Thursday, November 19, 2009

Re: Race and Mixed Identity

A week ago, I witnessed something unusual and wonderful: a symposium on race hosted by Lewis and Clark College, with an emphasis on the discussion of "hybrid identities."

So one night I saw a mixed race gay professor from San Francisco State give a talk about Obama and the cultural ramfications of having elected a mixed race president. Besides making the obvious (but significant) point that Obama is nearly as much Irish American as he is African American, Jolivette discussed the importance of people reaching across their own individual identity groups (not being content to identify as just black, or just gay). He also urged whites to recover, and reinvigorate, their own often discarded ethnic heritages.

I also saw Kim Williams, a professor of public policy at Harvard, discuss her 2006 book, "Mark One or More," which chronicled the fight to allow people to check more than one box on the US census. (They won; in 2000, American citizens were allowed to mark one or more for the first time.) She talked about some of the political problems facing the "mixed race movement." For example, groups who traditionally advocate for one minority in particular (e.g. the NAACP) can feel threatened, fearing that a move towards multiracial identity will undermine their own political/cultural relevance. What was really fascinating about Williams' talk, though, was understanding how little of race is empirical--rooted in genealogy--and how much of it (all of it, really) is how you choose to identify yourself. She related how, on the 2000 census, for example, 97.6% of Americans marked only one race, 2.3% marked two, and .1% marked three to six. The reality is obviously much different than that. Nearly everybody in America is a profound mixture of ethnicity, culture, history, and heritage. Very few of us are just one thing, and most aren't just two.

Finally, I saw group of Lewis and Clark students perform a series of monologues describing their own individual experiences with race. The group was wonderfully diverse, both in terms of ethnic heritage and their perspective on their ethnic heritage. So there was an Eritrean immigrant who had grown up in a primarily African American community; a Mexican American from San Francisco who had only recently realized that some of his relatives were black; a Filipino immigrant who felt guiltily close to mainstream ("white") American culture; a girl from Jamaica with one dark-skinned parent and one light-skinned; and so on. There were probably ten or twelve speakers in all, and each provided a unique perspective on his or her feeling of in betweeness. The most powerful story, for me, was told by a mixed race girl--really mixed; more Tiger Woods than Barack Obama--who, walking with her parents one day through an Oregon mall, was stared down by an elderly white man. The man made her feel, she said, like "an obscenity."

Her story reminded me of the Louisiana judge who recently denied marriage to a black and white couple, citing concerns over "racial impurity." He'd marry a black couple, he said, and a white couple, but not a "mixed race" one. The irony is that almost every marriage in America is mixed in one way or the other.

As the years pass, America is going to look more and more like that stage at Lewis and Clark. Of this there is little doubt. What remains to be seen, however, is how, as individuals begin to identify in more complex (and more accurate) ways, their individual communities, as well as the society at large, will respond.

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