Since 2000, the population of biracial and multiracial people has boomed by 50 percent according to 2010 Census data. The New York Times recently ran a story saying that because of changes in Census reporting, more people reported they are more than one race, but has our multiracial population actually boomed or is it just that both our government and society are more accepting of multiracial people?
There have always been biracial and multiracial people, especially among America's most common mix -- African American and white American, which makes up more than 20 percent of the mixed race population. And you could easily argue that those African Americans mixing with whites were mixed themselves, the results of other mixed African Americans who were part of that original mix of black slave and white slavemaster. But no one ever called themselves mixed as in America, post-Reconstruction, you were just black.
In America, people understood the concept of mixed race UNTIL the exact minute slavery ended. Many Southern states considered you to be white if you were only 1/8 or a quarter black. Entire groups of mixed race people were at times absolved into the majority white culture. There were such concepts of mulatto, quadroon and octaroon. There were Creoles and free people of color and various social groups and class differences among those with some African bloodline. But once slavery ended, anyone who had black blood was isolated from society in a brown muddle of dreaded otherness.
The bad side of this is that no one was able to define themselves. The state made up your mind for you. The good side is, since everyone was thrown into the same hellish no man's land of discrimination, abuse, mistreatment, segregation it really infused black Americans with a sense of "all hand's on deck" to fight against racism. Because, it didn't matter. No one was special. No one could truly avoid the wrath of racism. Money couldn't buy you out of it. Skin color didn't protect you from it and even if you were light enough to pass, you often couldn't take your mama (or any darker relatives) with you when you crossed over into the great white unknown.
Because of this, most black Americans are mixed -- with something -- from somewhere at some time. But the mix happened a long time ago and generations of mixed black people were only marrying or having children with other people of African descent, hence why a black Americans' looks can be as diverse as Clarence Thomas and Thurgood Marshall.
But I realize that this is confusing to people who come from places where there were no such "black or white" divisions. Most Americans, black and white, struggle with the concept of mixed race, even in the face of so many mixed race people self-defining. Even the President, who describes himself as a black man of mixed race, sometimes deals with the irony of being called someone who hates white people (even though he was raised by them) or that he's denying his whiteness (in a country that constantly tells biracial black people they must do this because they sure as hell aren't "accepting" that whiteness).
It's a paradox of a "mixed" is. Mixed ain't. Like, I don't consider myself to be mixed. But to someone not born in the land of Jim Crow and contradictions, it's just confusing.
The other day I was in Eastern Market here in Washington, D.C. and I was hiding from the rain in a doorway with a vendor who happened to be a very dark complexioned, older black woman. She had an accent, but I couldn't quite divine from where. She was warm and friendly and was fascinated by my hair, which was straight at the time from a blow out. After complimenting my hair she asked me if I was mixed because her son had married a non-black woman and his children had hair similar to mine.
I grimaced, but tried to be patient with the woman as I explained that both my parents are black. She then didn't really believe that both my parents could be black and produce someone who looked like me. I then realized I didn't have the time or energy to explain to her the entire history of America, of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Plessy v. Ferguson and the "one-drop rule" and why, in this country, I would identify with her more than I'd identify with whatever white ancestor long ago wandered into the family tree. I was, in fact, tired of explaining, as I didn't even think I looked (recently) mixed. Most black Americas never thought I was mixed. Not in the way she was thinking mixed anyway. The only reason why anyone ever thought I was something else was always due to the hair because it was so long.
But how could I explain in a few minutes that my father was darker, but used to be lighter, but his father was very dark but his mother came from people who were a variety of colors, some very, very light and some almost light enough to pass and that my mother, despite having black parents, has slanted eyes and looks Southeast Asian to almost everyone when her hair is straight, and that her mother is a little lighter and taller and slimmer and her father was shorter and much darker, and she has more his features than hers, but got her mother's coloring and that they, in turn, came from another bunch or randomly colored people because everyone was living in the same rural area, together, fussing and fighting and loving and birthing babies and whatever white people had come into our lives had come into them long ago and no one liked to talk about it because they were not the loving relationships of choice, but the shame of being property and rape.
The other side of this (and was implicit in the old lady's surprise that I considered myself to be black), was that I wouldn't want to be anything other than black. That I'm proud of my culture, family, community and ancestry. That even with all the constant bad news, there is a lot of joy there -- from summers in Arkansas with my grandmother, to the smells of a Soul Food Christmas, to the sounds of an old blues song or a modern pop ditty. Being part of a sisterhood that includes both Harriet Tubman and Michelle Obama. Being part of a culture that produced both Dr. Charles Drew and Dr. Joycelyn Elders. That I'm proud of my family and my history and the people who made me, and even though there is pain in that history the joy found in having a community to call home far surpassed it.
I've only known being black and never wanted to be anything but that. Why wouldn't I want to be part of the same culture she was even though we weren't the exact same shade of brown? What we have is wonderful. If anything, I was offended that she thought my blackness was something I wanted to run away from. Why would I run from the only thing I've ever known? I wouldn't change being black any more than I would change being American. And blackness in America is being mixed, with something, sometimes, while other times being black in the traditional way people from the islands or Africa viewed blackness. Black America is rich and deep and broad with diverse looks and meaning.
And that's truly what the "mixed is, mixed ain't" contradiction boils down to -- who you are and how you feel about who you are. I'm not a racial purist, forcing people into boxes, demanding that they pick a side. I don't feel like someone should have to be "forced" to be part of the culture I love, anymore than I'd want to see someone be denied their identity because it doesn't fit our personal definitions. This is about reality. Of living in a world where someone of a different culture will see a mixed person and someone in America will just see a black person. Where if Tiger Woods goes missing tomorrow, no one in America is going to tell the police to look for a guy from Thailand. But Tiger Woods shouldn't have to act like he doesn't love, share and participate in the culture and religion of his Thai mother. This is about what makes one comfortable and where one feels most at home. America is always going to be ground zero for identity politics, but those politics don't have to rule your conscious or heart.
We are who we are*.
*And yes, I just quoted Ke$ha in a blog post about diversity. World's ending in 2012 anyway, so, you know, dance it out.