On identity beyond ethnicity, cont’d: “Race will not automatically tell you my story”

I’m always interested in other perspectives on race in America, and why it matters (or shouldn’t matter) — because I’m a minority, because I’m in a (very happy) mixed marriage, and because our daughter may confront her own set of challenges growing up biracial in American society. So I found it fascinating to read Susan Saulny’s piece in the NY Times about the attitudes and experiences of a new generation of mixed-race Americans:

The crop of students moving through college right now includes the largest group of mixed-race people ever to come of age in the United States, and they are only the vanguard: the country is in the midst of a demographic shift driven by immigration and intermarriage.

One in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities, according to data from 2008 and 2009 that was analyzed by the Pew Research Center. Multiracial and multiethnic Americans (usually grouped together as “mixed race”) are one of the country’s fastest-growing demographic groups. And experts expect the racial results of the 2010 census, which will start to be released next month, to show the trend continuing or accelerating.

Many young adults of mixed backgrounds are rejecting the color lines that have defined Americans for generations in favor of a much more fluid sense of identity. Ask Michelle López-Mullins, a 20-year-old junior and the president of the Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, how she marks her race on forms like the census, and she says, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.”

The whole article — along with its photo slideshow and other multimedia features — is worth a read; I’m particularly heartened that the national conversation on race seems to be moving beyond the simplistic dichotomy of black and white, and acknowledging the many racial and ethnic heritages that actually go into America’s cultural makeup. Of course, nothing is ever simple, and the blending of colors in America may not necessarily be all sunshine and roses:

No one knows quite how the growth of the multiracial population will change the country. Optimists say the blending of the races is a step toward transcending race, to a place where America is free of bigotry, prejudice and programs like affirmative action.

Pessimists say that a more powerful multiracial movement will lead to more stratification and come at the expense of the number and influence of other minority groups, particularly African-Americans.

And some sociologists say that grouping all multiracial people together glosses over differences in circumstances between someone who is, say, black and Latino, and someone who is Asian and white. […]

Prof. Rainier Spencer, director of the Afro-American Studies Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the author of “Reproducing Race: The Paradox of Generation Mix,” says he believes that there is too much “emotional investment” in the notion of multiracialism as a panacea for the nation’s age-old divisions. “The mixed-race identity is not a transcendence of race, it’s a new tribe,” he said. “A new Balkanization of race.”

Spencer has a point, and it’s one I tried to make in discussing my own issues with identity and ethnicity. Identifying with one’s multiple racial and ethnic heritages is still identifying with race — a notion that I think runs the risk of being limiting rather than liberating.

Some mixed-race college students apparently feel the same way:

Ian Winchester, a junior who is part Ghanaian, part Scottish-Norwegian, said he felt lucky and torn being biracial. His Scottish grandfather was keen on dressing him in kilts as a boy. The other side of the family would put him in a dashiki. “I do feel empowered being biracial,” he said. “The ability to question your identity — identity in general — is really a gift.”

But, he continued, “I don’t even like to identify myself as a race anymore. My family has been pulling me in two directions about what I am. I just want to be a person.”

And Michelle López-Mullins seems to concur that identity shouldn’t be bounded by race — even by mixed race:

[I]t was not long before Ms. López-Mullins came to detest what was the most common question put to her in grade school, even from friends. “What are you?” they asked, and “Where are you from?” They were fascinated by her father, a Latino with Asian roots, and her mother with the long blond hair, who was mostly European in ancestry, although mixed with some Cherokee and Shawnee.

“I was always having to explain where my parents are from because just saying ‘I’m from Takoma Park, Maryland,’ was not enough,” she said. “Saying ‘I’m an American’ wasn’t enough.”

“Now when people ask what I am, I say, ‘How much time do you have?’ ” she said. “Race will not automatically tell you my story.”

This strongly resonates with me; as a minority (though not mixed-race), I’m often frustrated by the fact that saying “I’m an American” isn’t enough. It isn’t that I resent others’ genuine, benign curiosity about my background; it’s that behind such questions I often sense the desire to pigeonhole me as this or that, and the assumption that once my racial makeup is known they’ll have gone a long way towards figuring me out. They couldn’t be more wrong: Race will not automatically tell you my story.

And it’s very interesting to hear López-Mullins, as president of her university’s Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, admit this. It suggests, perhaps, that she sees the organization not as a way to carve out yet another race-based identity in a sea of such identities, but rather as a way to move the conversation about Who We Are beyond such limited perspectives. Her statement at the article’s conclusion is telling:

Whether Mr. Obama is considered black or multiracial, there is a wider debate among mixed-race people about what the long-term goals of their advocacy should be, both on campus and off.

“I don’t want a color-blind society at all,” Ms. [Laura] Wood said. “I just want both my races to be acknowledged.”

Ms. López-Mullins countered, “I want mine not to matter.”

I’m with López-Mullins on this.

Race will not automatically tell you my story.

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