Maria P. P. Root, ed., The Multicultural Experience. Racial Borders As The New Frontier. (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1996) (Paper, xxviii, 481 pp.) Hardcover: $58.00 Softcover: $26.95
At this very moment as I sit down to write this review on Saturday, July 20, a group of multiracial Americans are rallying in Washington, DC to demand a multiracial category on the 2000 census. Chanting “I’ll choose my category,” among other slogans, they represent the latest manifestation of identity politics in the United States. Furthermore, this rally was preceded on July 6 by a front page article in The New York Times (the so-called national paper of record) publicizing the multiracial cause with considerable sympathy. The article in turn stimulated a number of letters to the editor — pro and con.
In short, there is no more timely subject than the question posed by this volume of essays edited by Maria Root: why should multiracial individuals in the U.S. continue to be ignored in name and in practice, and why should they alone among Americans be denied the right of self-identification? To be deprived of personal power in this most fundamental way is particularly galling in an age when the most objectionable aspects of American race relations — such as the law of hypodescent, commonly known as the one-drop rule, which states that one drop of African-American blood makes a person African-American — can no longer be forced on any unwilling recipient. Advocates of the right to choose one’s identity for multiracial Americans — such as Root and Ramona Douglass, president of the Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans — claim that only by breaking down the continuing use of monoracial categories, which perpetuates the myth of racial purity, can the negative construction of race be dismantled and American race relations improved.
There is also the simple matter of changing demographics. The rapidly rising phenomenon of mixed marriages across all ethnic-racial groups is producing children who, thankfully, will not likely have to share the more painful race experiences of their parents’ generation. Not surprisingly, college campuses are the primary sites where mixed-race organizations have appeared, bearing a variety of creative names. On my campus, for example, the University of Colorado at Boulder, multiracial students have named their organization Masala, after the enticing Indian melange of spices.
But if the issue of multiracial self identification is such a clear-cut human rights issue, as proponents argue, why then do venerable civil rights organizations such as the NAACP oppose the drive for a multiracial census category? The answer lies in a very difficult, currently unresolvable, dilemma confronting this issue. On the one hand, the need for mixed-race people to claim their personal dignity is beyond dispute. On the other hand, at this point in time in the country’s protracted struggle for racial equality — America’s unfinished business — officially instituting an intermediate, mixed-race category can seriously undermine efforts to undo the legacies of America’s racist past. For as Justice Powell and supporters of affirmative action have argued since at least the landmark Bakke case of 1978, in order to dismantle America’s racist past, race must be taken into consideration. In other words, America is not yet ready to abandon race-conscious remedies.
Ironically, just as American apartheid — or forced, legal segregation — depended on fixed racial categories (especially, clear differentiation between white and non-white), then so too must the remedies rely on these same categories to correct the accumulated, inherited consequences of historically privileged white Americans (particularly white, middle class, male Americans). To know what to remedy, we must acknowledge how class and gender reinforce the white racial hierarchy over Black and other nonwhite Americans. Race is not about one’s actual cultural-ethnic heritage as much as one’s location in the race-based social order as historically constructed. In other words, race is about power.
In this context, multiracial individuals in America who are part white and part something else, have a tough choice to make: whether to be counted monoracially in one of the nonwhite categories, in effect prolonging the practice of hypodescent, but this time in order to subvert the racial order; or to opt for what is probably, for most, the personally more satisfactory multiracial option.
Root and her collaborators would argue that the multicultural option also has the potential to subvert the existing racial order by redefining the “borders and the center reference points.” However, Prof. Tanya Hernandez of St. John’s University’s law school cautions us that just the opposite can also happen: the mixed-race category can become a favored intermediary between white and Black or some other despised racial minority — similar to the “mulatto” in Latin American countries with large African-descended populations — that allays the fears of a white power elite when it perceives loss of demographic strength and political power, while simultaneously robbing historical victims of racial oppression the means and momentum to mobilize against racism.
The truth of the matter is, a multiracial category will not only deprive whites of additional members and strength, but equally so from the other racial categories. Ironically, some Afro-Brazilian groups are lobbying to remove the mulatto category from their census just when a growing number of multiracial Americans are pressing the U.S. government to include such a census category.
Root and her collaborators (more than twenty authors, all of whom are multiracial or parents of multiracial persons) provide 24 essays filled with plenty of food for thought, argument and debate that advance the dialogue about race in America. While most of the authors are — like Root herself — academics or graduate students, some are attorneys, community and social activists. Brian Standen of Colorado, recently completed his B.A. degree, for which he wrote a senior thesis on biracial Korean Americans, revised for this volume.
While revealing in frank and moving ways some of their lived experiences as multiracial people whose racial identity is not always obvious to the beholder, all these authors are motivated by a vested interest in seeing their multiracial dilemma resolved. Not surprisingly, their essays share a common goal of advancing the multiracial cause.
Some of the essays, such as Lillian Comas-Diaz’ discussion of mental health issues of African Latinas — for whom she coins the term “LatiNegra” — really drive home the poignant themes of exclusion, marginality and disconnectedness. Collectively they offer a prodigious amount of valuable information — statistical, ethnographic, historical, sociological and psychological. They point out the obvious and not so obvious (What is the “natural” racial identity of a Black Jew?) and they are full of unexpected insights.
Many of the essays conclude with suggestions for future research or action plans aimed at specific issues or problems. Several of the essays focus on the intersection of race with gender and sexuality. In short, not much is left out of this volume, except for critiques of the multicultural movement and its political implications. But that will have to await another volume put together by another editor with an entirely different set of contributors — which will likely include a good number of mixed-race individuals not unlike those gathered in this volume, but who eschew the multiracial identity in favor of a “colored” monoracial one.
In the meantime, read this wonderful collection of essays, for it will surely illuminate, delight and infuriate you.
Dr. Evelyn Hu-DeHart Professor and Chair, Dept. of Ethnic Studies, University of Colorado at Boulder
Dr. Hu-DeHart is raising three biracial children. The older two, both girls, currently identify themselves as “Amerasian,” while the youngest, a boy of 11, has not voiced any preference.
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