diversity within traditional racial groups. As such, it’s possible to be Black and multiracial at the same time.
• The term “biracial” excludes the growing number for whom choosing one or more means choosing at least three races/ethnicities. Multiracial and mixed heritage are more inclusive terms.
• Mixed heritage people and families aren’t new to America. Historical context is often missing from stories about the mixed heritage population.
• Do not pathologize multiracial individuals (i.e., “Tragic Mulatto” or “Marginal Man”). Research has shown that multiracial people are comfortable with their identity and do not suffer psychosocial difficulties related to their mixed-race identity. Often it is their context (i.e., discrimination, prejudice) that contributes to the challenges some multiracial people and families experience.
RESOURCES & READING
US Census Bureau
Census 2010 will provide a wealth of data for journalists to mine. Especially interesting could be the projected increase in the number of Americans identifying as more than one race.
Swirl, Inc., New York (Chapters nationwide)
Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience
Chadra Prasad, Editor (W.W. Norton)
Black, White, Other
by Lise Funderburg (Harper Perennial)