The United States has long prided itself on being a “melting pot” with a mix of ethnicities and nationalities. Today, Americans choose to date and have children with people outside of their racial groups more than ever before, creating a true “melting pot”in a new sense of the term. Pew Social Trends estimates that the share of multiracial babies has risen from 1% in 1970 to 10% in 2013. In the new mixed race America, questions of identity naturally arise, and our answers to these questions provide an insightful look into current racial perspectives in the United States.
The topic of my blog makes it obvious that I have a particular interest in US race relations, particularly in regard to the law and the criminal justice system. As the child of a white father and a black mother, I think that I have always been acutely aware of the role that race plays in all of our lives; the tensions and differences that are present in our society exist for me internally, as well. Most biracial people reflect that they feel some conflict with their identity and how they are viewed in the United States, whether it stems from the inevitable childhood questions from peers about whether you feel “more black or more white” or whether it is simply the feeling of not fully identifying with any one group. In the US, people tend to be recognized as just one race, and racial roles can inform the way people dress, speak, and behave. These norms make it difficult to embrace being biracial. I imagine that every mixed child knows the struggles that are unique to these experiences.
That’s why, when I heard about a new children’s book called Mixed Me, written by actor Taye Diggs, I was especially intrigued. Taye Diggs has a biracial child with his former wife, Idina Menzel, and he wrote Mixed Me in order to help children understand, accept, and appreciate themselves for who they are. His book speaks to some common experiences of being biracial, including having the ubiquitous curly hair, and taking pride in who you are. Diggs has also spoken publicly about encouraging his son to identify as biracial.
Surprisingly, Diggs’ ideas about his son’s race have received a lot of backlash on social media apps like Instagram. Diggs had to defend himself against critics who accused him of being self-hating by encouraging his son to identify as mixed. Some accused him of attempting to deny his son’s blackness in a sense. This dialogue got me thinking about what it really means to be biracial in today’s world, and why Americans, including some in the African-American community, are still strangely uncomfortable with the notion of being mixed.
With statistics projecting that people will continue to intermix at increasing rates, I think it’s time to revisit the traditional American ways of thinking about race. Taye Diggs is prompting a dialogue that has its contentious roots in our nation’s past.
The United States in fact has a long, complicated history with recognizing multiracial people. As a nation, we have a tradition of being conceptually divisive about being black and white–you are either one, or the other, but not both. The infamous “one-drop” rule, originating in the South during the time of slavery, meant that just a drop of “black blood” effectively made a person “black”. More than anything else, this rule treated whiteness as an ideal of purity that would be tainted and diminished by even the slightest degree of black relation.
In Louisiana, perhaps the most racially mixed place in the country during the 1800s and 1900s, there was an elaborate set of terms to identify the degrees of “blackness” in individuals. A “quadroon” was a person who was one quarter black, while an “octoroon” was a person who was one-eighth black. The common theme here is that none of these people could ever be considered white. And today, very little has changed in the starkly rigid, separated way that we think about race. The US Census didn’t allow people to choose more than one race until the year 2000. Even as systems change, people’s attitudes necessarily haven’t.
Much of our concept of identity seems to be based on appearance, and in that sense it is logical that mixed people are often seen as their appearance suggests. But I wonder why, should some choose to identify as biracial or even as white, they should be denied that option. Why are we still relying on the “one-drop” standards, which were instituted primarily as a method of oppression and maintaining racial separatism? No one is expecting anyone to be able to magically identify others’ backgrounds, but if someone chooses to embrace and identify with two races, I think that should be respected.
I say all of this with the understanding that biracial people might willingly identify solely with their minority half, which is their absolute right. Research shows that multiracial people with a black background have attitudes and experiences that are more closely aligned with the black community. According to Pew, the opposite is true for those mixed with Asian and white, who identify more closely with their white background. I suspect that self-identification is affected partially by how we have been conditioned to view ourselves, and how legacies from hundreds of years in the making have informed our perspectives.
As a society, we might have a lot to learn from embracing multiracial-ness. After all, things don’t have to be so black and white. I support a system that embraces diversity, both between ethnic groups and within them. Taye Diggs’ has the right idea in not automatically asking his son to choose just one racial identity for himself. His new book Mixed Me is a wonderful reminder for multiracial children that they should feel comfortable in their own skin.
If you’re at all interested in the changing racial demographics of the United States (like I am!), check out this fascinating National Geographic Article, “Visualizing Race, Identity, and Change”.