Mixed Up

Multiracial Conundrum

| January-February 1996


Multiracialism is in. Just check its media cachet: Mixed-race couples are de rigueur in trendy ads from Guess and Calvin Klein, and that whiter-than-white Betty Crocker will soon be appearing in tan tones with ethnic features (minorities are more loyal to brands, General Mills discovered). And then there are the raw numbers: Interracial marriages now top a million a year. So why the outcry when the Census Bureau begins an experiment this year, offering “multiracial” as a choice on official forms?

Some wary African-American leaders see the multiracial move as the first step toward eliminating racial categories, which could dissolve government safeguards that promote equal opportunity. Losing those who’ll abandon the “black” box will mean shrinking numbers that are used to analyze discrimination in housing, jobs, and education, say opponents in Emerge. Afro-American studies professor William Strickland says those who change their label would be pretending that “this system doesn’t see all of us as niggers.”

Indeed, for those who judge by appearance, official multiethnic status means little. Yet many multiethnic Americans insist that stressing their mixed heritage can open eyes on all sides. In Colors, Kristin St. John, an adoptee of Native American, black, and white heritage who’s happy with her upbringing in a white family describes her explorations and activism in all three communities, despite some challenges about which “side” she was on. Association of MultiEthnic Americans president Ramona Douglass, a civil rights veteran who is black, American Indian, and Italian, says multiethnicity is a matter of civil rights as well: “Part of being a full American is saying who you are.”