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Home > Publications > Quill > Now is America’s ‘biracial moment’


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Friday, May 1, 2009
Now is America’s ‘biracial moment’

Holy Edgell

With demographic data showing an increasing number of Americans identifying as more than one race, and a biracial U.S. president, America may indeed be embracing its “biracial moment.”

Today, more 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.”

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 7 million stories waiting to be told.

One organization that is deeply involved with this issue is the Mavin Foundation in Seattle. It “strives to be the most comprehensive resource to expand awareness and bring mixed heritage issues to the forefront of the mainstream dialogue.”

I interviewed Mavin board of directors President Louie Gong and members Kelly Jackson and Monica Nixon to get their perspectives of biracial societal and cultural issues and how journalists can approach coverage.

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?

Research has shown that mixed-race people actually do not self-segregate and often desire and attempt membership in numerous ethnic minority communities.

Challenges:

• The false perception that mixed-heritage organizations like Mavin promote a “multiracial” or post-race identity.

• Internalization of the idea of race as biological.

Benefits of success:

• A common understanding and appreciation of culture and human potential.

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?

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.

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 [gay] 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.

• Health issues impacting mixed race individuals and families.

• The experiences of transracial and transnational adoptees are sometimes considered equivalent to mixed-race experiences.

• The experience of multiracial persons and families whose background is composed of two or more ethnic minority groups (i.e., Native and Mexican; black and Mexican, etc.).

• Mixed couples raising multiracial babies

What are some phrases, assumptions and stereotypes of biracial people that journalists (and indeed all Americans) should be aware of and sensitive to?

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).

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.

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