What’s in a name? African American or multiracial? – defining one’s self

The most important thing any oppressed people can do for themselves
is to define who they are. Identity begins with naming yourself, in
finding your own voice. This is the reason that names have always been
significant to African Americans.

In slavery, the white oppressors sought to destroy our culture, to
deny us our memories and traditions as an African people. In Jim Crow
segregation, white racists hurled epithets at us to destroy and to
belittle us. In successive generations, Black people have asserted
themselves and our unique identities by what we have called ourselves.
And through that evolution of names — from Colored, Negro, Black and
African American — we have endeavored to speak to our own history and
culture.

Today, there are some people in the federal government who favor
the creation of a new name to redefine many Americans of African
descent, as well as other racialized minorities: multiracial.

At the present time, the federal government uses only four
classifications to define race in the United States: Black, white,
Asian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian. There are also two
ethnic categories, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, who may be either Black
or white. There are many problems with this system of classification.
People who have very different histories, incomes, educational and
social opportunities are lumped together in an undifferentiated
category. Does it make sense to classify Japanese Americans, whose
median household income is higher than that of Euro-Americans, as being
in the same category as native Hawaiians, Filipinos or Cambodians,
whose average income is well below that of African Americans? Do
well-to-do whites from Argentina, Uruguay and Chile have anything in
common with Black Dominicans and Puerto Ricans besides speaking Spanish?

As bad as the present system of race/ethnic classification is, some
government bureaucrats want to go from bad to worse. In 1996, the
Census Bureau conducted a four-month survey of 18,000 households which
asked respondents to identify themselves by race and ethnic background.
In the list of choices was the category, “multiracial.” The study found
that only one percent of all people questioned identify themselves as
multiracial. However, there is a significant decrease in the number of
people who identify themselves as either Asian or African American.
Asian and Pacific Islanders, for example, represented 4 percent of all
respondents. When given the option of classifying themselves as
multiracial, the group that identified itself as Asian or Pacific
Islander declined to only 2.7 percent of all respondents. A smaller but
significant percentage of Blacks and Hispanics also identified
themselves as multiracial.

Why do people of color want to switch their racial categorization?
Dr. Robert H. Hill, director of the Institute for Urban Research at
Morgan State University and chairman of the Census Bureau’s Advisory
Committee on the African-American Population, explained to The New York
Times: “People who have been pushing this want somehow to de-emphasize
the racial component, the Black component. They say they are
multiracial, which means I’m less Black or somehow I can have a way of
not having to check myself as Black.”

The larger political Implications of the multicultural designation
are profound. How do you determine compliance with affirmative action
and equal opportunity programs with goals and timetables, when the size
of specific racial groups is uncertain? How do you design legislative
districts to reflect multiracial interests and representation? Should
multiracial people benefit from minority scholarship programs? Will the
multiracials ultimately forte their own Congressional caucus and
advocate their own policy agenda distinct from that of Blacks, Latinos
and other racialized minorities?

What’s in name? Technically, approximately 80 percent of all Black
Americans have some mixed ethnic and/or interracial heritage. Perhaps
one-half of us have some Native American ancestry. Maybe all African
Americans need to check the multiracial box next time they are asked to
identify themselves. If we cannot eliminate this dangerous category, at
least we can make it absurd and meaningless by all claiming it.
Somehow, the Census Bureau needs to be taught that Blackness is not a
biological or genetic category. Black culture is a culture, a heritage,
a tradition of struggle — not a racial designation.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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